As the ceasefire, concluded by the USA and Russia, mercifully holds in Syria, the Kremlin has announced a critical shift in strategy. Vladimir Putin&’s declaration on Monday night that Russian troops would begin a partial withdrawal from Syria is without question a surprise move that could mark a major shift in the conflict. On closer reflection, the Russian President&’s signal of intent was only very logical in the aftermath of the truce in the troubled land, one that he had brokered with Barack Obama. The pullout does coincide with the cessation of hostilities and resumption of peace talks in Geneva. Yet misgivings are bound to persist, most particularly within the Syrian opposition which has accorded a cautious welcome to the sudden announcement.
President Putin has let it be known that his five-month military campaign in support of President Bashar al-Assad had “achieved its aims”, and has ordered his Foreign Minister to “intensify” Moscow&’s role in peace talks that have resumed in Geneva. He has been less than explicit though on whether the ISIS has been reined in, let alone the continuance of the repressive dictator.
He has reaffirmed what the world had known since the start of the air strikes with the statement that his five-month military campaign in support of Assad had “achieved its aims” . If one major “aim” was to protect the Syrian President, Mr Putin&’s strategy has scored a dubious success; if the other was to exterminate ISIS, the objective is easier imagined than accomplished. To that must be added the largest displacement of people since World War II. Syria is one country at the root of the migrant crisis that has jolted Europe to its foundations. There has clearly been a dichotomy in Russia&’s policy towards Syria, one that is scarcely addressed by the pullout, however welcome the announcement on Monday. Mr Putin&’s assurance would suggest that while the “main part of our military contingent” will be withdrawn, a Russian airbase and naval facility will continue to operate, recalling the Anglo-American strategy in Iraq and that of NATO in Afghanistan.
The announcement coincides with the fifth anniversary of the uprising against Assad . Moscow has been one of the staunchest allies of Damascus, and the Russian military intervention at the end of September had shifted the momentum in the conflict in its favour. While Assad is said to have agreed with the Russian decision, it shall not be easy to concur with his perception that the collaboration between Russian and Syrian forces has secured “victories against terrorism and returned security to the country”. In the Kremlin&’s reckoning, any opponent of Assad is a potential terrorist.