Russia Pulls out of West Syria, Leaves US to Face ISIS in the East

DEBKA Weekly’s regulars wouldn’t have been totally amazed by President Vladimir Putin’s shock order Monday, March 14, to start pulling the bulk of Russian forces out of Syria, five-and-a-half months after they landed. Those readers would have had an inkling of the drama ahead from the way his understandings with Barack Obama, first revealed by our sources, unfolded.
(DW 685 of Dec. 4: The Secret Euphrates Pact between Obama and Putin)
This pact marked the Euphrates River as dividing Syria into two spheres of military influence: a US-dominated sector to the east, up to the Iraqi border, and a Russian-controlled sector to the west, up to the Mediterranean.
The Russians pulled out essentially from the western region, leaving the US to carry on the war on terror in the east.
Putin acted after his pact with Obama generated six developments:
1. Russian military intervention was able to stabilize President Bashar Assad’s regime in Damascus and roll the western coastal strip back under its control. In deference to Washington, Moscow avoided committing to Assad’s ultimate survival in power – only to prop up his regime and army.
2. The Russian military quit with two unfinished tasks in mid-stream: Aleppo’s capture in the north and Deraa in the south. (See attached map). But their air blitz softened opposition resistance enough to turn those tasks over to the Syrian army and its allies, Hizballah and the Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani Shiite militias serving under Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps command.
Putin left supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Assad and Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah with the responsibility to decide whether to go through with these major campaigns – or leave the two towns in rebel hands.
3. Up to 9,000 Russian air force sorties exhausted its list of targets in the western sector – and so, most of the 120 warplanes parked at the Hmeymim air base in Latakia could be shipped home. About 20 to 30 planes were left on standby for unforeseen military developments calling for Russia’s intervention anew.
Moscow is additionally returning to the Mediterranean the Russian fleet’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, it was announced on March 7. The vessel will soon dock at Tartous. The 40 warplanes on its decks will partially replace the bombers withdrawn from Hmeymim. They include SU-33, NIG-29 and SU-25UT fighters, as well as 24 helicopters.
4. Putin never swerved from his initial decision against sending Russian ground troops into combat in Syria, insisting that his air and naval units could handle all the goals of the intervention. His motive, which overrode Moscow’s commitments to Iran and the Syrian ruler, was to prove that Russian air might was capable of accomplishing a strategic turnaround in the Syrian war within a short period, unaided by ground troops – in contrast to the below-par strategic achievements of the American aerial campaigns in Iraq and Syria, since September 2014.
This feat was meant to impress the Middle East and enhance Russia’s rating as a world-class military power.
5. The Kremlin is now turning to Geneva to join the Obama administration for the next stage of their plan, which is to push the warring sides into swallowing the Russian-US political solution for wrapping up the conflict.
By its partial military withdrawal, Moscow was writing a message in large letters for Khamenei, Assad and Nasrallah to digest. Now that their sharpest weapon was gone, their best bet was to follow Russia’s political script, i.e. use the military advantages the Russian air force had won for their armies and finish the two critical campaigns in short order, while at the same time taking the path to a negotiated accommodation with the opposition.
Bucking Moscow would have consequences, it was implied: Moscow is keeping its military options in reserve at Hmeymim and Tartous.
6. Although at the outset of its aerial bombardments on Oct 1, Moscow designated terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and Nusra Front as targets, they were left practically untouched apart from sporadic raids. That was because most of their strongholds are concentrated east of the Euphrates in the US-control sector.
Not all Russia’s missions were accomplished, as Putin boasted. The US-led coalition has, for its part, been left saddled with the main burden of the struggle to defeat the jihadists and root them out of their Syrian bastion at Raqqa.

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