Russia looks out for its best interest. It intervened militarily in Syria on President Bashar al-Assad’s behalf and recently announced “mission accomplished.” Let’s hope Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s victorious moment goes over better than George W.’s premature celebration in Iraq aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln.

The end of the combat mission in Iraq in May 2003 will likely not be the same failure as the winding down of military action by Russia in Syria in March 2016. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Lavrov stated, “I believe that the task put before the defense ministry and Russian armed forces has, on the whole, been fulfilled. With the participation of the Russian military. . .the Syrian armed forces and patriotic Syrian forces have been able to achieve a fundamental turnaround in the fight against international terrorism and have taken the initiative in almost all respects.” And so, with ISIS seemingly on the run, in Syria anyway, Russia is declaring that the Assad regime will remain in power for now, and the terrorists will be kept out of Damascus.

The Russians are not leaving the region though. Far from it. The Russian military is still maintaining a naval base in Tartous, on the Mediterranean coast of Syria, and at Khmeimim airbase, southeast of the city of Latakia. So, with Russia withdrawing its main forces for now without really pulling out, the recent announcement in mid-March comes as a declaration that the real war on terrorism is finally going in the right direction.

Putin honed the Russian military’s mission with laser focus, taking out major ISIS supply routes and bombing major oil fields where ISIS was making money to continue fighting. Russia certainly has more of a willingness to inflict collateral damage than the U.S., so maybe that is why their air campaign has been ten times more effective in a few months than the American-led one that has gone on well over a year now.

Yet, with ISIS and al-Nusra being decimated in Syria now, there have been more than a few reports stating that the terrorists are blending into the hordes of refugees flooding Europe and other parts of the world. Recently, ISIS has been opening new fronts on their war against the world by expanding their footprint in Libya and Afghanistan. This is something that must be taken into account as we debate security and borders in the 21st century. Those who dismiss outright leaders who warn about refugees coming to one’s country from Syria or Iraq are ignoring the facts of the metastasizing migrant crisis.

Russia’s effectiveness in the Middle East should be seen as a lesson to America and other Western countries looking to change events on the ground. Like the first U.S. War in Iraq — have an obtainable objective and commit to it. Russia’s intervention began and ended in a fraction of the time that the U.S. has been “fighting” ISIS, as Tony Cartalucci points out in Global Research. While U.S. warplanes bombed from the sky and the CIA attempted to train up more “moderate” rebels to overthrow Assad, ISIS’ territory in the region actually expanded. When Russia came onto the scene, almost all of the gains the terrorists made during mid-2015 were rolled back, while supply lines coming in and out of NATO country, Turkey, were destroyed.

Yet, for all the gains Russia has helped the Syrian government make, Iraq remains a chaotic mess, without the help of American military might. The second largest city in Iraq, Mosul, remains under ISIS control. According to the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy, there are over 100,000 former Iraqi servicemen not linked to ISIS in Mosul versus around 7,000 active ISIS supporters. The push to take Mosul back from the extremists is underway and will require coordination from Iraqi military, Kurdish forces, and American military advisors. However, when the city falls out of terrorist control, there could be an even bigger mess on our hands. Groups like the Iraqi Internal Security Forces, Kurdish forces, Shia militias, and anti-ISIS Sunni militias could all vie for power over the city. Turkey and Iran will certainly be involved in this offensive and the ensuing power grab as well.

Moscow’s success in Syria solidifies its rising relevance on the world stage. Though not returning to threaten America the way the Soviet Union did, Russia is certainly asserting itself by cementing its legitimacy as an international player who must be at the table. Russia’s co-sponsorship of the International Syria Support Group, a coalition of 20 countries designed to facilitate a diplomatic solution, ensures that the future political solution to the Syrian conflict will come out in its favor. Moscow and Washington’s work together in this group has produced a cease-fire that, though not perfect, has reduced the violence in the country somewhat. However, the two powers remain at odds about whether Assad should play any role in the future of the country.

Putin’s decision to withdraw some of his troops from Syria will reinforce Assad’s view that his bet on Tehran and Hezbollah steering the dictator in the right direction was correct. This will make Putin more dependent on Tehran’s willingness to assist him in handling Assad in such a way as to reach a political solution. It will also make Tehran, not Moscow, the indispensable signatory to any political agreement in Syria. But, as Ronda Slim pointed out in Foreign Policy last month, Russia’s pullout proves that they are banking on Iran being able to rein Assad in and force him to negotiating table. Iranian motives seem to be to keep a Shia-friendly regime in power, regardless of whether that is Assad or not. The cease-fire seems to be working well as negotiations limp forward, but it is not a lasting solution to the myriad of problems affecting Syria. 

As Washington, Moscow, Tehran, and Ankara dictate the future of the country of Syria, the inhabitants are being lost in the shuffle. Syrians must play a greater role in the political transition, as David Ignatius pointed out in the Washington Post. Reporting on a forum of Syrian experts, there was a consensus of sorts reached on what needed to happen in addition to the added Syrian involvement.

A role for the Kurds in Syria must be found, but it must not threaten the interests of Turkey. The Kurds are America’s most reliable ally in the region and can be continuously counted upon to hold and take ground in northern Iraq and Syria. Turkish President Erdogan has perpetuated war on these “rebels” he sees threatening his power, as he continued intense bombings of Kurds in northern Iraq recently. Syrian Sunni fighters must be more involved in the fight against ISIS and al-Nusra, rather than relying on an ineffective U.S.-led air campaign. And of course, humanitarian aid and mediation remains essential to the refugees and the future of the country. With the cease-fire holding for at least a few good weeks in March, there are signs that the conflict may be coming to an end at some point in the near future, God willing.

Only in the past week has the cease-fire looked under threat. Rebels and other extremists launched an assault against Assad’s forces in the north, taking back some villages from the regime, as The Financial Times reported on April 3rd. The opposition forces fighting Assad’s army have regained some momentum following Russia’s retreat.  The decision to pull back its operations in the area were likely sparked by the push just last week by the Syrian army to retake the ancient city of Palmyra with the help of Russian airstrikes.

Rebel groups justify their attacks in the southern Aleppo province because Syrian government forces have attacked the northwest area near Damascus. Regime air strikes also killed over 30 civilians in that same region last week. So, the shaky truce that has been in effect for most of March seems to be coming to an end as this neverending conflict continues to unravel out of control.

“The Russian withdrawal from Syria was a signal to Bashar Assad to find a political solution to the crisis. After Palmyra was liberated Russia reaffirmed its commitment to the fight against terrorism,” an article from the French newspaper Le Monde stated. If Washington and Moscow can learn to coordinate together to maintain the territorial integrity of Syria, instead of forcing Assad out of power, then we can see success in finally bringing this conflict to a much-needed end.

On April 3rd, Syrian government forces took back the strategic city of al-Qaryatayn in the Homs province. Heavy fighting continues southeast of the city of Aleppo, as previously mentioned. And over 1,500 Iraqi prisoners were freed from an ISIS-run prison in Hit in the east of Ramadi, by the Iraqi army. This update of the latest fighting in the never-ending Syria-Iraq battlefield proves that this fight will be a long one and will require a commitment from all sides involved.

Washington, Moscow, and other outside powers can only accomplish so much. Local actors in the region need to take more responsibility for their future by taking back their religion from the extremists who have hijacked it. Order must be restored to Iraq and Syria as soon as possible if they are to remain sovereign countries at all. 

About The Author

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Freelance writer and researcher in Seattle, WA area. Work covers current political, economic, and national security related events. Objective angle strived for, but biases show on occasion. Emphasis on the individual over the state, freedom to make one's own decisions over forcing behavior by the barrel of a gun, and rule of law over crony capitalism/politics as usual. 2016 presidential election and current events in historical context are topics delved into at length.