Since Russia has been declared officially in the Middle East, and following the extended presence of its military in all forms in Syria, speculations splashed media platforms across the globe. Observers saw in Russia’s decision to enter Syria a long-term strategy, albeit the abrupt announcement of Russian President Vladimir Putin to withdraw most of the Russian forces from Syria put friends and foes alike in bewilderment.
Putin ordered a pull out of “the main part” of his troops in Syria and the exact words he uttered to his defense minister Sergey Shoigu were “The task presented to the defense ministry and the armed forces has been completely fulfilled.” Examining the avowed goal for Russia’s operation in Syria six months ago is a stepping stone in analyzing what “task” Putin is talking about. Fighting and destroying ISIS after the US-led campaign proved to be an “abject failure” was the primary goal and taking a pre-emptive move to abort any efforts to export those radicals back to Russia was the secondary goal. Nonetheless, neither ISIS nor al-Nusra were defeated and Moscow has no solid evidence that those terrorist groups lost ability to send their radicals back to Russia.
Accordingly, Putin’s recent remarks refute the declared goal in the first place. This conclusion takes us to the other expected birds Russia was aiming to kill with one stone- which is the intervention in Syria. Among the various goals Russia was aspiring from this intervention were bolstering Russia’s military- and hence strategic presence- in the region, preventing the fall of Assad and balancing the military operations on ground, dictating its political will on any future regime, neutralizing the mounting Iranian leverage on Syria and weakening Assad’s rivals. Apparently, throughout the past six months Moscow was able to relatively realize most of the aforementioned goals.
Strategic presence in the region
Russia proved to be a key player and a significant element in the Middle East equation and the Syrian issue in particular. Militarily, while much of the equipment and manpower were being loaded out, Moscow emphasized that the Russian airbase in Hemeimeem and a naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartus will continue to operate. ARussia indicated that the advanced S-400 air-defense system, three Sukhoi Su-34 combat aircraft and a Tu-154 transport plane, would stay in Syria, and experts expect that air force and naval assets also will be left behind. After all, Moscow was able to reinforce the strategically important military base in Tartus and founded a new one. Thus, Russia was able to not only secure a solid footprint in the Middle East and overcome the international isolation brought about as a result to its intervention in Ukraine, but also to extend its political sway.
The Political Solution in Syria
Russia’s intervention turned the tide of war and tipped the balance of the combat operation back towards Assad. The Western-backed “moderate” opposition was weakened and Assad forces began to regain lands that they lost before the Russian intervention. Consequently, Russia asserted itself as the pioneer of this new political process. Brokered by Russia and the US, a ceasefire with Assad still in power was forced and diplomatic efforts stepped up to secure peace deal negotiations. One must concede thus that Russia was able to maneuver itself into a position of real leverage and to include Assad and his regime in any peace talks. Meanwhile, Iran’s role in these peace talks appears marginal when compared to Russia and this fulfils another unspoken goal by Moscow.
The timing of Moscow’s announcement
Some Arabic media channels contended that differences of opinion between Putin and Assad led Putin to shortly announce the pullout plans. Differences, according to these channels, arouse from Assad’s talks to re-control the entire country that may ruin any potentials for a political solution. Some other Arabic sources suggested that Putin’s decision comes in light of the mounting ‘Sunni’ dismay from Russia’s plans in backing Assad, who is Alwai-Shiite. Both arguments can be true, yet they neither answer the crucial question “why now” nor assume that Putin had these calculations before the outset of his operation.
Perhaps the answer is a confluence of all various considerations, yet the key word is the peace talks. Russia had limited objectives in remaining long in Syria. According to Reuters, the Russian campaign has cost Russia nearly $800 Millions. With Russia’s economy under sanctions, Moscow is fully aware that it cannot afford to sustain a long-term combat operation in Syria. Thus, the goal was to realize the strategic objectives (defeating the capacity and capability of Assad’s rivals and providing him with a better position in the negotiations) in due time and then begin redeployment.
From day one, Russia was looking for an exit strategy. With Assad’s improved position on the ground, a NATO intervention option no longer possible and the launching of a serious political process, Moscow seized its moment. Russia’s ally has negotiates from a position of power and in case the peace process produces tangible results, Russia alleviates itself from any future commitments. Hence, Russia’s goal was operational and not to delve into a nation-building operation.
Moreover, Moscow aims to evade any conflagration with Turkey (in case the latter plans to intervene in Syria) and focus more on the Ukrainian issue. The timing of Moscow’s announcement was hugely significant especially when it is in need for more allies that can back its position in Ukraine. Russia’s decision sent positive signal and was warmly welcomed by many countries, mainly Arab State. This would ultimately help Russia to repair relations with the Sunni states who criticized the Russian intervention in Syria.
So far, imaging that Russia will abandon Syria is unrealistic and thus Moscow’s decision is purely tactical and timely. After securing a foothold and loyal ally, Putin used the first opportunity to begin withdrawing his troops whose mission was deemed to be limited in scope and time. Nevertheless, the only element that has been missing and playing no role in the Russian and others’ considerations is ISIS and the fight against terrorism.