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On Sept. 30, Russian airstrikes began in Syria. According to the head of the Russian presidential administration, the sole purpose of the intervention was to protect the “national interests” of the Russian Federation, which includes concern for the eventual return of several thousand Russian citizens that have flocked to Syria to join the terrorist groups. Now, only five months later, President Vladimir Putin has announced the withdrawal of Russian forces, surprising much of the West.
To the U.S., this might seem unconventional, but this move is actually quite strategic. While the U.S. is no stranger to involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts, Russia has learned from the Americans’ mistakes and their own incursion into Afghanistan in the 1980s. Russia had limited goals in its military intervention in Syria, and now that they have been largely achieved, its position in negotiations over the Syria question has been solidified.
Putin understands how important Syria is to both stability and Russian influence in the Middle East. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is one of the few remaining allies, if not the only ally, that Russia has in the region. Russia has been propping up Assad, who the U.S. and other groups want to remove from office because of his history of human-rights violations. Before Russia intervened on Assad’s behalf, things were not looking good for the Syrian president. There was strong rhetoric against him and his possible involvement in a reformed Syrian government following the civil war. However, since Russia began its airstrike campaign, the language has shifted. Why? Because the Russians have not really been targeting the Islamic State as they said they would. Russia has been bombing rebel groups. Russia’s strategy was never to distinguish between rebel forces and the Islamic State but to bolster the Assad government’s forces. Russia openly admits that the plan of action was to assist the government in ending the rebellion before the central government is too weak to be saved.
Now the rebels in Syria are hurting from being attacked by both the government and the Islamic State, and the U.S. is struggling to find a clear way to support their allies and interests in Syria. Instead of maintaining the hardline position of excluding Assad, the U.S. has wavered by pushing the opposition forces to attend peace talks with the Syrian government. On April 2, the Syrian opposition remained pessimistic about a political transition in Syria. A member of the opposition, Riad Hijab, said, “There is no international will, especially from the U.S. side, and I do not expect anything to come of the negotiations.”
Meanwhile, Assad has rejected opposition demands that exclude him in a transitional government, calling on a new “national unity government” that includes a coalition of the opposition, independents and loyalists. The opposition has said that the indirect peace talks are supposed to be about “establishing a transitional government body that can then draft a constitution and organize elections in which all Syrians can participate.” They claim that Assad is the “disease that has struck Syria,” and an agreement would require his departure from government. As if the ceasefire and peace talks were not shaky enough, the Syrian government has held elections that the opposition have called “a farce.”
The talks are clearly far from over, but it is no coincidence that Putin announced the withdrawal of forces on the same day that the peace talks resumed in Geneva, March 14. This shows that Russia is somewhat confident that Assad (and therefore Russia) is in a good enough position to negotiate a settlement of the civil war.
While the Russian airstrikes have not helped the Syrian government forces gain much physical territory, they have proven that Assad and Russia will remain involved in negotiations, setting the stage for a Syria that remains friendly to Russian interests. The military intervention has not only proven that Russia is serious about protecting their interests in the Middle East, but has also allowed the country to flex its military muscles and demonstrate that it is a loyal ally.
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Fourth-year in international studies and Russian