Global Independent Analytics
Danielle Ryan
Danielle Ryan

Location: Ireland

Specialization: US foreign policy, US-Russia relations and media bias

Why the gasp at Russia’s Withdrawal from Syria?

Will Moscow support any sort of partitioning? Kerry in Moscow last week no doubt sought to soften once again Putin’s stance on Assad and any potential Plan B options.

The New York Times called it a “surprise move.” The Wall Street Journal said it was “unexpected.” The Guardian said it was a turn that analysts “never saw coming.”

No one, it would seem, anticipated Russia’s partial withdrawal from Syria this month. But we should have. From its beginning in September last year, Moscow was clear that it expected its campaign of intensive strikes to last three to four months. The overriding military goal was to stabilize Bashar al Assad’s government, provide critical air support for its ground troops and create the conditions for a political compromise. Generally speaking, both goals have been achieved.

Pullback demonstrates holes in Western narrative

The Western narrative of the Russian intervention revolved around the idea that Vladimir Putin was making a huge gamble, setting himself up to get bogged down indefinitely and that it would be his ultimate undoing. Barack Obama warned that the Russian intervention was “just going to get them stuck in a quagmire”.

This is a perfect example of the Western media’s inability to see circumstances and events in non-American terms — and what they understand are long, open-ended America wars. So naturally, they thought, Putin must have been lying or delusional. Now, in the context of how they had initially sought to frame the Russian intervention, the partial withdrawal must come as a little bit of a disappointment.

“Big bad Vladimir Putin,” one columnist wrote in December, “is finding out that fighting a war in the Middle East isn’t so easy.” You could almost hear the glee in his words at the thought that something might be going terribly wrong for the Russians. The same columnist went on to quote a Bloomberg report which suggested that Russia’s campaign would not be as short as expected, would result in “stalemate” and would be “vastly” more expensive than planned. One analyst, he quotes predicted that Putin would be forced to “pull in more and more ground troops” and succumb to “mission creep.” But wishful thinking is not analysis.

True, Russia has not fully withdrawn from Syria — it is more of a winding down while still on high alert (and strikes on ISIS will reportedly continue) —  but it’s fair to say that none of the Western media’s doomsday predictions materialized and that in Moscow the view is that the campaign achieved its goals. In addition to the military goals mentioned earlier, that includes ensuring Russia’s place at the international diplomatic table and, more cynically, the ability to showcase its latest weaponry to potential buyers.

Still more questions than answers

ISIS, of course, is still a major threat — but Russia alone cannot be blamed for failing to deal a death blow to the group. No one else has done it either. Miraculously, though, the cease-fire hammered out by Moscow and Washington (which excludes ISIS and Nusra) has managed to hold, if shakily, and both sides have seemed surprisingly content (at least outwardly) about each other’s efforts to make it work. But there is still concern over Washington’s ‘Plan B’ if the truce should ultimately fail — and US Secretary of State John Kerry’s wording (“this could get a lot uglier”) does not bode well for anyone. Kerry has already hinted that a partitioning of the country is not off the table as far as Washington is concerned.

Will Moscow support any sort of partitioning? Kerry in Moscow last week no doubt sought to soften once again Putin’s stance on Assad and any potential Plan B options.

Will Russia fully support the PYD’s declared federal autonomy in northern Syria? Russia has urged Kurdish incorporation into the Geneva peace talks and increased its ties to Kurdish groups in Turkey and Syria in recent months, most notably with the opening of a diplomatic mission in Moscow.

Then there is the question of where the Russian pullback leaves Turkey and its ambitions in the region. Does Moscow’s decision leave Ankara more or less likely to attempt a ground invasion? Note: Russia has already accused Turkey of sending troops a few hundred meters inside the border. Ankara however, has repeatedly denied that it intends to send troops into Syria but has continued to shell Syrian Kurd positions across the border --in response, it says, to initial shelling from the Kurdish side.

Ultimately, Russia’s partial withdrawal leaves Syria with more questions than answers.

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