Russia’s surprise announcement this week that it will withdraw most of its forces from Syria has major implications at the negotiating table as well as on the battlefield. Speculation is rife about the motives behind the decision, whose implementation has already begun and is due to be completed within days.
A key factor is likely to be Russian frustration at the diplomatic intransigence of its ally in Damascus, which is crippling a “peace process” that is co-sponsored by Moscow. Just days after the first round of talks in Vienna late last year, Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said: “We are not at all talking about what is called a transitional period. There is no alternative to the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad.”
Last month, Moscow rebuked Assad for his vow to retake all of Syria amid efforts by Russia and Western powers to secure the current “cessation of hostilities.” In addition, Damascus has entered the current talks in Geneva reiterating that Assad’s fate – the biggest, most persistent obstacle to a negotiated solution to the conflict – is a “red line” that it will not discuss.
As such, Moscow is likely signaling to an overconfident Syrian regime that its support is not unconditional, and that it will have to play ball by at least being willing to discuss a transition of power. In other words, enough is enough.
Abandoning a “red line” that it has upheld throughout the conflict would be a major climb-down for the regime, which could cause considerable unease among its domestic support base and its foreign allies, particularly Hezbollah and Iran. However, given that the regime owes its continued existence to Russia’s direct military intervention, it is a message that it cannot afford to ignore.
Another plausible reason for the partial Russian withdrawal is a reassessment of its achievable goals in Syria. Moscow may have been hoping at the outset of its intervention that it would have made greater battlefield progress by now but, despite some successes, the regime still only controls a minority of the country.
Russia may be leaving a residual force in Syria to hold defensible lines to ensure the regime’s survival – even if its authority remains limited – because the alternatives would be a long-term aerial campaign that after several months has not achieved the desired results, or a ground invasion that is not being considered, and would be highly costly and risky.
The strategy seems to be to keep the regime on life support until a negotiated solution is agreed and, failing that, to leave a rump client state over which Moscow can continue to exert influence and pursue its interests.
The maintenance of Russian military bases in the country enables President Vladimir Putin to send reinforcements should the situation on the ground necessitate it, such as if rebel groups threaten the capital or advance into regime heartlands in the west (he would not need further authorization from parliament).
As such, we are likely to see a mutual waiting game being played in the short term, whereby the regime and rebel groups assess the extent of Russia’s withdrawal, and Moscow sees how they react on the ground and at the negotiating table.
Al-Nusra Front has already announced an imminent offensive against the regime, but al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate was excluded from the truce agreement (and rejected it anyway), and so has no reason to play ball. A new offensive may also be an attempt to divert attention and limit the damage caused by reports and footage of the group trying to disrupt anti-regime protests by Syrians waving the revolutionary flag rather than that of al-Qaida.
Russia may claim it has largely achieved its objectives, but this is either face-saving propaganda, or an attempt to avoid a public show of discord with Damascus. It portrayed its intervention as a “war on terror,” particularly against the so-called Islamic State group (ISIS) and al-Nusra.
However, the vast majority of its airstrikes targeted other groups – including the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which Moscow itself said it did not consider a terrorist group – and both jihadist groups have still been able to carry out offensives.
Meanwhile, Russian airstrikes – which will continue despite the partial withdrawal – have so far killed some 2,000 civilians, and committed war crimes by deliberately targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure, frequently with internationally banned cluster munitions.
Russia’s real motivation was to come to Assad’s rescue, but the partial withdrawal comes after relatively modest territorial gains, and leaves behind a regime that is still vulnerable and suffering from the personnel shortages Assad acknowledged last summer.
The partial withdrawal, and Russian assurances to Israel that it will not harm its security, should signal to those who have been naively lumping Moscow in with the so-called “axis of resistance” that Russia does not share the ideological motivations that bind the Syrian regime, Iran and Hezbollah, and that it is involved in Syria for its own interests, not those of the Syrian people, the regime or the alliance it is part of.
They would do well to recall Putin saying in December 2012 that Russia’s position was “not to leave Assad’s regime in power at any price.” The regime should now realize that it is in danger of driving that price too high.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.