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Russia Is Withdrawing From Syria: The US Should Follow Suit – OpEd

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By Phyllis Bennis*

In a surprise announcement on March 14, Russian president Vladimir Putin announced that the Russians were withdrawing “most of our military” from Syria beginning immediately.

According to the TASS news agency, Putin said he hoped the withdrawal “will become a good motivation for launching negotiations” and “instructed the foreign minister to intensify Russia’s participation in organization of peace process in Syria.”

The withdrawal, along with Putin’s restated support for a political settlement, could help move forward the fragile UN-brokered Geneva talks on ending the Syrian crisis that began on the same day — as well as the tenuous UN-negotiated cessation of hostilities. “Those Russian servicemen who will stay in Syria will be engaged in monitoring the ceasefire regime,” TASS reported, indicating that the pilots and crews of the 50 Russian warplanes and helicopters that have been based in Syria would be withdrawn.

The withdrawal is an important step that should help reduce the level of violence in the deadly war. But questions remain.

Putin made clear that not all Russian forces would be withdrawn, and that Russia’s airbase near Latakia, as well as Moscow’s small but symbolically important naval base at Tartus on the Mediterranean coast, would remain open — though they “will operate in a routine mode.” Putin said the two military bases should be “protected from the land, from the sea, and from air,” leaving open the question of whether Russian bombers “protecting” them might also continue bombing raids in Syria, flying from outside Syrian borders.

The Syrian conflict is simultaneously a civil war — pitting a brutal government against a multitude of political and military opposition forces — and a proxy war in which a host of outside powers are fighting for various regional and global hegemonies. And all of those overlapping wars are being fought to the last Syrian.

The reduction of Russian military attacks in Syria, along with Putin’s renewed call for greater Russian engagement in the peace process, may set the stage to reduce, though certainly not end, the proxy war component of the overall conflict.

A real reduction of violence, a durable ceasefire, and a viable peace process leading to an end to the Syrian war will require much more — more from Russia, certainly, but even more from the United States and its allies. There’s no indication yet that Russia’s move was coordinated with Washington, although White House spokespeople indicated that a Putin-Obama talk might be possible.

In the meantime, Washington should follow Russia’s lead and pressure its own proxy forces to shift towards diplomacy. The withdrawal of U.S. troops, special forces, drones, and warplanes from Syria, paralleling the Russian move, would be an important first step. Further moves must include an end to both the CIA’s and the Pentagon’s programs to train and arm rebel forces in Syria. Finally, the U.S. should pressure its regional allies to stop arming Syrian opposition forces, which could also keep those U.S.-supplied arms out of the hands of ISIS and the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.

All of those moves would, like the Russian withdrawal, reduce the proxy war raging in Syria — and give Washington greater leverage to urge Russia and Iran to go even further and stop arming the Syrian regime.

For too long Moscow and Washington have tried to outmuscle each other by escalating the devastating Syrian war. Now, for once, they’ve got a chance to escalate their efforts to end it.

*Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. Her most recent book is Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror: A Primer

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Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF) is a “Think Tank Without Walls” connecting the research and action of more than 600 scholars, advocates, and activists seeking to make the United States a more responsible global partner. It is a project of the Institute for Policy Studies.

One thought on “Russia Is Withdrawing From Syria: The US Should Follow Suit – OpEd

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    March 16, 2016 at 9:11 pm
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    Bennis is an intelligent person, but I think the point she is missing is that Russian and US withdrawal from Syria, highly desirable as that is, will not change the minds or the behavior of the other players: Saudi Arabia, the Sunni Gulf monarchies, Turkey, and especially of Israel. I myself think that Israel had the most to gain from al-Assad’s downfall and the fragmentation of Syria and that it was likely neo-Con (entirely pro-Israel) policy that led the US into this strange position that “Assad must go.” All the US wars in the area have been based upon getting rid of some “dictator” usually a dictator that the US installed in the first place. Has no one noticed that getting rid of Osama bin-Laden, Saddam Hussein, and M. Khaddafy has made the situation worse? No one has explained to me why the departure of al-Assad is so necessary except that Israel and the other US flunkeys want it so badly. (My bet is that the Syrians opposed to al-Assad have been paid by the CIA to get this whole mess started, just as the US did in Kiev on 2/22/2014.)
    All the US meddling in the Middle East has been an outgrowth of the neo-Con Wolfowitz Doctrine, that now would be a dandy time to get Russian influence out of the Persian Gulf, where it has been since the USSR had client states there during the Cold War. Wolfie, if you remember, assured Americans that invading Iraq would be a cakewalk and that Iraqis would meet our troops with flowers. Also that it wouldn’t cost us much of anything, but yesterday’s lies and assurances are not remembered, are they? Same story on Afghanistan where this is our 13th year, much blood shed, and the Taliban is still the same problem to the US puppet in Kabul that it was when Pres. Bush insisted on going in. Ditto Libya. In fact, under Khaddafy, Libya was doing well; now it’s a disaster area with unrest spreading into Africa. And Russia still has clients in the Gulf.
    As for democracy,any person with a functioning brain, knows it is dead in the US. The entire system is owned lock, stock and barrel by the M/I Complex and the corporations.The Big Lie is that the Middle East will be democratic or that it will be better off if its tribal people begin to act like impoverished American workers, who are, in the next election, probably going to vote for Trump. It’s also a lie that Syria will hold sweet elections and put a “democratic” system into place if only the world can be rid of al-Assad. As for Iran, after all the years it suffered under the US puppet, the Shah, it is not likely to do US bidding in Syria or Iraq.
    Neither will Turkey, which will do anything to prevent the forming of an independent Kurdistan. Ms. Bennis’ views will simply not change any of these realities on the ground.

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