By Alexander Mercosuris
Source: Russian Insider
Russia’s partial withdrawal announcement is a logical step at this point in the Syrian conflict.

The Russians never promised an open-ended or unlimited commitment.

It is consistent with the policy of strengthening the Syrian army so it can fight jihadism in Syria by itself.

It will not undermine the struggle against the Islamic State or jihadism in Syria because the objective of preventing the collapse of the Syrian state has been achieved.

The Russian decision to withdraw part of their forces from Syria has come as a surprise.

It has triggered a huge amount of speculation as to the reason.

In reality the Russians – as they always do – have explained the reason carefully, though as always their explanations have gone unreported and are being ignored.

In fact a decision by the Russians to withdraw part of their forces now – when the regime change strategy has been defeated and the Syrian army is becoming increasingly strong and capable of fighting the Islamic State and the jihadis by itself – was pre-programmed from the start and was part of the original decision to intervene.

In this article, rather than engage in wild guesses about the intentions behind Russian actions, I shall set out what the Russians themselves say. At the end I will then offer my own opinion.

The Policy Framework – The Syrian Conflict

The starting point to any discussion both of the Russian decision to intervene in the Syrian conflict, and to the decision to undertake a partial withdrawal now, ought to be the overall approach the Russians have taken to the Syrian conflict since it began.

I first discussed this here back in 2012.

Russian policy has been to resolve Syria’s internal crisis through negotiations between the Syrian factions.

The objective is a comprehensive political settlement, with an agreement to set up a transitional government and a new constitution leading to fresh elections.

The Russians have consistently opposed, and have repeatedly warned against, any attempt to resolve the crisis by force.

Here is the policy in one sentence taken from Lavrov’s presentation during the meeting between him Shoigu and Putin which ended with Putin’s recent withdrawal announcement:

“We have consistently advocated establishing an intra-Syrian dialogue in accordance with the decisions made in 2012.”

The reference to 2012 refers to the Geneva Conference that was held that year, where an “intra-Syrian dialogue” was supposed to have agreed by all the parties

That dialogue never happened because – once more in Lavrov’s words, because “our suggestions were met with a lack of will on the part of all our partners working on this process.”

In fact what happened was that the attempt to set up an “intra-Syrian dialogue” was wrecked because the Syrian opposition backed by the US and its allies insisted on President Assad standing down as a precondition for that dialogue taking place.

When that did not happen the war began in earnest.

As to President Assad, the Russians have never at any time said that President Assad has their unqualified backing or that they will stick with him through thick and thin.

What the Russians have always said – and what they continue to say – is that it is not for them or for any other outside power to demand his removal, and that they will never make such a demand of him.

The Russians have also repeatedly rejected the Syrian opposition’s demand for President Assad’s removal as a precondition for negotiations.

They argue that that demand makes a possible outcome of the negotiations and of the internal Syrian political process that should follow them into a pre-condition, which given the strength of support for President Assad within Syria is not only unreasonable, but also guarantees that the war will continue.

The Russians have however also always rejected suggestions that they consider all of President Assad’s supporters “terrorists”. Claims they do so – which appear regularly in the Western media – are untrue. On the contrary, they have frequently used expressions such as the “legitimate Syrian opposition” and have on many occasions tried to engage President Assad’s opponents in dialogue.

In passing I should say that the repeated Western media claim that President Assad also says that all his opponents are “terrorists” is also untrue.

President Assad agreed to the Russian proposal for a dialogue between himself and his opponents back in 2011, and he renewed his agreement to the Russian proposal at the conference in Geneva in 2012. He has never gone back on that agreement.

The problem in the Syrian conflict is not that President Assad refuses to negotiate. It is that up to now his opponents – backed by the Western powers – have refused to negotiate with him.

The Policy Framework – Opposition to Regime Change

The Russians have also made repeatedly clear their fundamental disagreement and opposition to the regime change doctrine the West has assumed for itself even when or especially when it is decked out in humanitarian interventionist or neocon “democracy promotion” colours.

Again I discussed all this in detail in 2012 here.

The Russians have repeatedly said that the doctrine of regime change is an exceptionally dangerous departure from international law, which violates fundamental principles of international relations as set out in the UN Charter by privileging a small group of Western states over all the others in a way that creates a threat to peace.

They also say this doctrine has brought disaster wherever it has been applied, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere, and they blame it for destabilising the Middle East and for sowing the seeds of militant jihadist terrorism there.

Putin once again said all this in his recent speech to the UN General Assembly which included his now famous rhetorical question “Do they realise what they have done?” Here is what Putin said:

“We all know that after the end of the Cold War the world was left with one centre of dominance, and those who found themselves at the top of the pyramid were tempted to think that, since they are so powerful and exceptional, they know best what needs to be done and thus they don’t need to reckon with the UN, which, instead of rubber-stamping the decisions they need, often stands in their way.

It seems, however, that instead of learning from other people’s mistakes, some prefer to repeat them and continue to export revolutions, only now these are “democratic” revolutions.

Just look at the situation in the Middle East and Northern Africa already mentioned by the previous speaker.

Of course, political and social problems have been piling up for a long time in this region, and people there wanted change.

But what was the actual outcome?

Instead of bringing about reforms, aggressive intervention rashly destroyed government institutions and the local way of life. Instead of democracy and progress, there is now violence, poverty, social disasters and total disregard for human rights, including even the right to life.”

Regime Change and Syria

Since the Russians totally disagree with the doctrine of regime change, they have consistently opposed every attempt by the US and the West to impose it on Syria.

They have repeatedly blocked Western attempts to obtain UN Security Council Resolutions that would have allowed the Western powers to intervene in Syria to overthrow its government.

Again I discussed all this in 2012 here, and I also discussed in detail in October 2011 the diplomacy which preceded a Russian and Chinese veto of a Western proposed Resolution to the UN Security Council that was intended to pave the way for Western military intervention to achieve regime change in Syria here.

In August 2013 – consistent with their strong opposition to Western military intervention in Syria intended to effect regime change there – they rallied international opinion against a plan by the US to bomb Syria without the authorisation of the UN Security Council when it seemed that following the Ghouta chemical attack the US was about to do it.

This together with strong opposition to military intervention by the US and British public and President Obama’s own recently revealed doubts about the wisdom of the proposed bombing, succeeding in preventing it from taking place.

Russian Military Doctrine and Intervention in “the Far Abroad”

The Russians before last summer however never showed the slightest inclination to intervene militarily in the Syria.

Since their entire policy was not to help any side win the war but to promote negotiations leading to a peaceful settlement, there would have been no logic in their wanting to do so.

Beyond that there is the fact that the Russians as a general principle are strongly averse to intervening militarily in other countries.

Since Russia rejects the whole doctrine of regime change and in principle rejects the self-designated role of world policeman both for the US and for itself, there would be no logic in the Russians configuring their military to intervene beyond their borders.

They have not in fact done so and their military doctrine defines the role of their armed forces in the traditional way as a force to protect Russia and its people and Russia’s vital national and security interests, which are located in the territory of the former USSR, which the Russians still sometimes call “the near abroad”.

All this is thoroughly discussed by the Saker here.

The relevant Russian legal provision defining the role of the Russian armed forces isThe Federal Law N61-F3 “On Defense”, Section IV, Article 10, Para 2. It states that the mission of the Russian Armed Forces is

“to repel aggression against the Russian Federation, the armed defense of the integrity and inviolability of the territory of the Russian Federation, and to carry out tasks in accordance with international treaties of the Russian Federation“.

Russian actions have been fully unlike with this conservative traditional approach to the use of force. Until they intervened militarily in Syria in September the Russians had never acted militarily outside the territory of the former USSR.

On the rare occasions when they did act militarily beyond their borders, it was always done within the territory of the former USSR and the force used was used sparingly and with great circumspection.

For example, the Russians did not march on and occupy the Georgian capital Tbilisi – as they could easily have done – during the short South Ossetia war in 2008, and they rejected Yanukovych’s request to intervene militarily in Ukraine to restore him to power as the country’s President.

Since Russia does not give itself the right to intervene in other countries, and rejects the self-appointed role of world or even regional policeman, it lacks the army of armchair warriors and geopolitical strategists who populate the media, NGOs and think-tanks in the West, and who can be relied on to demand war at every opportunity.

Russian Military Doctrine and Intervention in Syria

This explains why the Russians never considered the option of intervening military intervention in Syria before last summer. On the rare occasions when the possibility was brought up it was invariably and immediately rejected.

I remember a Russian official saying back in 2012 that Russia would not intervene to defend Syria if the West attacked it, but would prevent such an attack from receiving a mandate from the UN Security Council, which would legalise the attack under international law.

The real surprise in the Syrian conflict is not therefore the Russians’ recent withdrawal announcement. It was the decision the Russians took last summer to intervene in the conflict.

When initial reports of the intervention began to circulate they seemed so entirely out of character that I discounted them.

Many Russians remain skeptical about the intervention. Whilst Russian military action in Chechnya in 1999, in South Ossetia in 2008 and in Crimea in 2014 was overwhelming supported by the Russian public since it was obviously done in defence of Russia and its national interests, there has been notably less enthusiasm for the intervention in distant Syria.

A classic statement of the objections to the intervention, which accurately reflects the feelings of may Russians, is to be found in the two articles Russia Insider has published by Jacob Draizen here and here.

So Why did Russia Intervene in Syria?

Russia nonetheless intervened in Syria because the Russian leadership decided that it was necessary to do so in order to protect Russia’s national security.

The reason was that the Syrian civil war had created a vacuum which was being filled by violent jihadi terrorists – above all by the Islamic State – which a dangerous security threat to Russia.

Given Syria’s proximity to Russia’s southern borders, the fact that may of the violent jihadis operating in Syria had originally come from Russia, and that the Russians have themselves had to fight a violent jihadi insurgency in the northern Caucasus within their own territory, that concern is understandable.

The intervention in Syria was therefore in line with the Russians’ political philosophy and their military doctrine.

The Russians have explained all this in great detail.

In his recent UN General Assembly Speech delivered shortly before the Russian bombing campaign started in September Putin explained how the chaos caused by the wars in Iraq and Syria – which he said were the result of the West’s regime change policy – had led to the rise of jihadi terrorism and of the Islamic State, and that this was a threat to everyone, including Russia.

Here is what Putin said in his own words:

“Power vacuum in some countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa obviously resulted in the emergence of areas of anarchy, which were quickly filled with extremists and terrorists.

The so-called Islamic State has tens of thousands of militants fighting for it, including former Iraqi soldiers who were left on the street after the 2003 invasion. Many recruits come from Libya whose statehood was destroyed as a result of a gross violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1973.

And now radical groups are joined by members of the so-called “moderate” Syrian opposition backed by the West. They get weapons and training, and then they defect and join the so-called Islamic State.

In fact, the Islamic State itself did not come out of nowhere. It was initially developed as a weapon against undesirable secular regimes.

Having established control over parts of Syria and Iraq, Islamic State now aggressively expands into other regions. It seeks dominance in the Muslim world and beyond.

We consider that any attempts to flirt with terrorists, let alone arm them, are short-sighted and extremely dangerous. This may make the global terrorist threat much worse, spreading it to new regions around the globe, especially since there are fighters from many different countries, including European ones, gaining combat experience with Islamic State.

Unfortunately, Russia is no exception.”

The Decision to Intervene – Threat of Collapse of the Syria State

In his speech to the UN General Assembly Putin said that for the war against the jihadi terrorists and the Islamic State in Syria to be conducted successfully the Syrian state would have to be preserved so that the Syrian army – the organisation which is actually fighting the jihadi terrorists and the Islamic State in Syria – could continue to do so.

Here again is what Putin said:

“Russia has consistently opposed terrorism in all its forms. Today, we provide military-technical assistance to Iraq, Syria and other regional countries fighting terrorist groups.

We think it’s a big mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian authorities and government forces who valiantly fight terrorists on the ground.

We should finally admit that President Assad’s government forces and the Kurdish militia are the only forces really fighting terrorists in Syria.

Yes, we are aware of all the problems and conflicts in the region, but we definitely have to consider the actual situation on the ground.”

At no point however has Putin or any other Russian official gone back on their original policy that the conflict in Syria must be solved through negotiations held without preconditions by the Syrian parties.

On the contrary the Russians have always said that a political settlement is essential so that the country can unite all its forces and combine all its energies to fight the jihadi terrorists and the Islamic State on its territory.

Putin explained this clearly in answer to journalists’ questions whilst still for the UN General Assembly session

“We are considering what kind of additional support we could give to the Syrian army in fighting terrorism.

I would like to stress that we believe that these anti-terrorist efforts should be made alongside political processes within Syria.

No land operations or participation of Russian army units has ever been considered or ever could be.

This is a deep conflict, and a bloody one, unfortunately, which is why I said that alongside support to the official authorities in their struggle against terrorism we would insist on political reform and a political process to be conducted at the same time.

As far as I know, President al-Assad agrees with this.”

Putin said this again in a public discussion he held with Defence Minister Shoigu on 7th October 2015, shortly after Russia’s military intervention in Syria began, where he actually discussed the possibility of President Assad’s opponents uniting with the Syrian army to fight the Islamic State and the jihadis together. Here is what he said:

“At the same time, we realise that conflicts of this kind must end in a political settlement.

I discussed this matter just this morning with the Russian Foreign Minister.

During my recent visit to Paris, the President of France, Mr Hollande, voiced an interesting idea that he thought is worth a try, namely, to have President Assad’s government troops join forces with the Free Syrian Army.

True, we do not know yet where this army is and who heads it, but if we take the view that these people are part of the healthy opposition, if it were possible to have them join in the fight against terrorist organisations such as ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and others, this would help pave the way to a future political settlement in Syria.”

Since these comments were made we have learnt much more.

As Russia Insider has previously discussed, the event that triggered the Russian decision to intervene was confirmation from the US during the summer that the US was on the brink of declaring a no-fly zone over Syria.

That the US was on the brink of declaring a “no-fly zone” over Syria was not a secret and was confirmed by US officials and has been openly discussed by the Western media.

As we have previously discussed “no-fly zone” is today simply a euphemism for a US bombing campaign. The result of this bombing campaign would have been the overthrow of the Syrian government.

That this would have been the expected outcome of the “no-fly zone” has been confirmed – as we have reported – by Russia’s ambassador to Britain, who says that the Western powers told the Russians during the summer that the Syrian government would fall and that the Islamic State would be in occupation of Damascus by October.

Given the threat Russia perceives to itself from the violent jihadis in Syria, that was a catastrophe the Russians were not prepared to contemplate, which is why they intervened to prevent it.

Russia’s Objectives
The Russians have not only explained carefully why they intervened, but they have been painstaking in explaining what their intervention was intended to achieve.

Their objective was to do the things Putin said in his UN Speech: stop the Syrian government from collapsing and the Islamic State from reaching Damascus by October and gaining for the Syrian army the time and space it needed to recover from the losses it had suffered during the civil war so that it could prosecute the war against the jihadi terrorists and the Islamic State more effectively.

At no point however did the Russians commit themselves either to defeating the Islamic State and the jihadis by themselves, or to winning the civil war for President Assad.

Such a thing would have been contrary to their policy of seeking to end the Syrian conflict through negotiations by the parties, and of persuading Syria’s opposing parties to unite their forces and energies to fight the jihadi terrorists and the Islamic State.

Seeking to win the civil war for President Assad would also have gone against Russia’s political and military doctrines and philosophy of not intervening in other countries and of not seeking to shape their political destinies.

The intervention in Syria was carried out to protect Russian security and Russian national interests. It was not a grand US style geopolitical play, and it was never intended to be.

Back in November I discussed the limited nature of the Russians’ objectives in Syria based both on their actions in the country and on what they were doing diplomatically and on the things they had repeatedly said here.

Putin again explained it all clearly in a television interview he gave on 11th October 2015 to the journalist Vladimir Solovyov. Here is what he said:

“Vladimir Solovyov: The Syrian army has now gone on the offensive. What is their likelihood of success?

Vladimir Putin: This depends above all on the Syrian army itself and on the Syrian authorities.

We cannot commit ourselves to more than is reasonable and never have done so. I said from the start that our active operations on Syrian soil will be limited in time to the Syrian army’s offensive.

Coming back to your earlier question, our task is to stabilise the legitimate government and establish conditions that will make it possible to look for political compromise.

Vladimir Solovyov: Stabilisation through military means?

Vladimir Putin: Yes, through military means, of course. When you have ISIS and other such groups of international terrorists right next to the capital, who is going to want to look for a settlement with the Syrian authorities, sitting practically under siege right in their own capital?

On the contrary, if the Syrian army demonstrates its viability and, most important, its readiness to fight terrorism, and if it shows that the authorities can achieve this, this opens up much greater possibilities for reaching political compromises.”

Putin made it clear that the operation would be “limited in time to the Syrian army’s offensive” and that Russia was not making an open ended commitment and would not “commit (itself) to more than is reasonable and has never done so”.

Given the limited nature of the objective – to save the Syrian government, provide political space for the negotiations the Russians have called for since the start of the conflict in 2011, and to strengthen the Syrian army so that it could fight its jihadi enemies more effectively – it could not have been otherwise.

Putin himself never said how long the intervention was expected to last. However other Russian officials did that for him.

Back in October Alexey Pushkov, the head of the foreign affairs committee of the State Duma – Russia’s parliament – estimated that it would last 3 to 4 months,

Given Russia’s military doctrine and philosophy, it is in fact a certainty the Russian military were promised the intervention would be limited in extent and duration.

The decision to start a partial withdrawal now when he objectives have in part been achieved (see below) and in rough accordance with the original timetable honours that promise.

Objective Achieved?

Have the Russians however achieved the objectives they set themselves in Syria?

If set against the limited objectives they actually set themselves – rather than the more grandiose objectives often attributed to them – the answer is – yes.

The US has been forced to abandon its plan for a no-fly zone. The Syrian government has been preserved. The Islamic State does not control Damascus. On the contrary it has been steadily losing territory, most of its routes to Turkey have been cut, its oil trade has been severely disrupted and its flow of volunteers has started to dry up.

More importantly the Syrian army has been considerably strengthened and has been able to go on the offensive. In his presentation to Putin where the withdrawal announcement was made Defence Minister Shoigu set out the results:

“The terrorists have been driven out of Latakia, communication has been restored with Aleppo, Palmyra is under siege and combat actions are being continued to liberate it from unlawful armed groups. We have cleared most of the provinces of Hama and Homs, unblocked the Kweires airbase, which was blocked for more than three years, established control over oil and gas fields near Palmyra: three large fields that, as of now, have begun to operate steadily.

In total, with support from our air force, the Syrian troops liberated 400 towns and over 10,000 square kilometres of territory. We have had a significant turning point in the fight against terrorism.”

The result – exactly as anticipated by Putin in his interview with Vladimir Solovyov in October – is that the Syrian opposition and its Western backers have finally agreed to sit down and talk to the Syrian government without imposing preconditions – something they had consistently refused to do up to now.

Here is how Foreign Minister Lavrov explained it all in his presentation to Putin at the same meeting.

“Our Aerospace Forces operation helped create conditions for the political process.

We have consistently advocated establishing an intra-Syrian dialogue in accordance with the decisions made in 2012. Our suggestions were met with a lack of will on the part of all our partners working on this process. But since the start of the operations by our Aerospace Forces, the situation began to change.

The initial steps were gradually taken, first based on your talks with US President Barack Obama: the Russian-American group began to prepare a broader process for external support for intra-Syrian talks.

An international Syria support group was created, which included all the key players without exception, including regional powers.

Agreements on the parameters for the Syrian political process achieved in this group were approved by two UN Security Council resolutions, which confirmed the three-way process of ceasing hostilities, broadening access to humanitarian supplies in previously besieged areas and starting intra-Syrian talks.

Thanks to these decisions, including your latest agreement with President Obama, today intra-Syrian talks between the Government delegation and delegations of multiple opposition groups have finally been launched in Geneva.

The work is difficult and we have yet to see how all these groups can gather at one table. For now, UN representatives are working individually with each of them, but the process has begun, and it is in our common interest to make it sustainable and irreversible.”

Given that what both Shoigu and Lavrov said to Putin is incontestably true, it was a forgone conclusion given the policy framework and the promises almost certainly given to the military, that Putin would order a partial withdrawal.

To have done otherwise would have breached the timetable and gone far beyond the policy, inviting criticism from the military and the foreign policy establishment and eventually from the Russian public.

A Partial Withdrawal from a Limited Commitment

The withdrawal is however far from total. The Russians are not abandoning Syria to its fate.

They will retain possession of the Tartus and Khmeimim naval and air bases. The naval and air defence forces – including the S400 anti aircraft missile system – will remain in place, preventing the resurrection of Western ideas for a no-fly zone, a fact grudgingly admitted in this bitter editorial in The Guardian.

Some supporters of the intervention – who assumed it was intended to be more extensive and open-ended than the Russians ever said it would be – are saying that the Russians lost their nerve and got cold feet and are being overly trusting and naive by pulling out prematurely before the jihadi forces in Syria have been completely destroyed, allowing the West to resume its regime change strategy.

What I would say about that is that people who say these things have clearly not familiarised themselves with the situation on the ground in Syria or with the things the Russians have said. Besides nothing has happened over the course of the intervention to make the Russians lose their nerve, and Russia’s leaders do not come across as trusting or naive people.

The continued presence of a significant Russian force in Syria – one far stronger than anyone would have imagined possible before last summer – anyway disproves this criticism.

It seems moreover that a reduced force of aircraft will – at least for the time being – continue to operate from Khmeimim air base.

In his presentation to Putin Defence Minister Shoigu spoke of “combat actions being undertaken to liberate (Palmyra)”. Reports from the Iranian Fars news agency have in fact confirmed Russian aircraft carried out bombing raids on Tuesday after the withdrawal announcement in support of the Syrian army as it fights to liberate the city.

Fars is also reporting further heavy Russian air strikes in Homs province, possibly in support of the Syrian army as it advances on the Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa.

A senior Russian military official at Khmeimim air base has in fact been reported as confirming that Russian bombing raids on jihadi terrorists would continue despite the partial withdrawal, though obviously at a reduced tempo.

What is perhaps being overlooked is that following the recent declaration of the truce the tempo of Russian bombing in Syria had already declined markedly even before the announcement of the partial withdrawal was made.

The reason for that almost certainly is that because of the truce the Russians now have fewer targets to bomb.

What this has means is that at the time of the partial withdrawal announcement the greater part of the Russian strike force at Khmeimim air base was actually standing idle.

The choice was whether to leave the aircraft standing idle at Khmeimim air base or to bring them back to Russian.

Not surprisingly, in light of everything previously said, the decision was taken to bring them back to Russia.

The Way Forward
What happens now?

It has been suggested that with the greater part of their objectives achieved the Russians are now going to switch emphasis from the military to the diplomatic approach and will concentrate on the diplomatic process in Geneva.

That is an exaggeration. As I have explained previously, the Russians do not separate diplomatic from military action in the way the Western powers do.

Not only is there no general ceasefire in Syria, but as Lavrov’s comments in his presentation to Putin show, the Russians are only too well aware of the fragility of the peace process. They are not therefore investing all their hopes in it.

The option of returning the strike force to Syria and resuming the bombing has not been ruled out, which is why the Russians are retaining the air base at Khmeimim.

Whilst the Russians would no doubt be very loathe to do that, if the situation ever becomes as critical as it did last summer no-one should doubt that they will.

More importantly the influx of Russian advisers and weapons – which has played a key role in transforming the Syrian military over the last few months – is going to continue.

It is this influx of advisers and weapons – almost as much as the bombing campaign itself – which has caused the situation in Syria to change so dramatically over the course of the last 5 months.

The Russians will also continue their peace-building effort on the ground in Syria to consolidate the truce and to win over local fighters to the anti-jihadi cause. Shoigu in his presentation to Putin gave the details:

“Organisations involved in this work as a result of the negotiation process have begun taking active steps to ensure the ceasefire (there are currently 42 such organisations); plus, an additional 40 towns that joined the ceasefire.

There is monitoring over observance of the ceasefire; a fairly large number of unmanned aerial vehicles – over 70 – are being used for this purpose, as are all means of gathering intelligence, including electronic intelligence and our satellite constellation.”

Critically, it is in conjunction with this effort, and with the continuing bombing to help Syrian troops in places like Palmyra, that the diplomatic effort and the peace process in Geneva are being pursued.

Will it Work?

The main criticism of the Russian withdrawal decision is that it has left the work half-done.

There is no guarantee the peace process in Geneva will come to fruition.

The jihadi opposition, though badly battered, is still standing and its morale is going to increase now that it thinks the Russians are withdrawing.

The Syrian opposition factions have not given up on their obsession to see President Assad removed, and have consistently shown throughout the conflict that they are far more motivated to remove him than they are to make peace with him or to make common cause with his army to fight the jihadis and the Islamic State.

The Turks, the Saudis and the hardliners in the US remain completely unreconciled and will undoubtedly try to exploit the opportunities created by the truce and the partial Russian withdrawal to put their regime change strategy back on track.

As for counting on the UN Security Council Resolutions that the Russians through painstaking diplomacy have secured (see here and here), previous experience shows that the US and its allies pay no heed to them.

There is force to all these arguments and the discussion between Putin, Lavrov and Shoigu at the meeting where the partial withdrawal was announced shows that the Russians are aware of them.

Against that the Russians have over the last 6 months demonstrated in the clearest possible way that the violent overthrow of the Syrian government – whether through outside action or internal insurgency – is for them a red line, and that they will act decisively to prevent it.

They have also shown in the clearest possible way that there is nothing anyone can do to stop them doing so.

What that means is that everyone except the most fanatical neocons or jihadis now must realise that President Assad cannot be removed by force, and that any attempt to do so will merely prolong the war and will end in defeat.

That provides a powerful incentive to compromise which did not exist before.

President Assad’s opponents both inside Syria and outside must also now reckon with the steady increase in strength of Syrian army, which over the last few days has shown that it is capable of continuing offensive operations on its own.

A refusal to compromise now risks eventual defeat, and that too is a powerful reason to compromise.

The truce and the US-Russian agreement which brought it about show that more and more people are coming round to accepting these facts. Whilst the announcement of Russia’s partial withdrawal might briefly stir hopes amongst some of them of a reversal, it will not take long before reality sinks in again, which is that none of the facts the Russians have created over the last 6 months have really been changed.

Since the Russians objective all along has been to look for ways to end the conflict through negotiations, it is understandable if for the moment they seem broadly satisfied with what has been achieved and seem more optimistic than they have been at any previous time in the conflict.

As for the Islamic State and the jihadis, I repeat what I said recently on Crosstalk, that if the Syrian government succeeds through its military efforts and through compromise with its opponents in consolidating its control of Syria’s cities it will find itself in a position of overwhelming strength.

At that point the jihadi movement and the Islamic State, left controlling what will be little more than empty desert and with their supply lines to Turkey largely cut, will find themselves in an untenable position and will quickly collapse.

I repeat what I have previously said here, that I think that the widely mooted option of partitioning Syria is simply unworkable and that it will not take long for those states that might be considering it to come to the same view (for an intelligently argued opposing view see here).


On balance I think therefore that the prospects for a degree of political stabilisation in Syria along the lines the Russians want are reasonably good.

It is probably expecting too much that there will be a complete end to the conflict. President Assad’s opponents – or at least those who claim to represent President Assad’s opponents and who are turning up to negotiate on their behalf in Geneva – are simply too intransigent for that.

However the politicians negotiating in Geneva are not necessarily representative of the opposition on the ground.

The fact the truce – against most expectations – has generally held suggests there has indeed been a shift in attitudes on the ground and that the realisation is spreading that because of Russian backing President Assad cannot be overthrown by force.

If so then it is possible that the bulk of the people who have been fighting him and who are not jihadis now understand that they have no alternative but to do a deal and compromise.

If that is correct then the politicians in Geneva may find that if they remain intransigent they risk losing their political base.

The elections President Assad has called for next month – almost certainly after consulting the Russians – may be intended to consolidate this process.

Certainly the prospects of a political stabilisation in Syria look to me better than they have ever been at any point since the conflict began.

If the political stabilisation takes place, then the Syrian army will finally be free to focus all its energies on fighting the Islamic State and the jihadis – as the Russians intend that it should.

In that case – with the Syrian government’s control restored over Syria’s cities – victory over the Islamic State and the jihadis would be only a matter of time.

The alternative would have been for the Russians to make an unlimited and qualified commitment to the Syrian government until final victory was achieved through military means against all of President Assad’s opponents and until all the armed jihadis in Syria had been crushed.

Whilst that might have delivered victory, it would have run greater risks of provoking a hostile international reaction – and possibly even a clash with the US and the Turks – and would have involved making a commitment to Syria that was far greater than the one the Russians promised or were prepared or were able to make.

It would also have run the risk of entrenching the Syrian regime in its pre-2011 form, which might have stored up more trouble for the future.

It is anyway ultimately unrealistic to expect the Russians to behave in ways that are contrary to the fundamental principles that govern their behaviour or to expect them to change those principles for Syria’s sake.

Contrary to what is often said pre-2011 Syria was not an ally of Russia. Its relations were much closer to the US and western Europe (especially France) than they were to Russia. The importance of the Tartus dockyard facility (it is not really a base) to Russia has been wildly overstated and Syria is not an important political or economic partner or even a close friend of Russia’s.

It is not therefore surprising that the Russians are not prepared to go beyond the traditional constraints on their policy on behalf of a government that was not especially friendly to them to start with.

Indeed the wonder is that they have gone as far as they have.

That they have been prepared to do so is because – as the Russians themselves say – doing so has been in Russia’s national interests.

Russia’s actions have however been shaped by the traditional framework within which the Russians carry out their policies.

It could not realistically have been otherwise, and that explains both why the Russians intervened when they did, why they did not intervene before and why they are partially withdrawing now.

A different country in the same situation might have acted differently and perhaps the outcome would have been better. It should not however cause surprise that Russia has instead acted like itself.

It is unrealistic to expect otherwise and given that the prospects of peace in Syria and the defeat of jihadism have never looked better one should be grateful for what has been given rather than regret what has never in fact been offered and which was never in reality possible.