Mission Accomplished: Russian Drawdown in Syria
The 2003 Mission Accomplished speech gets its name from a banner that read “Mission Accomplished” displayed on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln during a televised speech by United States President George W. Bush on 1st May 2003.
A controversy followed this speech because after it the insurgency in Iraq really began and, which as far as the US was concerned, lasted till 18th Sep 2011 when the final withdrawal from Iraq was done. The bulk of the US and Coalition casualties were sustained after the “mission accomplished” speech.
On 14th March 2016, it was the Russian President, Mr Putin making another “Mission Accomplished” speech. He made the surprise announcement that he was withdrawing the majority of Russian troops from Syria. In a meeting in the Kremlin with his Defence and Foreign ministers he stated that the six-month military intervention had largely achieved its objective.[i]
This news was personally conveyed to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, in a telephone call from Putin.[ii] Mr Putin stated that the pullout would start from the 15th of March. Mr Putin’s move was clearly meant to coincide with the start of Syrian peace talks in Geneva and will be seen as a sign of Russia’s maturity, commitment to peace and its belief that it has done enough to protect Basshar Assad’s regime from collapse.
In Feb 2015 Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine had launched one of their biggest offensives on the eve of Putin joining many other world leaders in negotiating a ceasefire in Syria. With that reputation the mistrust and scepticism over Putin’s announcement will generate obvious mistrust. As per the Russian Defense Ministry the first group of Russian planes left Russia’s Hmeymim air base near its naval base at Latakia in Syria on the morning of 15th March 2016.[iii]
The main Russian weight behind Assad was in the form of Air Power. The think-tank Stratfor, which reportedly mirrors the views of the CIA, had forecast the permanence of the stay of Russian airpower in Syria.[iv]
In view of these facts this is a surprise initiative considering that there are increasing reports that Turkey could be considering direct military intervention in Syria. Even some Arab countries, such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, have made statements about possibly sending troops into the country.[v]
The Russian aims may be to maintain its lead on its now-achieved goal of being seen as the lead player in the Syrian sweepstakes and also avoiding a stage where a country gets bogged down in war through its own rhetoric. This was what happened to USA in Vietnam and the USSR in Afghanistan. However, the hopes for peace will depend on how Russia manages to get a good deal for Assad. A number of factions are loath to speak to him in the peace talks, and the peace talks are meaningless without his active participation. US influence and prestige will necessarily have to be a major consideration in the peace process. It is because of this consideration that along with the announcement Putin and US President Barack Obama spoke on the phone on Monday the 15th March, with the Kremlin saying the two leaders “called for an intensification of the process for a political settlement” to the conflict.[vi]
15th March is also referred to with ominous foreboding as the Ides of March (Latin: Idus Martiae a day on the Roman calendar that corresponds to 15 March). It was marked by several religious observances and became notorious as the date of the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC.
A story goes that Caesar was warned by a soothsayer to ‘Beware the Ides’ of March but dismissed it as the bantering of a madman. He paid for his disbelief with his life. In the hope for peace in a fractured and tortured part of the globe one prays that “Mission Accomplished” speech of 15 March 2016 does not suffer from the curse of 15 March 44 BC.
The Russian surprise entry into the Syrian civil war had earned it cautious goodwill from many quarters and was a deft strategic move in international military diplomacy. The present announcement has all the portents of the premature statement made by Mr Bush in 2003.
[i] The Indian Express Mar 15, 2016. Putin Orders Troops out of Syria, says objectives ‘Largely Fulfilled’. Denis Dyomkin.
[ii] The Guardian. Vladimir Putin orders Russian forces to begin withdrawal from Syria. Patrick Wintour & Shawn Walker, Mar 15, 2016. Accessed 15 Mar 2016 from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/14/vladimir-putin-orders-withdrawal-russian-troops-syria
[iii] CNN. Mission accomplished? Russia to withdraw forces from Syria on Tuesday.. Hooly Yan, Mar 15, 2016. Accessed 15 Mar 2016 from http://edition.cnn.com/2016/03/15/world/russia-syria-withdrawal/index.html
[iv] Sputnik International. Shadow CIA Warns That Russian Airpower Will Stop any Invasion of Syria. Assessed 15 Mar 2016 from http://sputniknews.com/military/20160212/1034672401/stratfor-satellite-russian-syrian-air-defense.html
[vi] The Guardian, op cit.