Vladimir Putin’s hollow victory in the Syrian killing fields

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Source: Financial Times (Vladimir Putin’s hollow victory in the Syrian killing fields)

Russia’s military intervention has done little to halt the civil war

Vladimir Putin has long enjoyed a reputation for springing surprises on the international stage. He has done so again by announcing the withdrawal of the “main part” of Russia’s military forces from Syria, barely six months after he deployed them. The Obama administration, and the rest of the world, have been left to puzzle over his motives.

The true extent of the withdrawal remains in question. Although Russia is pulling out aircraft and weaponry, its naval base in Tartus and its new air base near Latakia give Moscow the capacity to reassert itself should events move against Bashar al-Assad, its long-time client. Two years ago, Russia announced a withdrawal of forces massed on Ukraine’s borders, which later turned out to be little more than a routine rotation.

Assuming the Syrian announcement is not a similar sleight of hand, Mr Putin would appear to have concluded that his largely opportunistic intervention has achieved several immediate goals. Most importantly, it has kept Mr Assad in power, averting what last summer looked like his imminent collapse. At the same time, Russia’s president can present the current withdrawal as a way to exert pressure on Mr Assad to engage constructively with the latest round of UN-sponsored peace talks.

Mr Putin has also achieved wider geopolitical objectives. He has prevented what he deems to be the latest attempt by the US to overthrow an authoritarian strongman. He has preserved, and indeed strengthened, Russia’s influence in the Middle East. And Moscow has partially broken out of the western-imposed isolation that followed its intervention in Ukraine. The US has been forced to engage with Mr Putin, recognising him as a pivotal figure in determining Syria’s future.

At home, Russian media have trumpeted the country’s return as a leading actor on the geopolitical stage after the long post-Soviet decline; and they have presented the Syrian campaign as a resounding military victory. By bringing back some of its military assets from Syria, Moscow can avoid becoming bogged down in a repeat of the debilitating 10-year Soviet campaign in Afghanistan. And the Kremlin can be better positioned for parliamentary elections in six months’ time.

In broader terms, however, Russia’s intervention has resulted in two big failures. Moscow is withdrawing some of its forces while Isis still holds large swaths of Syrian territory. This exposes the hypocrisy of Kremlin claims that the intervention was designed to fight Islamist terrorism. It makes western capitals even less prepared to take Mr Putin’s statements at face value.

Russia’s bombardment has failed, too, to change the fundamental divisions on the ground. Five years after the start of the Syrian civil war, there are glimmers of hope in the tentative cessation of hostilities, and the launch of a round of peace talks in Geneva. Less intense bombing of rebel positions will ease the humanitarian burden on the Syrian people and, potentially, the flow of refugees into Turkey and Europe.

However, there is no evidence that Moscow’s actions have helped restore long-term stability to Syria. Opposition to the Assad regime remains as strong as ever. Nor can it be forgotten that the regime bears the major responsibility for a conflict that has left 300,000 dead and displaced millions of people. Mr Putin may have declared “mission accomplished” this week. But as long as he persists in his backing for Mr Assad, there will be no end to Syria’s agony.

Vladimir Putin’s hollow victory in the Syrian killing fields


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