Russia's Syria Pullback Putin's Fine Art of Quitting

Global Centre Stage

The chief lesson the Russians learnt from the US failures in the Middle East was to consider a military victory as only a beginning of a negotiated political settlement, rather than an end in itself. This was emphasised by President Putin’s early assumption that a political process would have to follow a military campaign.

When on September 30, 2015, President Putin unexpectedly announced deployment of Russian air force in Syria, the consensus was that this would prove to be a costly mistake.

Critics argued that the air strikes alone would not make any tangible difference to the facts on the ground. The seemingly endless US-led air campaign against Islamic State (ISIS) was often cited as proof. The official US position was, reiterated only recently by President Obama, who stated that Russia has embroiled itself in a ‘quagmire’ and criticised the Russian leader for ‘acting out of a position of weakness to defend a crumbling, authoritarian ally’.

No doubt, the American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan weighed heavily on Obama’s mind while making this assessment. Yet, as if to prove his critics wrong, Putin abruptly announced on March 14, 2016 his decision to withdraw the main military force from Syria, claiming to have achieved his main objectives there.

Objectives

From the start, the Kremlin had a minimal and a maximum set of aims. Minimal objectives were to stabilise the Assad regime, which was losing badly at the time. In parallel, Kremlin’s focus was to be recognised as a pivotal player in the Middle East region. By playing a central role in a strategic region far away from its borders, Russia thought to reinforce its claims to be a global power equivalent to the US.

Although combating terrorism, specifically the Islamic State (ISIS), was the ostensible justification for the Russian intervention, however, it seems that Moscow has always viewed this as a long-term by-product of maintaining the Syrian regime in power. Instead, it shed a new light on Kremlin that felt that the Assad regime was the only force currently capable of effectively containing Islamic extremist forces in Syria.

Putin’s maximum objective was, however, to transform its relations with the West that had been destroyed by the Ukraine crisis. The Kremlin hoped that a common danger from such an abhorrent foe as the Islamic State would prompt the West to transcend disagreements over Ukraine, and form a new anti-IS alliance. This was the subject of President Putin’s UN speech made on the eve of the official announcement, in which he even drew a parallel with the anti-Nazi coalition during World War II that brought together ideologically different countries to defeat the common threat.

Results

The chief lesson the Russians learnt from the US failures in the Middle East was to consider a military victory as only a beginning of a negotiated political settlement, rather than an end in itself. This was emphasised by President Putin’s early assumption that a political process would have to follow a military campaign.

The assumption that their airpower alone would not be sufficient to change the war on the ground proved right. Therefore, Russia closely coordinated its air campaign with the Syrian Army, along with its Iranian allies and Hezbollah, who were, in effect, its troops on the ground.

This was considerably helped by the decade-long links between the Soviet/Russian and Syrian militaries, with up to 10,000 Syrian officers trained at Russian military academies even before 2011. Although, the initial military success proved slow, the Russians focused on the long-term objective of disrupting supply routes, storage depots and other rebel infrastructure.

The several months of intense bombing bore results. Even the weakened and undermanned Syrian army was able to take advantage and launch a series of successful offensives, liberating the Kweiris Airbase under the ISIS rule for two years, and cutting Aleppo rebels from their direct supply in Turkey. Similar developments took place with great successes around Homs, in the South towards Darrea (where the anti-Assad rebellion began in the year 2011) and in Latakia.

Russian intervention to date has stabilised the Syrian regime militarily and entrenched its position over the core populated areas in western Syria. Its intervention there also dispelled any illusions among the Opposition groups or the interested foreign powers that the Assad regime could be removed by military means.

At the same time, a diplomatic process was re-started aimed at splitting the Opposition into two large camps, those ready to be on the negotiation table, and those like IS and al-Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria) who were not. A lot of preliminary negotiation with the US was devoted to drawing such list of Opposition groups and their location. When the cessation of hostilities was finally announced, both Russians and Americans had a clear idea of the location and the groups covered by the ceasefire, which partly explains its relative success so far.

The final piece of the jigsaw was for Putin to decide how to deal with Bashar al-Assad. Even as the Russian and American diplomats negotiated the ‘cessation of hostilities’ deal, President Assad went off message by stating in an interview his intention to re-conquer the whole of Syria. This prompted a polite rebuke from Russian diplomats. The announcement that Russia was pulling out its main forces from Syria will help to drive home Kremlin’s point that Assad did not have a blank cheque from the Russians, and will have to take peace talks seriously.

Broader Perspective

By formally quitting during a ceasefire he himself masterminded - and on the back of significant military gains - Putin can leave with a head held high. Having proven his critics wrong, and demonstrated the capability of its military and new weapons (itself a splendid advert to the buyers of Russian arms), Moscow can now concentrate on the diplomatic aspect of the peace process, something at which Moscow usually excels.

At the same time, Moscow has made clear that the country is keeping its old naval facility in Tartus and the new air base at Khmeimim, which would allow it a quick redeployment, if necessary. The Russians are also leaving the Syrian army with new weapons (including anti-aircraft missiles and new battle tanks such as the formidable T90s) as well as numerous military advisors.

Russia’s intervention in Syria has helped it with its broader goal of re-affirming its vision of the international system as primarily a framework for solving disputes between countries with different values and ideologies, or pluralist view of international relations, rather than promotion of common de facto Western values, or solidarist approach favoured by the West. From Moscow’s point of view, Western interventionism in the Middle East was a destabilising factor, based on misguided projection of Western values as global values around the world.

Instead, Russia sought to preserve the state, any state irrespective of internal political arrangements, as the principal sovereign unit in world affairs. This is seen in Moscow as particularly important in the Middle East, where regime change often brings state collapse, as it did in Libya or Iraq.

Cost of Syrian Intervention

Russia has not won much love for its involvement in Syria; instead it has been accused of all kinds of sins, from deliberately manufacturing the refugee crisis, to engineering the rise of anti-migration movements in the EU. Russia’s intense campaign led to repeated accusations of non-combatant deaths and destruction of vital civilian infrastructure. It remains, therefore, a power mistrusted and resented in the West, while the fallout with Turkey over its shooting down of the Russian bomber puts a dark cloud over any assessment of Russia’s losses and gains in the Syrian adventure.

Nevertheless, Russia has emerged from the Syrian adventure so far in a stronger role as a pivotal power in the Middle East. It has put to rest the notion of ‘diplomatically isolating Russia’, popular in Washington in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. Moreover, by forcing the West to cooperate with it in Syria on its own terms, Kremlin is again shaping the international system in a pluralist mould.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.

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