After Putin's surprise pullout, ball suddenly back in Syria's court

Analysts say the Russian withdrawal appears intended in part to pressure Syrian President Assad into negotiating seriously in Geneva and offering concessions.

Russian Su-25 ground attack jet lands after return from Syria at a Russian air base in Primorsko-Akhtarsk, southern Russia, Wednesday. More Russian planes returned from Syria on Wednesday, two days after President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian military to withdraw most of its fighting forces from Syria, signaling an end to Russia's five-and-a-half month air campaign.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that he is drawing down his military task force in Syria has caused as much surprise as his move six months ago to intervene in the brutal war.

Putin’s announcement Monday came at a potentially pivotal moment for Syria, now entering its sixth year of civil conflict. Long-awaited United Nations-brokered peace negotiations were launched the same day in Geneva, and a tenuous cease-fire that began Feb. 27 has proven surprisingly durable, bringing a semblance of relative calm to the war-torn nation.

How the two main Syrian protagonists – President Bashar al-Assad and the armed opposition – will react to the Russian move remains to be seen. Many analysts say the Russian withdrawal appears intended in part to pressure Mr. Assad into negotiating seriously in Geneva and offering concessions that could help end a conflict that has left more than a quarter of a million people dead and 11 million displaced.

On the other hand, Syrian rebel groups that have been battered for months by Russian air power may feel emboldened to renew their campaign against the Assad regime if the cease-fire collapses or the Geneva talks fail. On Tuesday, a day after Putin’s announcement, a commander for Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s Al Qaeda-affiliate, said the group was preparing for a new offensive against Assad’s forces.

“I think many of the rebels will give the peace talks a chance, but much depends on what the Russians do with their remaining air frames and the regime's negotiating position [in Geneva],” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “If [the Russians and Assad regime] systematically target the moderate opposition as in the past, [the peace talks] will not last long.”

Russian support available 'if necessary'

Russia’s aerial bombing campaign, which began in October and steadily intensified in the past two months, has helped the Assad regime stave off a defeat that looked imminent last summer after rebel groups seized large tracts of territory in the north and south of Syria. While the Russian intervention has granted Assad some breathing space, his grip on the country remains fragile. The Syrian army continues to suffer from exhaustion and a chronic manpower shortage and Assad’s survival is still reliant on the military, financial, and diplomatic support of his allies in Russia and Iran.

Despite the military drawdown, Putin said Thursday that Moscow will continue to provide military and intelligence support for the Assad regime. Russian aircraft continued this week to bomb the Islamic State group just west of the central Syrian town of Palmyra, which fell to the jihadists last year. ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra are excluded from the current cease-fire.

Furthermore, Putin added, Russian forces could return if needed. “If necessary, literally within a few hours, Russia can build its contingent in the region to a size proportionate to the situation developing there,” he told a gathering of some 700 Russian army officers.

Additionally, Russia will continue to maintain its long-running naval facility in Tartus and its airbase near the city of Latakia on the Mediterranean coast.

Still, despite its continued backing for Assad’s regime, Moscow has signaled some unhappiness with the hard-line stances of Damascus. Russia has worked with the United States for the implementation of the current cease-fire and nudged Assad into attending the Geneva peace process in the hope of ending the bloodshed.

But Assad has ruled out discussing his departure from the presidency, a key opposition demand, and in an interview last month vowed to regain the entire country even if it would “take a long time and incur a heavy price.” His comment was taken to imply that, given the weakness of the Syrian army, it would be Russia, Iran, and allied Shiite militias that would have to step forward to achieve that goal.

Support for a federal system

However, Russia’s agenda in Syria is less ambitious, analysts say, and is focused on preventing Assad’s defeat, establishing a Russian military bridgehead in the Middle East, and making Moscow an indispensable influence in helping shape the fate of the country. Embarking on a lengthy and costly military campaign to restore the entire country to Assad’s control is not part of Moscow’s plan, analysts say.

Russia has also signaled support for a federal system in Syria that could see the country broken up into semi-autonomous regions, an outcome rejected not only by Assad but also the mainstream Syrian opposition.

The idea was floated at the end of February by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, who asked “who will object” if a federal model helped achieve a “united, secular, independent, and sovereign nation.” The theme was taken up again this week by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who said that a federal system could work if the Syrian people wanted it, a view echoed by US officials.

Syrian Kurds are already pressing ahead with plans for autonomy, declaring on Wednesday they would establish a federal region grouping three areas of northern Syria under their control. The Kurdish announcement had the rare effect of uniting the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition in rejecting the move.

Still, the current cease-fire and Russian military drawdown has limited the ability of the Assad regime to press ahead with its offensives against rebel groups. That could lead to a hardening over time of the current front lines around Syria if the cease-fire holds, making the creation of semi-autonomous areas a de facto reality if not an intended solution.

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