MOSCOW–As the Kremlin suddenly moved to exit from the Syrian conflict, the military action and the subsequent withdrawal were presented for the domestic audience as a major foreign policy achievement.
The Russian officials and media described the developments as “mission accomplished” because the country’s military involvement in Syria proved to be relatively short and painless. The sudden exit from Syria apparently allowed Moscow to avoid prolonged hostilities with rising Russian casualties.
The Russian government-backed Sputnik International news wire described the pull-out decision as a “strategic triumph for Russia,” and “a brilliant move taken at exactly the correct time.” The Russian military TV channel Zvezda described the military operation in Syria as “168 days that changed the world.”
Russia started withdrawing military equipment from Syria on March 15. Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial pul-lout of the Russian military from Syria on Monday, arguing his troops largely achieved their goals. The Kremlin insisted that the Syrian armed forces gained a fundamental turnaround in the fight against terrorist with the assistance the Russian military.
On March 15, Russian state-run TV channels showed troops loading equipment onto transport aircraft for return to Russia from the Hemeimeem air base in Syria. They also showed Russian warplanes leaving the base.
However, the Russian exit is expected to take some time to fully materialize. Retired Russian General Leonid Ivashov argued that the withdrawal from Syria would be phased and could take up to one year to be completed.
Viktor Ozerov, head of the defense and security committee of the Russian parliament’s upper house, noted that up to 1,000 Russian personnel were due to remain at Hemeimeem and Tartus naval base in Syria. The Russian military officials also indicated that the remaining warplanes were likely to continue airstrikes until the withdrawal is completed.
The surprise Russian move to start withdrawing from Syria coincided with UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva. Moscow’s decision to pull Russia’s air force out of Syria was understood to have a positive impact on Geneva negotiations.
Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the international affairs committee of the Russian parliament’s upper house, commented that the military operation in Syria proved a success because it paved the way for a ceasefire and peace talks in Geneva.
Ahead of Geneva negotiations, on February 22, Russia and the US agreed on a ceasefire in Syria from February 27. However, just three weeks after the ceasefire deal, Russia’s sudden exit caught almost everyone off guard.
The Russian media highlighted positive response from all sides of the global political specter. The Russian state-run news wire TASS commented that during phone talks with Putin, President Barack Obama “hailed Russia’s decision on military pull-out from Syria.”
The Russian government-backed Sputnik International news wire on Tuesday quoted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang as describing Russia’s decision to withdraw from Syria as a “positive step towards the peace process in the country.”
The Russian media noted that the EU and UN Security Council also viewed Russia’s decision to begin withdrawing from Syria as a positive move. Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif reportedly called Russia’s decision to start withdrawing troops from Syria as a positive sign.
Last year, the Russian airstrikes came as a major move to defy the Western policies in the Middle East. In September, the Russian airstrikes were presented in Moscow as pre-emptive moves. In its first military engagement outside the former Soviet Union since the war in Afghanistan, Russia launched airstrikes in Syria from September 30.
Last year, President Putin suggested to act preemptively so as to fight “terrorists” in Syria. He warned that if terrorists succeeded in Syria, they would then come to Russia. But Putin also insisted that the scale of the Russian military operations in Syria would remain limited, and he delivered on this pledge.
As the Russian officials and media described the country’s involvement in Syria as a “strategic triumph,” they tended to omit some adverse side-effects, notably the crisis in relations with Turkey. Subsequently, informal opinion polls indicated that some two thirds of Russians viewed the Syria mission as victory, but the remaining significant number of people thought otherwise. It remains to be seen who was right and whether the Russian mission in Syria was accomplished or not.
Sergei Blagov is a Moscow-based independent journalist and researcher. In the past three decades, he has been covering Asian affairs from Moscow, Russia, as well as Hanoi, Vietnam and Vientiane, Laos. He is the author of non-fiction books on Vietnam, and a contributor of a handbook for reporters.