THERE is nothing Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, likes more than taking everyone by surprise. Except, perhaps, demonstrating that his country is an independent actor on the world stage that has to be taken seriously. Thus, the announcement from the Kremlin on March 14th that Russia was partially withdrawing its forces in Syria was vintage Putin. His message was that Russia’s military objectives had been achieved and it was now time to support peace talks in Geneva that were due to resume on the same day. Better still, from Mr Putin’s point of view, he left everyone else guessing about his real intentions and what he might do next.
A number of things can, however, be construed from Mr Putin’s démarche. The first is that Russia is not pulling out its forces completely. It will retain its naval presence in Tartus; at least a dozen fast jets will continue to fly from its air base near Latakia; about 1,000 military advisers and special forces will stay; and the recently-installed S-400 air defence system covering the north-west of the country will also be kept in place. Should the fragile “cessation of hostilities” that Russia and America brokered last month fall apart, it can re-escalate very quickly. But for now, Russia can cut the $3m a day cost of its military operation, while preserving much of the leverage it has bought.
The second is that Mr Putin’s claim that his forces had “fulfilled their main mission in Syria” was revealing. Gone was any attempt to cling to the fiction that the intervention had been primarily aimed at hitting Islamic State (IS) rather than to preserve the imperilled regime of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator. The 9,000 or so sorties that have been flown by Russian planes since October shifted the military balance in favour of the regime. Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoygu, boasted that his forces had helped the government regain control over more than 400 “populated areas” and 4,000 square miles (10,000 sq km) of territory.
But while the survival of the regime was the objective, it is now clear that Mr Putin was never inclined to give Mr Assad the kind of military blank cheque needed for him to take back all or even most of the country. Mr Assad’s bullish talk of recent weeks and his unwillingness to engage seriously with the UN-sponsored Geneva peace process appear to have gone down badly in the Kremlin. Whether that means, as some suggest, that Mr Putin is ready to abandon Mr Assad so long as he has a say in who succeeds him, is less certain. But Mr Assad has been reminded not to try being the tail that wags the dog.
That leads to a third conclusion. John Kerry, America’s secretary of state, and Sergei Lavrov, his Russian opposite number, are known to have discussed the possibility of a federal structure for Syria as the only way to bring peace. The outlines of a partition that would be acceptable to Russia are already visible.
Underpinned by Russian and Iran, the minority Alawite sect to which Mr Assad belongs would control territory in the west, running roughly from Latakia in the north down to Damascus in the south; an autonomous Syrian-Kurdish region in the north-east, known as Rojava, would be established; the rest of the country would be left to the Sunni opposition, who would be helped by Western and Russian air power to expel IS from its stronghold in Raqqa.
Unfortunately, the facts on the ground do not yet support such a simple solution. One of many obstacles to such a carve-up is that some big cities, such as Aleppo and Homs, remain highly contested. In the past few weeks, pro-regime forces have more or less encircled Aleppo. But a fourth conclusion is that Russian and Iranian military advisers may not have much confidence in the ability of the Syrian army, depleted by five years of conflict, and a gaggle of Shia militias to conduct a successful offensive against the strongly-defended city. The Iranians have quietly also been pulling out some of their military personnel as their battlefield losses have mounted.
What all this means for the talks in Geneva being orchestrated by the UN envoy Staffan de Mistura is too early to say. Iran and Saudi Arabia are still at loggerheads; the conflict between Turkey and the Kurds becomes ever more bitter. And above all, despite Mr Putin’s implicit message to both Mr Assad and the opposition that neither of them can expect to get all they want, there is scant sign from either of a readiness for compromise.
Earlier featured on the Economist
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