After nearly five months of brutal fighting and two weeks of a scrappy ceasefire, Russian President Vladimir Putin, on March 13, suddenly announced that “the main part” of Russia’s forces currently in Syria will pull out from the country, claiming that their objectives had largely been met and it was time to focus on peace talks. Assuming that this is not some public relations stunt, the move represents Putin’s shrewdness as well as pragmatism. Like all Vladimir Putin’s surprise announcements, this decision, too, was intended for many audiences but above all for his ally, Bashar al-Assad. With the precise nature of Russia’s military pullback in Syria still unclear, Mr Putin has managed to catch almost everyone off guard, including the US.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to withdraw a major part of Russia’s military presence from Syria comes amid the resumption of the Syrian peace talks in Geneva and the third week of the Syrian ceasefire.
While Russia’s move caught many by surprise, it actually is quite logical. Moreover, the move is likely to have a positive impact on the pace of the Syria peace talks and the Syrian political process in general, as well as Russia’s cooperation with regional and Western partners on fighting the terrorist threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS).
The first media reports and analyses met Russia’s decision to withdraw part of its military forces from Syria with a certain degree of scepticism and even suspicion. There are arguments that Putin cannot be trusted and this is just a bold move to mislead the West and the Syrian opposition, that Russia failed to reach its goals in Syria and this is why such a decision was made. There is even speculation that Putin’s move is aimed at a domestic audience.
All these views and claims have a certain amount of merit but it is helpful to look at Putin’s decision considering the details of the withdrawal and the context in which it was made.
It also should not be ignored that what the Kremlin views as an achievement and “mission accomplished” might be viewed differently by other actors because everyone has different priorities and goals in Syria.
What did Russia achieve in Syria?
So what have been the results of the Russian military involvement in Syria so far and why did Putin decide to undertake such a move now?
Firstly, the Russian air campaign stabilized the Assad regime and reinforced the Syrian Arab Army, which allowed it to start making more and more territorial gains. Although it cannot be said that Assad is on the brink of a decisive victory, it can be affirmatively stated that his positions now are stabilized and reinforced, which gives him a stronger hand in talks with the opposition.
One could fairly argue that Russia’s move puts Assad in a weaker position, signalling that he will be more cooperative during the talks in Geneva. However, Russia leaves its military infrastructure in place, in particular the S-400 air defence system, which de facto provides a shield for Assad and his army.
Secondly, Russia showcased its cutting-edge military weapons and successfully tested them in combat for the first time. It allows Russia to uncover the shortfalls and glitches of the weapons at relatively low cost and to improve them for the future. The operation also greatly helped Russia to advertise its new weapons, such as advanced bombers and fighter jets Su-34 and Su-35, Kalibr cruise missiles, S-400 air defence system and Pantsir-S1 air defence artillery system, for prospective customers.
Russia’s Defence Ministry regularly released reports with video and photo footage of the airstrikes in Syria, together with regular press briefings and press tours for foreign journalists to the Russian airbase Hmeymim in Latakia and Russia’s warships off the Syria coast. On top of that, Russia clearly demonstrated its ability to quickly and effectively project power to the region outside of its borders at relatively low cost.
Thirdly, according to the Russian Ministry of Defence, the terrorists’ infrastructure in Syria was significantly degraded and their supply routes were destroyed. With more than 9,000 combat sorties in five months and destruction of more than 200 ISIS oil infrastructure units and more than 2,000 means of oil transportation, the Russian air campaign attracted international attention to the issue of Turkey’s illegal oil trade, which produced tensions between Turkey and its Western allies.
The fourth achievement is that Moscow managed to set up the basis for military coordination with Washington, Paris and regional states like Jordan and Israel. The latter two were among the first who agreed to coordinate with Russia after the Kremlin’s decision to enter Syria on September 30, 2015. Such coordination underlines Russia’s importance in the Syrian crisis settlement and for regional dynamics in general. It puts Moscow on the same level as other players in the fight against terrorists in Syria.
Finally, Russia together with the US produced a ceasefire agreement that went into effect on February 27, 2016 and led to a significant decrease in hostilities and violence across the country, which contributed to the resumption of the Syria peace talks in Geneva. Therefore, Russia again proved itself to be a major diplomatic power in the settlement of the Syria crisis.
Where did Russia underperform?
On the other hand, it would be too hasty to conclude that Russia achieved its declared goal of defeating ISIS in Syria. Rather, Russia degraded the capabilities of Islamic State and found strategic agreement, at least to a certain degree, with the US approach of containment rather than complete destruction of ISIS. However, Moscow certainly achieved another goal – it propped up Assad and his government.
The Russian air campaign also has no defining military success to brag about. Aleppo and Idlib are still not under the Syrian government’s control, Palmyra and Raqqa are not yet recaptured from ISIS, the Syrian border with Turkey is still not sealed, and no top ISIS military commander was killed during the airstrikes. From the very beginning, Moscow and Damascus needed some high-profile success to demonstrate to the international community that Russia’s involvement was not merely to back Assad and his government.
However, Russia leaves part of its forces in Syria to continue monitoring the ceasefire and supporting the Syrian government’s fight against terrorists. A Russian deputy defence minister said on March 15 that remaining Russian jets in Syria would continue striking militants from ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, underlying that it is too early to speak about victory over terrorism.
This indicates that the Kremlin soberly understands the situation on the ground and is not going to completely give up bombing the terrorists.
What is the Kremlin’s rationale?
This leads to the next point: What is the real rationale behind the Kremlin’s move?
Not coincidently, Putin announced the withdrawal of military forces from Syria on the day when Syrian talks in Geneva resumed, thereby demonstrating his commitment to the peace process. This move also suggests that the Syrian opposition and its supporters should undertake a reciprocal move to push Syria talks to a new constructive level, much as Russia did.
Moscow’s decision to withdraw a major part of its air forces from Syria gives it the upper hand during the diplomatic talks. One of the major demands of the Syrian opposition and in particular of High Negotiation Committee (HNC) was Russia’s withdrawal from Syria. By doing so, Kremlin leaves fewer reasons for the Syrian opposition to sabotage talks and enhances its own position as a broker between the Syrian government and the opposition.
It is fair to say that Russia may well tie the pace of its military withdrawal from Syria to the progress of the Syria talks. It is a very convenient card to play, as the process of the withdrawal can be accelerated or slowed down at any moment depending on the Geneva talks progress. It also should be highlighted that Russia can quickly redeploy its forces back as the infrastructure is already in place and military staff is quite familiar with the procedures and geography of the region.
Therefore, Russia turned its military presence in Syria into quite useful leverage it can exercise over the Syrian opposition and its backers to accelerate the political process. Simultaneously, it demonstrated its seriousness about the peace process and the Syria ceasefire, albeit leaving necessary room for manoeuvre in case of emergency.