It remains to be seen whether the diplomats in Geneva can somehow snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and find a way to prolong the bloodshed and violence.
Russian President Vladimir Putin caught the world off guard on Monday by announcing the withdrawal of “the main part” of Russian armed forces in Syria as a new round of peace talks kick off in Geneva.
Although the withdrawal will not effect Russian troops at the Russian Naval Base at Tartus or the Hemeieem airbase in Latakia, it will involve the removal of those forces that were sent last September in what was then an equally surprising move to turn the tide of the conflict decisively in favour of the Syrian Army.
Announcing the withdrawal of “the main part of our military contingent” from Syria, Putin stated: “The effective work of our military created the conditions for the start of the peace process. I believe that the task put before the defense ministry and Russian armed forces has, on the whole, been fulfilled.”
The move comes just as the first peace talks in over two years begin in Geneva, and appear to have taken everyone by surprise. A member of the terrorist insurgency fighting to overthrow Syrian President Assad was quoted by Reuters as saying: “Nobody knows what is in Putin's mind.”
The peace talks themselves come directly after the mostly successful ceasefire that has greatly reduced fighting in Syria over the last two weeks, much to the surprise of nearly everyone. Russia's move is seen as a way for Russia to add diplomatic pressure to its Syrian ally to negotiate a settlement at the peace talks, likely involving a brokered settlement in which Assad accepts power sharing or other limitations or even steps down altogether.
The move does change the calculus for the main players at the table and, crucially, offers the US a way to save face by not appearing to have buckled under Russian military pressure. The real question is whether the Gulf States and Turkey can be made to stand down in Syria, a question thrown into sharp relief by yet another bombing in Ankara over the weekend. Turkey is blaming the bombing on the Kurdish PKK and stepping up its bombing of Kurdish targets in Northern Iraq.
The US is attempting to make Russia's withdrawal seem like a capitulation, intimating that Russia could not sustain their involvement in the region any longer due to economic strain. Whether true or not, Russia is already reaping the economic benefit of withdrawal: the ruble rose 1% against the dollar after the announcement on Monday.
Whatever the case, the prospect of a settled agreement in Syria have never looked as good as they do now. It remains to be seen whether the diplomats in Geneva can somehow snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and find a way to prolong the bloodshed and violence.