USA TODAY US Edition
Syria cease-fire shows the power of Putin
Russian president’s stature is raised in the Middle East
Russia’s role in negotiating the Syrian cease-fire with the United States highlights how its year-old military intervention dramatically changed a brutal conflict — and elevated President Vladimir Putin’s stature in the Middle East.
The truce held Wednesday despite scattered reports of violations since the cease-fire went into effect Monday.
It resulted from weeks of negotiations between Russian and American diplomats who sought to restrain Russian-supported forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and U.S.-supported opposition groups.
The Syrian cease-fire, which could lead to closer U.S. and Russia military cooperation if it holds, shows how much Putin has altered the five-year conflict.
When Russia’s intervention began, Assad’s forces had faced a summer of losses, in part because of the successful use of advanced anti-tank weapons by opposition forces backed by the United States, which wants Assad to step down. Some rebel forces were aided by al- Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.
The Islamic State seized large swaths of the country.
Putin stepped in, promising to root out “terrorists” from Syria, and invited the United States to join him. When the airstrikes began, the Pentagon said they targeted legitimate opposition forces, including the same U.S.supported rebel groups that had been winning against Assad.
Putin’s influence in Syria is one way he has made his mark recently in the Middle East. He helped Obama achieve the nuclear deal with Assad-ally Iran in July 2015, and this summer, he approved the deployment of advanced air defense systems in Iran to protect Iranian nuclear installations.
In addition, Russia announced this month that Moscow will host a new effort to resume longstalled peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.
“The Russian military was sent into Syria a year ago with the specific goal of stabilizing the Assad regime, and in that respect, Russia’s been successful,” said Steven Pifer, a former State Department and White House official.
Putin wants to preserve his ally Assad and combat terrorism, which Russia has suffered from, too. Domestic political consideration also play a role, Pifer said, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Last October, President Obama said Putin’s intervention would lead to a “quagmire,” and the United States would not cooperate.
In the past year, Russia’s air force, together with Iranian-backed Shiite militias, helped Assad regain his footing and take back territory. Assad’s fighters won battle after battle, retaking the ancient city of Palmyra from the Islamic State and Homs, a major rebel-stronghold.
After a summer-long effort by Syrian forces to surround rebelheld areas of Aleppo, Russia has attained Putin’s initial goal of an agreement with the United States to work together against the Islamic State and the terrorist affiliate of al- Qaeda.
Secretary of State John Kerry said that if the truce holds, it would lead to talks between Assad’s government and the opposition about a political solution to the conflict, including a transitional government — presumably without Assad.
The truce agreement calls for opening access for humanitarian convoys and developing a joint effort to fight the Islamic State and al- Qaeda’s Syrian franchise.
If the calm lasts a week, Russian and U.S. military experts will map the battlefield together.
Putin’s new focus is “about Russian nationalism and Russia’s return as a great power.”
Steven Pifer, a former State Department and White House official