Vladimir Putin took the world by surprise with his March 14 announcement that he is ordering the Russian military to withdraw most of its forces from Syria—just as the new round of peace talks is opening in Geneva. Russia has deployed more than 50 jets and helicopters to its air base at Khmeimim (also rendered Hemeimeem) in coastal Latakia governorate, and they have since September flown near-daily combat sorties. Russia boasts that thanks to its air support, the Damascus regime has extended its control to 400 towns and villages over an area of 10,000 square kilometers. Moscow also emphasized that it will keep its base at Khmeimim, as well as another at the port of Tartus, just down the coast. (See map.) (AP, RT)
Is this a real de-escalation? The (partial) "ceasefire" instated last month has against all expectations resulted in a significant lull in the fighting, which we assume means that Putin has been reining in Bashar Assad, while the US and Turkey have been reining int the rebels. On the other hand, Russia's military pull-out does not imply an end to material support to Assad. The Russian warplanes could well return if needed (as the US is now returning to Iraq). And as always, we await the fine print: How many "advisors" and so on are to stay behind? Still, the rebels have been significantly weakened by the six months of Russian bombing; the fall of rump state still ruled by Damascus, which seemed imminent in September, has now been forestalled. There is much talk now about some kind of quiet deal between Obama and Putin that arranged this (partial) Russian withdrawal.
A clue may come in the Reuters account of March 11 broaching a "federal structure" for Syria (read: partition of the country into "spheres of influence"). An anonymous (of course) UN Security Council diplomat was quoted as saying: "While insisting on retaining the territorial integrity of Syria, so continuing to keep it as a single country, of course there are all sorts of different models of a federal structure that would, in some models, have a very, very loose centre and a lot of autonomy for different regions."
This recalls John Kerry's "Plan B" comment of last month, implicitly raising the prospect of partition if it proves "too late to keep it as a whole Syria."
Russian firepower is aimed at securing the larger, western part of the rump Syrian state that is still controlled by Mr. Assad—in particular the air and naval bases near Latakia and Tartus… For all of the talk of combating the Islamic State, Russia's real aim is to push back rebel groups and secure this ministate. Given what Mr. Assad's allies are willing to do to salvage this "Little Syria"—compared with the limited intervention being considered by Mr. Putin's international antagonists — this is probably an achievable goal.
Such a partition of Syria would leave other parts of the country in the hands of nationalist and Islamist rebels, a Kurdish area in the north, perhaps some smaller enclaves and, most ominously, the "caliphate" of the Islamic State in the north and east.
Has this "achievable goal" now been achieved, allowing the Russian semi-exit? Moscow of course denies this, clinging to the regime dogma that the "whole country" is to be re-united under Assad's rule. Russia Today on March 12 (the day after the Reuters report on the partition plan) quoted deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov: "That is total nonsense. We are not voicing such ideas; they must come from the Syrians themselves—it is up to them to discuss and agree on such things."
But Moscow's efforts to cultivate the Syrian Kurds as proxies is another factor propelling Russia towards a "federalist" solution. Whatever confluence of interest may now exist between Moscow, Damascus and the Kurds against Turkey and its own cultivated proxy rebels in Syria, Assad and the Kurds are inevitably opposed on "federalism."
We support the survival of Kurdish autonomy, and do not consider the borders of Syria sacrosanct. That said, we must raise concerns over the potential for a general ethnic war in the region if the logic of endless separatism takes hold. In any case, this is a matter for the Syrians, not the imperial powers. We reject Bogdanov's hypocritical articulation of this principle, because the Assad regime that his government backs has escalated to genocide against the Syrian people, and therefore forfeited any legitimate voice on the country's future. But we must again assert the obvious: The political order in the Middle East should be decided by the people who live there.