Russia ‘withdraws’ from Syria —not

Remember the reports of a Russian “withdrawl” from Syria over the summer? They were immediately followed, of course, by a massive escalation of Russia’s military intervention, with the destruction of Aleppo by Moscow’s warplanes. Let’s hope we are not in for a replay. With the departure of most of Russian’s war fleet from Syria’s coast—most prominently, the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov—CNN last week reported: “Russia ‘starts to withdraw’ forces from Syria.” The Interpreter, a neo-Kremlinologist website, flatly contradicts this. It finds that most Russian combat operations have been flown out of ground bases in Syria, not the carrier. At Hmeymim air base (also rendered Khmeimim and Hemeimeem) in Latakia governorate, Russia has now deployed Iskander ballistic missiles, capable of hitting anywhere in Syria and even beyond its borders. Far from withdrawing, The Interpreter says that Russia is “just getting started” with a military build-up in Syria.

The head of the Russian General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, announced what the Russian press itself described as a “partial drawdown.” Six SU-24 bombers have been withdrawn, but four SU-25 ground attack aircraft have arrived at Hmeymim. (ARA News, Jan. 13)

Progress meanwhile advances toward a Pax Russica in Syria. Hmeymim air base is now said to be hosting Russian-brokered talks between the Assad regime and the revolutionary Kurds. Leaders of several Kurdish organizations, most prominently the PYD and  ENKS, are taking part in the talks. Kurdish participation has been broached in the upcoming regional peace talks to be overseen by Russia in Astana, Kazakhstan.

The Kurds are under pressure now that Russia and Assad have the upper hand. We have still not received word on whether Kurdish forces have acceded to Damascus’ demand that they evacuate their Sheikh Maqsoud enclave in Aleppo. But note the recent decision by the Kurdish autonomous administration in northern Syria to drop its use of the regional name “Rojava.” We initially read this as  an overture to the Syrian-nationalist leadership of the rebels. But it could just as well serve as an overture to the Damascus regime. (Sputnik, Jan. 14)

Any Kurdish accommodation with Assad and Moscow will of course be seen as a grave betrayal by the rebels and Syria’s Sunni Arab majority. Grim reports continue to mount of the “sectarian cleansing” of Sunnis from regime-conquered areas, mostly overseen by Iran’s intervention force in Syria. The Guardian writes: “In the valleys between Damascus and Lebanon, where whole communities had abandoned their lives to war, a change is taking place. For the first time since the conflict broke out, people are starting to return. But the people settling in are not the same as those who fled during the past six years… They are, according to those who have sent them, the vanguard of a move to repopulate the area with Shia Muslims not just from elsewhere in Syria, but also from Lebanon and Iraq.”

The sectarian resettlement seems to have been an explicit condition of the Istanbul talks that called for rebels to abandon Shi’ite villages in Idlib in exchange for the regime allowing the evacuation of Aleppo.

And amid all this, Israel appears to be again getting its licks in. The regime accused Israeli warplanes of bombarding an airfield west of Damascus, causing considerable damage but no casualties. (BBC News, Jan. 13) It has not been reported that Russia protested the strikes. Israel has sporadically bombed targets in Syria over the past two years. The Israelis are mostly concerned with the presence of Hezbollah in Syria at Assad’s invitation. If Assad can be convinced to send Hezbollah home with the stability of his regime now secured by Moscow, we can yet imagine Israel being invited into the Pax Russica.