Russia at the helm

The Syrian war is of monstrous complexity and achieving a temporary lull is in itself a considerable victory

Editorial March 20, 2016
Russian President Vladimir Putin. PHOTO: REUTERS

It is now almost a week since President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to withdraw from Syria and within 24 hours many aircraft had already returned to Russian bases in the homeland. Their support crews will follow. The fragile cessation of hostilities — not a truce — still holds for the majority of the country and all sides warily circle one another around the tables in Geneva where peace talks are being pieced together with infinite care. A wrong move at this point and the whole house of cards could tumble and the fighting resume just as ordinary Syrians were becoming used to a welcome silence on the frontlines.

The Syrian war is of monstrous complexity and achieving a temporary lull is in itself a considerable victory, but the key to the turning off of hostilities was the Russian intervention at a time when the forces of President Assad were on the back foot both against rebel factions and the Islamic State (IS). Russian bombs and missiles changed the balance, targeting Assad’s opponents and weakening them. President Putin said in his announcement that Russian objectives had been achieved, it has prevented the collapse of the Assad government and — probably — strengthened the chances of the Geneva talks to survive beyond early infancy. With the Russian withdrawal is a back-channel message to Assad — negotiate, and get on with that now. The West got it comprehensively wrong in Syria in terms of underestimating what it would take to unseat Assad, though with hindsight President Obama was right in pulling back from the conflict at the last moment — a change of heart that Americans may, eventually, thank Obama for in retrospect. America may not have been entirely comfortable to have Russia on point in Syria but it was the Russian intervention that created the wiggle-room that led to the council-chambers of Geneva. Russia will still hold the airbase at Hmeymim and can quickly re-equip if Assad teeters again, and the naval base at Tartous remains as well. The guns are mostly quiet and Assad still in power. That equation may not change significantly for months.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 21st,  2016.

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