Putin Commits To Pullout From Syria Amid Cease-Fire
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Russian President Vladimir Putin shocked the world last fall when he deployed warplanes to Syria. He shocked the world again last night when he announced he is largely withdrawing them. Putin said Russia's objectives have been achieved.
Let's talk now with Andrew Tabler. He's a Syria expert with The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and he joins us via Skype. Good morning.
ANDREW TABLER: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Let me start by asking what those Russian objectives are - military, political, both - that Putin says he's achieved.
TABLER: Well, that's a very good question. Of course, President Putin intervened through the Syrian government in Syria to fight terrorism and terrorist groups in the country, including ISIS, which they held out as a major enemy.
But their military operations in the country didn't just target ISIS. It mostly targeted the moderate rebels. And now, somehow, despite the fact that Assad only gained back 5 percent of Syrian territory, Putin's declaring victory and sending his jets at least partially home.
MONTAGNE: Well, could it be that he did indeed prop up President Assad at a time when he was not looking in such good shape?
TABLER: He did. And Russia played a weak hand in - at least in terms of Assad's domestic standing - very, very well. But the war in Syria is far from over. I don't think the Assad regime expected this. And it puts a lot of the military burden back on the Assad regime and its allies to keep their head above water.
MONTAGNE: You mean expected this mostly withdrawal.
TABLER: Correct. And it is just an unusual twist on the first day in Geneva when the U.N. was meeting with representatives of the Assad regime for that - for the Russians to suddenly pack up and at least partially take their military hardware home.
MONTAGNE: Well, let me ask to get another perspective here. President Obama predicted the Russian deployment to Syria would lead to a, quote, "quagmire." That hasn't quite happened.
TABLER: No, it hasn't. Russia's not necessarily stuck in Syria. But I think this decision indicates that the - that in Moscow there is considerable concern about the regime's lack of manpower and that the regime will not make concessions - political concessions - that can rebuild the country without facing the hard facts in the battlefield. And I think President Putin has just delivered those hard facts back to President Assad much more than he anticipated.
MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly, Putin did say part of the reason for the withdrawal was that there's a cease-fire in place and peace talks have begun in Geneva. What then do you see - where do you see this going?
TABLER: Well, it's a good question. It's only a cessation of hostility, so the war, including Russian airstrikes, continue. That's the strange part. Also ISIS still controls about 50 percent of Syrian territory.
It's an unusual twist. We'll have to wait and see what happens in the coming days and what the Russian "withdrawal," quote, from Syria really means.
MONTAGNE: Well, we do have just about 30 more seconds. What does this mean to Assad?
TABLER: For Assad, this was, I think, very unexpected. It is going to have to soften up, I would think, their position. They've been projecting over the last few days before the talks that they were unwilling to talk about a transition or the issue of the presidency. And of course I think now without Russian support they're going to have to talk about that. And they don't want to talk about anybody else but President Assad as president of the Syrian Arab Republic.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.
TABLER: My pleasure.
MONTAGNE: Andrew Tabler is the Martin J. Gross Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
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