Behind Putin’s Syria decision

President Vladimir Putin, once again, defied conventional geo-political wisdom when he announced without warning March 14 that he was pulling Russian air-combat forces out of Syria. State Department chief spokesperson John Kirby acknowledged March 17 that the US government had been given no notice by Moscow and was taken by surprise by the move.

Why did Putin do it? Did he mean it? Was it a bluff? An admission of victory or defeat?

While ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or the Islamic State in Lebanon, had certainly not been destroyed, the Russian air offensive had decisively turned the dynamics of the five-year civil war in Syria against it. As a result, the Syrian army has been revived and driven simultaneously to the outskirts of Aleppo and is also advancing toward the fiercely defended ISIL Syrian capital of Raqqa. Other Islamist groups in Syria – Al-Qaeda, al-Nusrah and the Army of Conquest – have been knocked back and are on the defensive too.

Although Western media contend Russia targeted “moderate” Western-backed rebels, the US- and Russian-negotiated ceasefire in Syria would not have happened if the Russians had not targeted Islamist opposition militant forces. Significantly, the Russians never targeted the YPG, the Kurdish military forces also known as Peshmerga, which are supported by the US but fiercely opposed by America’s chief NATO ally in the region, Turkey. Russia backs the YPG against Turkey.

Putin made clear that Russia would continue to operate from the Syrian seaport of Latakia and from Hmeimim air base, maintaining its strategic foothold in the Middle East. He also made clear he would send Russian forces back to renew their support of Syrian President Bashar Assad whenever he wanted it.

Considering the five-year Arab League/Western Alliance war against Assad, the mere five-and-a-half month Russian operation was an efficient and successful military intervention. 

During the campaign, the Russian air force flew more than 9,000 missions and destroyed 209 oil production and transfer facilities controlled by ISIL, crippling its potentially immense capabilities to generate revenue. They helped Syrian government troops recapture 400 villages and towns and restore control over more than 10,000 square kilometers of territory.

Russian loses were negligible. A single Sukhoi Su-24M bomber was shot down by a Turkish Air Force F-16 supplied by the US in November.

PUBLISHER’S NOTE: By declaring “mission accomplished,” Putin also trumped the US, which remains caught in endless military quagmires in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The strategic significance of what the Russians accomplished in such a short period of time may well be a wake-up call for the US, NATO and neocon interventionists intent upon containing Russian influence and/or defeating it militarily. Indeed, State Department spokesperson Kirby reiterated that toppling Assad remained an essential US goal.

Expect Ukraine to become, once again, the strategic priority for Putin. By bringing his air force home, Putin also freed the Russian military to concentrate again on the deteriorating security situation in Ukraine, where Western-backed regular Ukrainian army and militia forces are again starting to clash with Russian-supported secessionist rebels in the provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk along the Line of Control.

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