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Stratfor — Russian President Vladimir Putin announced March 14 that Russia had sufficiently achieved its goals in Syria since beginning airstrikes in September, and that it will gradually withdraw the bulk of its forces from the country, starting March 15.
According to Putin, the process could take as long as five months. However, Russia's air base in Latakia will continue to operate, as will its naval facility in Tartus.
Russia's involvement in Syria has been guided by a number of key priorities. The first is ensuring the stability of the allied Syrian government and by extension Russian interests in Syria. The second is demonstrating and testing its armed forces, which are undergoing a significant force modernization.
Arabinda Acharya (Foreign Affiars) — In a February 2016 interview with 60 Minutes, John Brennan, director of the CIA, mentioned that the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) has, in a number of instances, “used chemical munitions on the battlefield.”
This came a few days after James Clapper, director of the United States Intelligence Community, said to a congressional committee that ISIS “has also used toxic chemicals in Iraq and Syria, including the blister agent sulfur mustard.”
Specifically, ISIS used such munitions in an August 2015 attack on the Kurds in Kobani, although reliable measures of the extent of the damage and casualties are not available.
Fatima Bhojani (Foreign Affairs) — While in Iraqi Kurdistan in January of last year, a European investigator came across a field of holes into which improvised explosive devices (IEDs) had been placed. The dots went out in a line as far as the eye could see. “They had been placed this way so that anybody who crossed that field would strike an IED,” the researcher told me, asking that his name be withheld for safety reasons.
For the past 20 months, along with a colleague, he has been meticulously examining the supply chains of the more than 700 IED components that the Islamic State (ISIS) uses in Iraq and in the Syrian Kurdish region of Rojava.
Their findings were released in a report in late February, the latest addition to a catalog of documents on ISIS weapons published by Conflict Armament Research (CAR), a private arms-tracking organization mandated by the European Union.
Toba Hellerstein (Stratfor) — The quagmire that is contemporary Syria is as infinitely complex as it was when it emerged from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.
Its medley of cultures and ethnicities coexisted peaceably under the sultans, but the European powers that inherited the land after World War I were unfamiliar with — and uninterested in protecting — Syria's unique brand of pluralism. Decades of autocratic rule followed.
Today, the warring factions that populate the Syrian battlefield speak to the unraveling of Syria's once-cohesive society, but the lessons of the Ottoman Empire remain. Moving forward, those lessons may be the best hope for turning a failed state into a nation at once unified and diverse.
Turkey is changing both its military posture and its political policy toward Syria. For many years, as the Syrian civil war raged, Turkey's primary focus was on removing Bashar al Assad's government rather than battling the Islamic State. Ankara avoided direct participation in the fight against either al Assad or the Islamic State, limiting its role largely to supporting certain Syrian rebel factions.
One reason for this stance was what amounted to an unofficial truce with the Islamic State under which Ankara turned a blind eye to Islamic State activities in Turkey as long as the militants stayed quiet within its borders. Turkey also refused to host any substantial U.S.-led coalition airpower. The lack of access to Turkish airspace, combined with Ankara's hands-off policy toward the Islamic State, conflicted directly with the primary U.S. mission of degrading, if not destroying, the Islamic State as the perceived main threat in the region.