Is the Russian Withdrawal a Message to Assad?

The Independent's Patrick Cockburn says you can't have negotiations to end the war when the largest armed opposition groups, al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State, are absent.

Photo Credit: Creative Commons

Russia has begun withdrawing its main forces from Syria after five months of air strikes targeting Syrian rebels and ISIS. This occurs at the same time as U.N.-sponsored peace talks resume in Geneva to strategize an end to the civil war, and to discuss electing a new Syrian government. Russia will still maintain its air base in Syria, as well as some military personnel. Joining us to discuss this is Patrick Cockburn. He's the Middle East correspondent for the Independent, and the author of The Rise of the Islamic State and the New Sunni Revolution.

Watch: Interview with Patrick Cockburn on The Real News Network. Full transcript below.

PERIES: So, Patrick, is this partial or main Russian troop withdrawal from Syria signal to their ally, President Bashar al-Assad, that he should seriously start negotiating a peaceful political transition in Geneva?
COCKBURN: I think that's one part of it. I think that they're telling him that he doesn't have a blank check with which he can simply go on fighting until he gets total victory because he's got the Russian air force overhead. So I don't think that they want him to feel that.
On the other hand, it's not clear how you can have negotiations to end the war when on the armed opposition side the two biggest movements are Islamic State and the Al-Nusra Front, the Al-Qaeda affiliate, who aren't represented in Geneva, and would have no intention to go even if they were invited.
PERIES: And so, who are the main drivers in Geneva, and what is really on the table at this time? What are they talking about?
COCKBURN: I think what's important about this is that the U.S. and Russia have organized this. People are being surprised that this ceasefire, which began on the 27th of February, has held up. There was lots of cynicism and skepticism about it before it, before it was introduced. But actually, it has held up. And why has that happened? Well, basically because the U.S. and Russia are heavy hitters. The Russians can put a lot of influence on the government in Damascus, on Assad. The Americans can use their influence in Turkey and Saudi Arabia and so forth.
So I think that what's happening is important, because it's the movers and shakers who are in charge.
PERIES: Now, one of the controversies there is will the Syrian Kurds be included in the negotiations. Your thoughts on that?
COCKBURN: Well, it's sort of symbolic of what's wrong. You know, the biggest--they're about, about 10 percent of the Syrian population are Kurds. That's about 2 million people. And they control northeast Syria, they have their own army, and they are the main ally of the U.S. against the Islamic State in Syria. But Turkey doesn't like them, and has insisted that they don't turn up at Geneva. So you, these people are excluded. But you know, if there's one place that the Syrian revolution actually succeeded, it's in the Kurdish area, where they did throw off Assad's rule, and which they do control their own destiny, now. And it's better run that most of the rest of Syria. You see in the main towns there, you know, Arabs from the rest of the country buying houses there because it's safe for them. So I think that it's, you know, part of the strange thing about these negotiations, and the people who are negotiating on the opposition side, don't, can't really go back to Syria, [inaud.] they don't control new territory. But they have, the people who were excluded are those who are actually controlling the territory.
PERIES: And also, Patrick, what is Russia or Putin's particular motivations behind withdrawal? Some people speculate, of course, being when they started air strikes in Syria five and a half months ago, it was a bit of a distraction in terms of the geopolitical gaze on Ukraine. Your thoughts on that, and what else is behind his motivations for pulling out at this time?
COCKBURN: Well, I think it's done pretty well for them. You know, the Russians have exerted a lot of influence in Syria and on the world in general, and all they've really got is 35 aircraft there, some helicopters. They've maybe got, sort of, 3,000 military specialists there. But it, they've been very influential, that the Syrian army is advancing. It was retreating. So I think they've done pretty well out of that. But I think they don't want to stick around too long. They want to get the, maximize their political benefits out of this. Their sort of backers are, you know, not quite a superpower like the Soviet Union, but its backer is a great power. So I think that they're, they've--they want to sort of cash in their chips now.But it's one thing to sort of have a ceasefire in Syria, but to end the war it's difficult because Islamic State doesn't want to talk to anybody. It wants to kill them. The same thing about Al-Nusra. So how, exactly, do you have a long agreement?
PERIES: So, Patrick, to some extent I suppose Russia feels that their mission is accomplished. Rate how successful they've been in terms of what they attempted to do, and what they leave, and what you think they will be pushing for in the negotiations.
COCKBURN: Militarily they've been pretty successful. When they came in on the 30th of September the Assad government wasn't going to collapse, exactly. The Syrian army had suffered a series of setbacks, lost territory. It was getting demoralized. It probably wasn't going to disintegrate, but they changed that around. They attacked around the heartlands of the regime, if you'd like, up on the Mediterranean coast in the mountains, the province called Latakia. They've also been trying to seal the border against Turkey. They've got a certain distance there. They've prevented the Islamic State winning any more victories advancing from the East. So militarily, it's gone fairly well for them. They haven't suffered any significant losses other than their plane shot down by Turkey. And of course, the plane that was blown up over [Sinai]. So I think they'll be pretty pleased about the way it's gone. It's a little difficult because, you know, the opposition is saying Assad Must Go, but it's [fairly] Assad controls, you know, much of the population. He obviously isn't going to go before the negotiations. How do you divide power in Syria when everybody's trying to kill each other? Well, you know, you can divide power within a government if people agree to talk to each other, or you can divide it geographically. I think they're going to divide power geographically, that you'll have government-controlled areas and opposition-controlled areas. You'll have a sort of continuous stalemate. Very difficult to see a sort of final negotiated settlement between people, you know, who aren't, as I said, want to kill each other.
PERIES: Right. And finally, Patrick, what has this particular effort on the part of the Russians done to its relations with Turkey, and what can we look out for now?
COCKBURN: Well, this is certainly rather extraordinary, because Turkey in 2011 seemed to be in a very strong position to influence what happened in Syria and the rest of the Middle East. But it's all been a disaster for the Turks. They backed the jihadis in Syria, they failed to overthrow Assad, and now they've got a sort of quasi-Syria, Turkish-Syrian-Kurdish state along their southern frontier. So that's all been pretty bad for them. Then the Turks did something very strange. They shot down this Russian aircraft. They seem to have planned to do that. But the Russians reacted by sending in more aircraft and anti-aircraft defenses. So Turkey has difficulty, would have difficulty intervening in northern Syria. The Turks seem to make it up on the [night], and you know, they, things have not gone well for them.
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