Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Russia's Withdrawal from Syria: M.N.: Did "Putin get exactly what he wanted in Syria?" Not "exactly". | "For Russia to continue would have meant increased military costs and lives. Russia already has lost military personnel, including at least one general. This intervention, most probably never intended to be long-term, may have become short-term in the face of even incremental increased U.S. and allied assistance." - Putin Got Exactly What He Wanted in Syria - Defense One

Russia's Withdrawal from Syria

Putin Got Exactly What He Wanted in Syria - Defense One: 
"For Russia to continue would have meant increased military costs and lives. Russia already has lost military personnel, including at least one general. This intervention, most probably never intended to be long-term, may have become short-term in the face of even incremental increased U.S. and allied assistance." 

"Analysts noted that Mr. Putin had achieved most, if not all, of his goals — some stated, others not... Many analysts thought the main goal, of forcing a dialogue with the United States and of reviving the Cold War idea that Washington and Moscow are the main global police forces, had been achieved." 
A sizable drawdown could mean that Russian President Putin calculates he has gotten his maximum military bang for the buck in Syria, and that anything further would encounter diminishing returns...”

But what was really achieved, beyond the psychological trinkets of equalization in stature and weight or its illusions, maintenance of working dialogue and some entertainment value of the political theater for one actor? Where are the tangibles? 

Did "Putin get exactly what he wanted in Syria?" Not "exactly": 
  • Fast and easy "blitzkrieg" (apparently an old German-East-European version of "Shock and awe"), as probably was hoped for, did not materialize; it became abundantly clear that the air power alone will not solve the anti-Assad insurgency problem. 
  • Military operations and increase in geopolitical instability did not produce a hike in the price of oil, probably one of Putin's major objectives. Just the opposite: continuing conflict with the Saudis might have contributed to the slide of oil price, while some degree of cooperation with them could open the door to joint oil price control (however unlikely to happen). 
  • Grumbling but invisible opposition to this operation on the part of Russian military establishment revealed the deeper contradictions between it and Putin's regime. Note the somewhat puzzling resignation of the Russian Navy's Supreme Commander
  • The risks of not only the generals' but the general discontent and criticism were mounting directly and proportionally with the increase in numbers of body bags and other losses, which appeared to be inevitable; especially threatening the stability of the Putin's regime in the Russian "parliamentary elections" year. Also, the specter of the rising ISIS related domestic terrorism, especially in its depressingly macabre forms probably did fray the nerves of many Russians.
What was achieved? 
All in all it appears to be a draw (a pat, a stalemate), and the Russian withdrawal decision appears to be (by necessity) the wise one but it looks like the attempt to snatch the victory or the illusion of it from the readily and widely open jaws of defeat. 
It also shows that Putin and his ruling-riling circle are flexible enough to take a step back when they see it fit and in strategic hope for the next two steps forward. Stalin said about Hitler: "His problem is that he does not know where to stop." Putin knows where to stop, especially when he sees the "stop signs". Hopefully. 
It is also possible that Russia and her leaders, having glanced into the abyss, withdrew and decided to withdraw militarily, which is a natural reaction. The withdrawal inward and "mobilization against internal problems" as opposed to "a mobilization against an external enemy", in the words of one of the leaders of Russian opposition, might be a healthy sign. Economic restructuring and political revitalization and liberalization should go hand in hand. Outward projections of power and aggression appear to be for Russia on the opposite side of economic development. The old imperial habits do not pay off that well these days. 

"In his interviews with Goldberg, Obama argues that Vladimir Putin’s military operation in Syria has come “at enormous cost to the well-being of his own country.” In short, he thinks Russia may have reaped some short-term gain, but will pay with long-term pain." 



Kerry, Putin to Discuss Syria as Russia Seeks to Bolster Influence

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Secretary of State John Kerry said he would travel to Moscow next week to discuss a political solution to Syria’s five-year war, as the U.S. and key players strain to figure out how Russia’s partial military withdrawal changes the dynamics of the conflict and nascent peace talks.
Mr. Kerry said Tuesday he would meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The visit follows Russia’s surprise announcement Monday that it would withdraw most of its troops from Syria, as the cease-fire there entered its third week.
“We have reached a very important phase in this process,“ Mr. Kerry said.
Russian warplanes began returning from Syria on Tuesday. State television showed Su-34 bomber pilots being greeted by families and news crews at an air base in western Russia, following an engagement that claimed a handful of Russian lives.
“Putin said we would not be in for a long time,” said Ruslan Pukhov, the director of the Moscow-based defense think tank CAST. “Sometimes, it’s worth taking the man literally.”
The withdrawal announcement coincided with the beginning of United Nations-led peace talks in Geneva, suggesting that Russia wants to influence a political settlement and that the Kremlin is trying to pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to engage fully in the process.
Diplomats in Geneva cautiously cited progress in indirect negotiations between the main warring parties.
U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura has met separately with both delegations, and subsequent meetings over the next week and a half should focus on the issues at the heart of the Syrian conflict: forging a compromise for a political transition.
The Syrian opposition delegation said it outlined for him its broad views on how to move forward, a day after the government delegation offered its own plan.
The government wants to create a national unity government drawing in the opposition and leaving the fate of Mr. Assad up to voters. The opposition wants a transitional body with executive powers that would strip Mr. Assad of authority and ultimately see him out of power.
Mr. de Mistura wouldn’t go into the details of either plan Tuesday, but he said he felt a new sense of urgency to resolve the crisis. “I do feel there is a difference,” he told reporters.
Mr. Putin intervened in Syria last fall with an aim of saving the Syrian government. With regime forces consolidating gains, Western and Arab diplomats and officials said Moscow had become frustrated in recent weeks with what they described as Mr. Assad’s continued defiance toward the peace process.
U.K. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond expressed skepticism about the Kremlin’s surprise withdrawal, questioning whether Russia was backing a genuine political transition. “It is worth remembering that Russia announced withdrawal of forces in Ukraine, which later turned out merely to be routine rotation of forces,” Mr. Hammond said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sought to raise the pressure on all sides, reiterating his call for the Security Council to authorize an investigation of war crimes in Syria by the International Criminal Court.
It wasn’t clear how many Russian troops and aircraft would remain in Syria. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday evening that Russia would maintain the military air base it built up last year in Hmeimim, near the port city of Latakia, and a decades-old naval installation at Tartus.
The Assad regime’s next steps also aren’t clear. It hasn’t reclaimed from rebels all of the territory it sees as important, and it isn’t clear if it can do so without Russian firepower.
Regular Syrian troops are worn thin after five years of conflict, and many military-aged males fled as refugees to Europe to avoid conscription. The army relied increasingly on Shiite paramilitaries from Iraq, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and Afghanistan to drive the most difficult ground operations.
The regime “is confident and cocky, but they were overstretched—no question about that,” a Western diplomat tracking the war in Syria said.
Syrian opposition activists on Tuesday marked what many consider the fifth anniversary of the antiregime uprising. Mostly peaceful protests then were met with a regime crackdown that degenerated into a war that has killed more than 250,000 people and displaced roughly half the population, creating more than four million refugees.
Rebels and activists celebrated news of the withdrawal. “Many people here think it’s a position that will strengthen the opposition,” said Hadi Abdullah, an activist in Idlib province. “Now we’ll have maybe two or three jets flying in the sky and bombing us, not 12 or 13 at a time.”
Mr. Abdullah said rebels in Idlib fired their guns in the air to celebrate the news all night Monday.
Observers have long said Mr. Putin aimed to use the Syria campaign as a way to end Russia’s international isolation, by offering a common front against Islamic State, which controls territory in both Syria and Iraq.
But while the Kremlin cast its air war as a counterterror campaign, U.S. and Western officials complained that Russian warplanes also targeted relatively moderate Syrian opposition groups.
“A sizable drawdown could mean that Russian President Putin calculates he has gotten his maximum military bang for the buck in Syria, and that anything further would encounter diminishing returns,” said Frederic Hof, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “Saving Assad from defeat and perhaps making him impervious to demands that he step aside are no small feats.”
—Asa Fitch in Geneva, Thomas Grove in Moscow and Jenny Gross in London contributed to this article.
Write to Nathan Hodge at nathan.hodge@wsj.com
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Putin’s Syria Withdrawal Keeps Him at the Fore and Everyone Else Guessing

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MOSCOW — President Vladimir V. Putin’s typically theatrical order to withdraw the bulk of Russian forces from Syria, a process that the Defense Ministry said it began on Tuesday, seemingly caught Washington, Damascus and everybody in between off guard — just the way the Russian leader likes it.
By all accounts, Mr. Putin delights at creating surprises, reinforcing Russia’s newfound image as a sovereign, global heavyweight and keeping him at the center of world events.
In the case of Syria, the sudden, partial withdrawal more than five months after an equally surprising intervention allows Mr. Putin to claim a list of achievements without a significant cost to Russia in blood or rubles.
If the roughly 4,000 Russian troops centered on a contingent of about 50 combat aircraft remained in Syria, Mr. Putin risked becoming just another proxy force fighting for the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. But Mr. Putin wanted to make his mark by forging a solution in Syria, rather than lingering long enough to validate President Obama’s contention that Moscow had jumped headfirst into a quagmire.
“Russia does not want to fight for Assad as such,” said Aleksei V. Makarkin, the deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. “If Russia continued, that would make it more dependent on Mr. Assad and would make it clash with other players directly.”
Analysts noted that Mr. Putin had achieved most, if not all, of his goals — some stated, others not.
First, to thwart another Western attempt to push for leadership change in Syria and to fight the very idea of outside governments forcing political shifts.
Second, to show that Moscow is a more reliable ally than Washington, given that the Obama administration had abandoned long-term allies like former President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt when they faced political upheaval.
Third, to restore to Russia the role it had in the Soviet era as an important actor in the Middle East and as a global problem solver, and to force respect for Mr. Putin as a world leader.
Fourth, to shatter the isolation that Washington had tried to impose on Moscow after the crisis in Ukraine, forging a dialogue with the United States and, to a lesser degree, with Europe.
Fifth, a subset of the previous goal, to distract attention from the war in Ukraine and to get lifted the economic sanctions imposed on Russia — a step the Kremlin is desperate to achieve in the face of continuing economic problems. Saving the estimated $3 million daily cost of the Syrian operations will also help, but it was not considered decisive.
Sixth, to show off the effectiveness of a new generation of weaponry from Russia, the biggest arms exporter in the world after the United States.
Many analysts thought the main goal, of forcing a dialogue with the United States and of reviving the Cold War idea that Washington and Moscow are the main global police forces, had been achieved. Mr. Obama’s spokesman first said that the president had no idea about plans for a Russian withdrawal, but soon after the Kremlin website noted that the Russian and American leaders had spoken by telephone.
“The resurrection from oblivion of Russian-U.S. cooperation is one of the most important political results of the operation,” Vladimir Frolov, an expert on international relations, wrote on the Russian website Slon.ru. “It turns out only two superpowers can stop the war.”
The arrival of the decision like a jack-in-the-box was vintage Putin. According to published accounts of how he seized Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014, the Russian president, a former K.G.B. operative, consults a tiny circle of security and military advisers on crucial foreign policy questions.
The inner circle consists of Sergei K. Shoigu, the defense minister; Sergei B. Ivanov, the leader of the president’s administration and a former top operative in state security; Alexander V. Bortnikov, the director of the Federal Security Service, known as the F.S.B.; and Nikolai P. Patrushev, secretary of the Security Council and a previous F.S.B. director.
Given their backgrounds, the men believe that secrecy is the key to good government, said Ekaterina Schulmann, a political scientist, and they abhorred the leaky Kremlin of the 1990s.
The partial cease-fire in Syria, which began Feb. 27, has proved more effective and durable than expected, significantly reducing the level of violence.
They also believe that surprise announcements provide a giant public relations payoff, keeping Russians riveted to the TV news and making them feel that they are included in a parade of thrilling events, Ms. Schulmann said.
“A good decision in today’s Russia should be swift and surprising and take everyone unawares,” she said. “That is considered good political management.”
They are also meant to emphasize that Russia acts alone. “The main goal is to show that Russia acts completely independently,” said Alexander Morozov, an independent political analyst. “We expand our military presence without any prior consultations and wrap it up without any warning.”
A statement by Mr. Assad calling the announcement about the Russian withdrawal the result of a consultation process seems somewhat dubious given Mr. Putin’s habit of not sharing his thinking with many Russians, much less with foreigners.
Some analysts said the sudden decision was intended to send a message to Mr. Assad, who by all accounts has exasperated Mr. Putin by becoming ever more inflexible at the negotiating table as his battlefield fortunes have improved.
Mr. Assad recently earned a rebuke from Russia for saying that he would continue fighting until he had unified all of Syria, and after his foreign minister dismissed talk of presidential elections, which are supposed to be part of a transition to peace. Arab diplomats in Damascus said that their Russian counterparts had emphasized in recent weeks that Russia intervened to protect the Syrian state, not Mr. Assad himself.
“I think this is a shot into Assad’s bow, not over Assad’s bow, as Putin’s way of saying that it is now up to you,” said Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group, a Washington-based consulting firm. “At least for now, Putin is a looming maven of peace, and that is pretty clever.”
The stated goal of the military deployment in Syria was to take the fight against the metastasizing Islamic State to the “terrorists” themselves, before they could take the fight to Russia.
Instead, the main targets proved to be immediate threats to Mr. Assad in western Syria, many of them allied with Western or Arab powers. In summarizing the achievements of the mission, Mr. Shoigu, the defense minister, noted that Russia had helped the government restore control over 400 towns and nearly 4,000 square miles of territory.
Modern Russia has inflamed conflict in former Soviet republics to create “frozen zones,” allowing it to influence events and confound its opponents.
Some analysts in Russia and elsewhere also said they thought that Mr. Putin had begun to realize that the violence that Russia was helping to perpetuate in Syria was working at cross purposes with the goal of showing Europe that he is a reliable partner and a peacemaker who does not deserve the economic sanctions that are denying Russia desperately needed access to Western credit markets.
The European Union has hinged lifting sanctions to putting into effect the Minsk II peace accords in Ukraine. The Europeans have also been alarmed that the escalating violence in Syria, now entering its sixth year, is feeding an enormous refugee crisis.
It remains unclear whether Mr. Assad will show a new willingness to negotiate after the loss of his principal military patron. Syria still has foreign allies in Iran and Hezbollah that have long shored up the government. They have no interest in a political transition, which risks replacing the government dominated by the Alawite minority, a Shiite sect, with the majority Sunnis.
There have long been questions about just how much leverage Moscow has ever had over Damascus, and the coming weeks might tell.
If Damascus begins to flounder without Russian support, the withdrawal is instantly reversible. Dmitri S. Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, noted that not all forces would be withdrawn from the Hmeymim air base near Latakia, nor from the longstanding Russian naval refueling and repair facility at Tartus.
Russia will also keep its powerful S-400 air defense system in Syria to protect the forces staying behind, Mr. Ivanov, the head of the president’s administration, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying. That would maintain Russian dominance of Syrian airspace, where bombers were still carrying out attacks on Palmyra on Tuesday, even as others were shown on Russian TV flying home.
In Russia, people were asking “What next?” as often as “Why now?” The rainbow of responses indicated that Mr. Putin was again leaving his own people guessing.
Several members of the opposition dared to hope that with problems building up at home and parliamentary elections coming in September, Mr. Putin may be ready to focus more on domestic ills.
“The choice is simple: It’s either a mobilization against an external enemy or mobilization against internal problems,” Dmitry Gudkov, one of few members of the opposition in Parliament, wrote on his Facebook page. “If suddenly, and almost unbelievably, it is the second, even ahead of elections, we at least have a slim chance.”
Correction: March 15, 2016
An earlier version of this article misstated where Russia concentrated its firepower as a result of immediate threats to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. It was in the west, not the east.
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Omar the Chechen, an ISIS Official Wounded by U.S. Raid, Has Died

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A senior Islamic State militant whom the United States military tried to kill in an airstrike in Syria last week has died of his wounds, according to a senior Pentagon official.
The militant, Omar al-Shishani, was the Islamic State’s minister of war, according to the Pentagon. The name was an Arab pseudonym for Omar the Chechen, though he was a Georgian national.
The airstrike occurred March 4 near the Syrian city of Shaddadi, where he had gone “to bolster” Islamic State fighters after “a series of strategic defeats to local forces” that are being supported by the United States, the Pentagon said last Tuesday in a statement that announced the airstrike.
At the time, the Pentagon said it was still assessing whether he had been killed. Soon after the strike, jihadists claimed on social media that Mr. Shishani had been wounded, but survived the attack. The senior Pentagon official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential intelligence assessments, said Monday that the United States had confirmed Mr. Shishani’s death, but declined to say precisely when he died or how American spy agencies knew that.
Mr. Shishani, whose real name was Tarkhan Tayumurazovich Batirashvili, was among thousands of foreign fighters who flocked to Syria in recent years to join the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
According to the Pentagon, he led Islamic State fighters in many battles in Iraq and Syria. He was said to have overseen the group’s prison near Raqqa.
Last May, the State Department offered up to $5 million for information on his whereabouts.
His absence, the Pentagon said, would impede the Islamic State’s “ability to recruit foreign fighters — especially those from Chechnya and the Caucasus regions — and degrade ISIL’s ability to coordinate attacks and defense of its strongholds.”
Mr. Shishani was considered something of an enigma, even within the Islamic State.
Despite being widely thought of as a leader and a warrior, some called him “Abu Meat” because he had a reputation for sitting in a control room and sending young men to their deaths.

Russia's Unexpected Withdrawal from Syria

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Russia announced it will pull the bulk of its troops from Syria starting March 15, in a process that could take up to 5 months. (Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation)
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced March 14 that Russia had sufficiently achieved its goals in Syria since beginning airstrikes in September, and that it will gradually withdraw the bulk of its forces from the country, starting March 15. According to Putin, the process could take as long as five months. However, Russia's air base in Latakia will continue to operate, as will its naval facility in Tartus.
Russia's involvement in Syria has been guided by a number of key priorities. The first is ensuring the stability of the allied Syrian government and by extension Russian interests in Syria. The second is demonstrating and testing its armed forces, which are undergoing a significant force modernization. The third is weakening the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations, especially given the large number of Russian nationals fighting in Syria among extremist factions. The fourth, and the most important, is for Russia to link its actions in Syria to other issues — including the conflict in Ukraine, disputes with the European Union and U.S. sanctions on Russia.
The support that the Russians and other external actors such as Iran and Hezbollah have given the Syrian government has largely reversed the rebels' momentum, and currently loyalist forces have the advantage. However, rebel troops have not been defeated, and a significant drawdown of Russian forces could weaken loyalist efforts. However, it is important to remember that Russia alone did not reverse the loyalist fortunes; Iranian support for the Syrian government could go a long way in maintaining their advantage.
With their actions in Syria thus far, the Russians have showcased their improved combat capabilities and some new, previously unused weapons, which will likely contribute to important arms sales, including some to Iran. Russia has also largely achieved its goal of weakening the Islamic State, though the Russian contribution against the terrorist group is just a part of a much broader, multilateral effort that includes the U.S.-led coalition, rebel forces and the majority Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces. All in all, the Islamic State may not be entirely defeated, but its forces in Syria and Iraq are much weaker than they were five months ago. 
Still, progress on Russia's primary goal is still uncertain. Moscow intervened in Syria to gain concessions on issues in other regions; whether or not it has been successful may depend in part on the terms of any peace deal. The March 15 drawdown, which is coming just as U.N. peace talks begin in Geneva, could be a sign of a breakthrough in the negotiations. It will be important to keep an eye on any signs of a deal emerging from Geneva and for indications coming out of Europe that could allude to a potential grand bargain.
Of course, it could be that Putin is greatly exaggerating the significance of the drawdown, which may not significantly alter Russian actions in Syria. Though it is highly unlikely, the Russians may even be pulling out in defeat, having realized they cannot achieve their hoped-for grand bargain in Syria after all.
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