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October 5, 2022

Syria and the Russian withdrawal

The Syrian file, through its implications, still holds the prominent place on the foreign diplomatic scene, and the international media was not late in giving it the deserved attention. Firstly, because on March 14, in an entirely surprising move, Russian President V. Putin announced the withdrawal of Russian forces involved in carrying out airstrikes in Syria, starting the very next day.

The undeniable surprise with which last week started had its equivalent in another international diplomatic file – maybe not as surprising as the Kremlin’s move, but at any rate presaging a significant change of political vision for the EU’s main power. The event we are talking about is also connected to the Syrian file – the signing of the agreement between EU and Turkey on March 19, in Brussels, agreement through which the parties agreed to put an end, it is hoped, to the wave of immigrants moving from the South toward Europe, a wave that has put the existence of the EU in balance. The surprise of this event has to do with the fundamental change of policy in Berlin, namely from the major openness showed by German chancellor Angela Merkel last summer to the measures adopted now, along with the other EU partners and Turkey, in order to put a stop to their influx.

A lot has been already written about the Russian withdrawal from Syria. Some of the consequences of the Kremlin’s move have to be pointed out because they are destined to have influence in the future, leading to the emergence or development of events at international level. Firstly, the withdrawal is not Russia simply leaving Syria. The already existing Russian base in Tartus (on the Mediterranean shore) and the air base in Latakia have remained in place. Which means that Russian forces could return just as rapidly and surprising as they left, having the necessary infrastructure to do so. Therefore, Russia remains an important player in the settlement of the Syrian file, just as before, without giving up the role it took last September when it actively intervened in the Syrian civil war. Secondly, what catches the attention is the moment when Putin announced the withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria. As known, prior to March 14, a veritable campaign of accusations toward Russia had developed in the international media, according to which she was using her air forces in order to strike the positions of the moderate opposition, thus facilitating the military operations of Assad regime’s forces.

It was expected that the one-week ceasefire reached on February 22 (and finalized along its main lines, despite the fact that violations are still occurring) would not lead, in these conditions, to the start of negotiations in Geneva between the representatives of the forces involved in the civil war, minus ISIL, Al Qaeda and Al Nusra.

Putin’s surprise move has basically cleared the path toward the start of negotiations, which are in the process of being prepared in the Swiss metropolis. “The Russian intervention has indeed changed the trajectory of the war, and allowed Assad to consolidate control over most of western Syria,” a Russian military expert (Vladimir Frolov) says. And Putin stopped offensive military actions in Syria before creating the favourable conditions for an Assad regime victory over the opposition. The same expert continues: “Putin helped Assad fight the war to a standstill and drag the parties to the negotiating table.” It has to be added, from this point of view, that Kremlin’s move is also a signal to the Assad regime that it cannot rely on Russia to win the civil war – otherwise the airstrikes that were so useful for government forces would have continued – and that he has to reach an agreement with the opposition.

If, hypothetically, Russia returns to Syria, then it cannot be said with the same certainty that it would happen in order to support the Assad regime again. Thirdly, with this move, Russia counted on the fact that it would be able to persuade Washington to continue bilateral negotiations also on other foreign policy files in which both actors are interested. Among these files of great importance for Moscow, one is particularly urgent, namely: the West lifting its sanctions, which are significantly hurting the Russian economy, sanctions implemented in connection to the annexation of Crimea and the situation in Donbass.

A file maybe just as important, but one that Russia does not directly render publicly visible, conveying only signals through various moves consisting of the deployment of military assets (short and medium-range missiles in sensitive locations) or even the carrying out of military actions (striking Syrian targets with cruise missiles from approx. 2,000 km away, from warships in the Caspian Sea), is far more encompassing and difficult. It is the file of the strategic balance between the two great powers, particularly in Europe, Moscow being dissatisfied particularly with developments in this area.

In what concerns the former, it can be noted that various positions have appeared in the West, pleading for a possible lifting of sanctions related to the Donbass issue, but on condition the terms stipulated in the Minsk-2 agreements (February 2015) are scrupulously observed. On this last point, it is obvious that these big actors are not the only players, albeit they have the highest calibre, and surprises could intervene. Thus, in Kiev it seems the political elite does not intend to give up on certain own exigencies.

In what concerns the issue of the strategic balance however, things are experiencing a slow and discrete development, the statements of the two sides have to be carefully watched and other surprising moves have to be expected, be they from the U.S. or Russia. It seems that through the withdrawal from Syria, Moscow has signalled her wide openness toward negotiation, regardless of the sensitivity of the file. Last but not least, the Russian withdrawal from Syria has had the indirect impact of also rendering flexible Turkey’s position in the negotiations with the EU on managing the flow of refugees from this country.

Without a peace process starting as soon as possible in Syria, something that the Geneva negotiations are promising to bring about, the wave of refugees risks growing, raising insurmountable management obstacles for both Ankara and Brussels. Everything depends fully on the consistent and exact implementation of the stipulations of the agreement reached by both sides.





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