USA TODAY US Edition

Syria cease-fire shows the power of Putin

Rus­sian pres­i­dent’s stature is raised in the Mid­dle East

- Oren Dorell @oren­dorell USA TO­DAY

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

 ?? MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV, AP ?? Vladimir Putin promised to root out ter­ror­ists.
MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV, AP Vladimir Putin promised to root out ter­ror­ists.

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