Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin’s Syrian campaign has transformed Russia’s political standing

While the US and its allies dithered over what to do, Putin grabbed the initiative and Russia is now the dominant player in negotiations

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 March, 2016, 12:39am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 April, 2016, 5:40pm

Russian President Vladimir Putin caught the world by surprise last autumn when he ordered air strikes on Syria. The same was true on Monday when he began withdrawing his jet fighters, contending that most of the military goals had been achieved with the forces of his ally, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, pulled back from the verge of defeat and in a commanding position. But with thousands more of the nation’s people dead or displaced and Islamic State (IS) Islamists still controlling much territory, that is a debatable point. Yet there can be no argument that the strongman has shown himself to be a master strategist, having transformed the conflict and in the process, his country’s political standing.

The announcement was made as indirect peace talks resumed in Geneva and with a two-week pause in fighting holding between the forces of Assad and his allies Russia and Iran and opposition rebel groups that are largely backed by the West. Not in the five years of the conflict has there been such long relief for Syrians.

Putin’s reason for beefing up military support was to help the US and its allies defeat IS, but the focus was mostly on backing the Syrian president by attacking rebel positions. From that perspective, the mission has been accomplished.

Russia has also emerged with a new regional and international stature. The US and its allies dithered over Syria, seeking Assad’s removal, yet unwilling to commit militarily to the task. They similarly lacked the resolve to take on IS. Putin grasped the initiative and Russia is now the dominant player.

That has been achieved without Russia getting bogged down in another costly military quagmire, as happened to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and the US in Iraq. Its fighter pilots have gone home heroes, but it will retain its strategic military bases in Syria. The West, sanctions still firmly in place against Moscow over Ukraine, have little choice other than to accept Russia’s dominant position in negotiations over Syria.

The development brings no comfort to the millions of Syrians who have fled the conflict, nor will it help stitch back together a country devastated by 300,000 deaths and billions of dollars in damage. But as pressing a matter as bringing peace to Syria may be, the threat of IS to the region and beyond cannot be ignored. No government has so far been willing to take the lead in the fight against the Muslim extremists; Russia’s new-found importance gives it that authority.