Two major projections have appeared in the international media regarding Russia’s surprise ‘exit’ from Syria. One calls it Russia’s ‘mission-accomplished’ moment in Syria that proves it as a global ‘peace-maker.’ The other sees in it ‘ulterior’ motives that Russia has cleverly managed to disguise as ‘withdrawal.’
Significant though it looks, Russia’s partial military withdrawal has certainly put its competitors from the West in an awkward position with regard to fighting Islamic State (IS) and resolving the Syrian crisis. While Russia would continue to occasionally launch strikes, it has moved itself away from the limelight by announcing the withdrawal, leaving ‘the West’ to deal with the mess they and their Arab allies have created in their regional geo-political games.
Therefore, it is still the West that would be fighting IS and other terrorist outfits in Syria. Russia was taking a cue from its larger strategic objectives, never fighting the U.S-led ‘war on terror.’ It targeted IS and other networks in its attempt to stabilize the Syria regime.
Had it been fighting the ‘war on terror’, it would have been perfectly justified in maintaining its fighting force in Syria. Nor would Russian intervention have provoked Arab countries’ opposition. However, neither was Russia fighting this war, nor does it aim to do so in future.
Seen from this angle, Putin’s surprise withdrawal order seems to be a tactical move to create advantage for Russia on the negotiating table. Ironically, Russia has given the West and their regional Arab allies what they have been asking for since Russia’s direct entry in the conflict last year: Russian military exit from Syria lest it should destroy the ‘moderate opposition forces.’
While Russia has certainly fulfilled ‘the wish’, the timing of this withdrawal, or rather the announcement of it, has become more of a problem for its rival states than a solution or easing down of pressure. Although the pull-out does look like a potential step towards resolution of the conflict, given that it has occurred at a time when cease-fire exists on the ground and IS are reported to have lost almost 25% of their territory since Russian intervention, the West and their gulf allies do not necessarily see in it a resolution that they have been seeking since the beginning of the conflict.
Assad’s government is stable and its army is re-taking (with Russian support) the territories it had previously lost to IS and other ‘opposition groups.’ With talks going on in Geneva and pressure coming from Russia in terms of reaching a negotiated end of the crisis, the question of a ‘minus-Assad’ Syria is set to lose its significance as the final solution of the crisis. And while the U.S. seems to have softened its previous position vis-à-vis Assad, Saudi Arabia and Turkey still seem unmoved as the so-called Plan B continues to ring bells.
Were the cease-fire to end and hostilities to break out between Assad and the (Western-supported) opposition groups, this would certainly add to the problem. As far as the current Russian position is concerned, this scenario would put it under no pressure or be used to project it as the truce-breaker as it has already ‘withdrawn’ and is doing everything it can to reach a political settlement to end the crisis.
A collapse of peace talks could very well lead to large-scale fighting among different groups, some of which are recently reported to have been regrouping to build large coalitions, especially Jabhat al-Nusra and other more moderate Sunni factions in Idlib and Hama provinces against their common enemy — the Assad government.
The ground is, as such, still fertile for a fresh period of war in Syria and there are many wildcard groups on the ground vying against each other. Could such a scenario be used to pull Russia back to the battlefield?
If we were to believe certain reports appearing in the international media highlighting Russia’s meagre financial resources as the reason for its withdrawal from Syria, Russia might not return. However, neither has Russia effected an ‘absolute exit’ from Syria nor has it altogether halted its supporting air operations.
The Russian air force is still conducting airstrikes against IS in Palmyra to support the Syrian military offensive. Russian warplanes are going to continue flying sorties and bombing IS. Russia is also preserving its presence at the coastal bases that they have occupied for 30 years.
So far, Russia has only pulled out some warplanes and ground forces. The advanced AA defense systems, the S-300s and S-400s will remain in Syria along with modern T-90 main battle tanks. That those systems remain in place means Russia has left the door open for its military’s return.
Russia’s ‘grand gesture’ is made with the sure knowledge that whatever forces it leaves behind in Syria will be more than adequate to support Syrian troops. The question of the war becoming too costly for Russia, therefore, does not make sense. Nor does the possibility of Russia’s return indicate a truly ‘mission accomplished’ moment for it.
The war is yet not over and Russia’s military presence only re-affirms the internal fragility of the progress so far reached through negotiations.
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org