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Elliser Silla, Senior Foreign Policy Editor
Russia has announced that it plans to start withdrawing its military forces in Syria. Russian military chief Valery Gerasimov said, “In accordance with the decision of the supreme commander of the Russian armed forces, [President] Vladimir Putin, the Russian defence ministry is beginning the reduction of the armed deployment to Syria.”
Russia’s sole aircraft carrier and other warships are starting to leave the Mediterranean. The announcement comes in the midst of the ongoing Syrian Civil War, which has killed over 500,000 people and displaced millions.
Russia began its military intervention in Syria in September 2015, and many commentators held the view that President Putin took advantage of a vacuum that saw the US retreating from a dominant role in the Middle East. At the time, President Obama said that Russia would get stuck in a “quagmire” and that the country’s intervention “won’t work, and they’re going to stay [in Syria] for a while.” However, Obama’s predictions of failure have not panned out, and Russia currently has the upper hand in the region.
Before the start of 2017, neighboring Turkey and Russia brokered a ceasefire that has since remained fairly intact. This is now the third attempt in stemming the violence; previously, there had been two ceasefire agreements in 2016, but both failed.
With respect to the recent agreement, Turkey and Russia purposefully excluded the Americans from negotiations. Even though the two countries have historically been on opposite sides of the war — with Turkey’s Erdogan supporting Syrian rebel groups opposed to President Assad and Russia’s Putin aiding his regime — Turkey and Russia have forged a mutually beneficial deal that extends their regional influence to the detriment of US interests. As opposed to primarily tackling ISIS, Turkey will put more of its energy on fighting the Kurds, whom Erdogan sees as a threat to Turkey’s national sovereignty. On the other hand, Russia will ensure that Assad, who now controls all the major Syrian cities including Aleppo, stays in power indefinitely with all the bargaining chips, in light of a potential deal down the road regarding Syria’s future.
Even though Putin and Obama’s relationship has been frosty, Putin has been vocal about his optimism for cooperation and better relations with the incoming administration. Following the conclusion of the recent ceasefire agreement, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov expressed “hope that as soon as the administration of Donald Trump takes office, they will also be able to join these efforts.” Trump’s choice for his counselor, Kellyanne Conway, has also stated that he will not sit “idly by” with regard to Syria. Rapprochement between US and Russia is certainly plausible vis-a-vis Syria, but Trump will need to convince many Russian hawks on Capitol Hill to get on board with his foreign policy objectives.
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