Putin still has the power of surprise

By Ishaan Tharoor

Russia's actions in Syria raise questions about US role.
Russian pilots arrive at an air base in Primorsko-Akhtarsk, southern Russia, their Syrian mission over for now. Photo / AP
Russian pilots arrive at an air base in Primorsko-Akhtarsk, southern Russia, their Syrian mission over for now. Photo / AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin, with his sudden move to withdraw Russian forces from Syria, and declare the putative end of his country's main military operations there, once more caught many international observers by surprise.

The pullout coincides with renewed diplomatic efforts to stop the ghastly five-year conflict and places the onus on the Kremlin-backed regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to reach a deal with its opponents.

It also raises more questions about the approach taken by the White House, which had earlier warned that Moscow would get embroiled in a "quagmire", only to see pro-Assad forces make considerable gains at the expense of rebel militias backed by the United States and its allies.

There's no question that Russia's intervention in Syria had real game-changing effects. Initially premised on aiding the fight against the jihadist Isis (Islamic State), Putin's ensuing campaign has instead targeted mostly other rebel groups, including some factions supported by the CIA.

Half a year ago, the Assad regime appeared on the verge of collapse. But months of Russian airstrikes turned the tide, allowing government troops and affiliated militias to recapture some 10,360sq km of territory, almost encircle the war-ravaged city of Aleppo, and cut off vital rebel supply routes from Turkey. The Russian bombardments also enabled Syrian Kurdish militias to overrun rebel positions along the Turkish border, events which have sent geopolitical tremors across the region.

Those battlefield victories set the tone for subsequent UN-brokered talks in Geneva, as well as the conditions of a tentative ceasefire in Syria that were agreed upon last month by the US and Russia.

It led to admissions from senior US officials that the Russians had "changed the calculus" of the conflict.

"One can doubt that Russia reached all of its goals, but it is difficult to dispute that the Russian operation provided the circumstances for the current ceasefire," writes Nikolay Pakhomov, a political analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council, which is based in New York City.

"The clarity of Moscow's moves, whether one can agree with them or not, has accelerated Russian interactions, if not co-operation, with the countries in the Middle East.

"Major regional actors are aware of Russian motives, interests, capabilities and goals and they can act accordingly."

That clarity, as Pakhomov put it, stands in contrast to the perceived waffling of the Obama Administration, which had long called for Assad's departure but didn't follow through with decisive action, particularly when it deemed the regime's use of chemical weapons a "red line".

In Iraq and Syria, the US launched a concerted military campaign against Isis, but has tried its best not to get too deeply entangled in the Syrian war on behalf of Assad's opposition. This has frustrated Washington's traditional allies in the region and led to a jumbled strategy, perhaps most farcically illustrated last month when two Syrian factions that were both considered US proxies ended up fighting each other.

"America's regional friends are acting to defend their own interests, not always in ways congruent with American interests," writes Tamara Cofman Wittes of the Brookings Institution.

Perhaps the main political outcome of Putin's six-month Syrian campaign has been to draw the Kremlin closer to the White House, which has pinned its hopes for a Syrian solution on the Geneva process. "But," writes Middle East pundit Marwan Bishara, "it will be Obama who will eventually cash in his chips, whether through sanctions relief, diplomatic empowerment or even co-operation in other areas of the region and the world."

Tide turning against Isis in Syria and Iraq

Isis has lost about 22 per cent of its territory in Iraq and Syria in the past 15 months, according to a new study.

In 2014, the extremist group exploited the power vacuums racking the region, surging
into major cities on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian desert border. Since then, its brutal massacres and myriad acts of destruction have sparked global outrage and prompted more than a year of airstrikes by a United States-led coalition.

Now, according to a report from IHS Jane's 360, the tide is decisively turning against the extremist organisation. Despite a territorial advance last year in parts of Iraq and Syria, Isis has suffered significant setbacks. IHS estimated that Isis lost about 14 per cent of the territory under its control in 2015 and a further 8 per cent in the first three months of this year.

The monitoring group attributes these defeats to a changing strategic landscape. The loss of the pivotal Syrian border crossing of Tal Abyad took out one of Isis' chief access points for smuggling in weapons, material and new fighters. Tighter Turkish border controls also have thinned out cash flows, as well as the numbers of foreign recruits seeking to join the group.

Airstrikes by the US-led campaign and the Russian mission in Syria have pinned Isis back.

But the demise of Isis is hardly a foregone conclusion. As a separate report from the Institute for the Study of War points out, the threat posed by the extremists is not limited by geography.

- Washington Post

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