MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin has a chance to cash in on his gains in Syria by scaling down his bombing blitz when a cease-fire takes effect Friday night so he can emerge as a peace broker with international stature.
The Syrian army’s significant advances around Aleppo will allow Damascus to negotiate with its foes from a position of strength, while the cease-fire that is scheduled to go into effect at midnight Friday offers Putin an opportunity to emerge from the five-month bombing campaign stronger than when it started.
A halt in fighting could also help avoid a looming confrontation with Turkey, which has vowed to stop at nothing to halt a Kurdish offensive north of Aleppo. A Turkish incursion would dramatically raise the stakes and could drive Putin into a corner, an escalation he wants to avoid.
By engaging the United States in a direct military-to-military dialogue in Syria, the Russian president also fulfills his key goal of making Moscow a global player on par with Washington.
Ever since Russia launched its air campaign in Syria on Sept. 30, the Kremlin has urged the U.S. to coordinate military efforts. But Washington has accused Moscow of hitting civilians and targeting moderate rebels instead of its declared goal, the Islamic State group, and only has agreed to exchange information on military flights to avoid incidents in the skies over Syria.
Russia has responded by challenging the U.S. to name the groups and areas its warplanes shouldn’t target.
The cease-fire agreement now effectively meets that demand, requiring Russian and U.S. military experts to exchange information on opposition units abiding by the cease-fire and extremist groups, such as the Islamic State group, considered fair game.
Such an information exchange will allow Moscow to deflect criticism over its airstrikes by making the rebel groups that fail to commit to the cease-fire a legitimate target.
While Assad must be eager to reclaim full control over Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and its commercial capital before the war, Putin may not see capturing the city as essential for the success of his Syria strategy.
The Syrian army already has seized key positions around Aleppo, effectively cutting rebel supply routes, and in Putin’s view it could be enough to shore up Assad’s positions ahead of peace talks and make the U.S. and its allies interested in negotiating a compromise in prospective Syria peace talks. The negotiations in Geneva broke up in January before starting in earnest, and the opposition demanded an end to Russian airstrikes as a condition to resume them.
The truce agreement envisions, however, that both Russia and the U.S.-led coalition will continue their action against the Islamic State group and al-Qaida’s branch in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front.
Al-Nusra is a key fighting force around Aleppo and in many other areas, and numerous smaller jihadi groups are allied with it, so doubts remain if the declared truce would lead to any significant reduction in hostilities.
With a motley collection of rebel units mixed closely on the battlefield, it also remains unclear how Russia and the U.S. could distinguish between moderate rebels and al-Nusra.
Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies that have backed Assad’s foes throughout the war in Syria, which has displaced half of its population and killed more than a quarter-million since March 2011, have watched the U.S.-Russian deal with unease, fearing that it will play into Assad’s hands.
They have mulled ground action in Syria, a prospect that would become even more likely if the cease-fire collapses. Turkey has cast the Kurdish offensive north of Aleppo as an existential challenge, and vowed to halt it.
If Turkey sends its troops into Syria, it would dramatically raise the risks of a clash with Russia. Relations between Moscow and Ankara have been badly strained since a Turkish jet shot down a Russian warplane at the Syrian border in November.
Putin has ordered the military to destroy any target that would threaten Russian warplanes, but while he could be eager to punish Turkey for downing the Russian jet, he would try to avoid a dangerous escalation that could potentially pit Russia against NATO.
The cease-fire appears to be Russia’s best bet now, and Putin can be expected to make every effort to make sure it holds, including mostly grounding war planes.
He has spoken to Assad to secure his commitment to the cease-fire, and also called the Saudi, Iranian and Israeli leaders this week to discuss it.
While Russia has vowed to continue air raids against the Islamic State group and al-Nusra, Putin can be expected to reduce or even call off airstrikes in areas where al-Nusra fighters are closely mixed with U.S.-backed groups to prevent the truce from immediate collapse.
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