March 14, 2016

Russia to withdraw troops from Syria - a sham?

Russian Air Force Su-30 fighters at Humaymim Air Base, Syria

In a surprising turn of events, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russian forces will begin withdrawing from Syria on March 15, claiming that the troops have accomplished their mission. A translation of his exact words: "I think that the task that was assigned to the Ministry of Defense and the armed forces as a whole has achieved its goal, and so I order the defense minister to start tomorrow withdrawing the main part of our military factions from the Syrian Arab Republic."

The immediate question that comes to mind is just what was/is the goal of the Russian deployment? While the stated goal was to conduct military operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), most Middle East observers and analysts (me included) believe the actual mission of the Russian deployment was to prevent the defeat and overthrow of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad.

When the Russians made the decision to deploy its force package to northern Syria, the Syrian Army had just suffered a series of defeats at the hands of almost all of the factions seeking to remove the regime. Syrian regime forces had been almost completely pushed out of much of the Aleppo area and virtually all of Idlib province, and the main highway from the city of Hamah to what forces remained in Aleppo was under rebel control.

At one point, President al-Asad announced that his troops were consolidating their defenses around strategic areas - in other words, he was ceding control of parts of the country and pulling back his forces to make sure his regime was able to survive.

It was reminiscent of 2012. At that time, the primary antagonist to the Syrian regime was the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The FSA had essentially routed the Syrian Army and was on its way to Damascus. It was only through the massive intervention of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) fighters - including members of the very-capable Qods Force - and thousands of Hizballah fighters from neighboring Lebanon that the al-Asad regime was able to survive.

At that same time, the refusal of the West (European countries and the United States) to provide meaningful assistance to the FSA led to the introduction of an al-Qa'idah affiliated element into Syria from Iraq, creating what was initially called al-Qa'idah in Syria, and later the Victory Front - Jabhat al-Nusrah in Arabic. That organization merged with al-Qa'idah in Iraq to form ISIS - Jabhat al-Nusrah later split from the newly-formed group and remains in the fight today.

Fast forward to 2015. The Syrian Army, despite as many sorties as the Syrian Air Force could generate, was being pushed back, and it appeared that the regime as again faltering. The continued presence of Iranian, Hizballah and the recently deployed Iraqi Shi'a militias and even some Afghan fighters, was not enough to relieve the pressure on regime forces.

Enter the Russians, ostensibly to combat terrorism - ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusrah in particular. While they did conduct a few sorties and missile strikes against the two terrorist organizations, the vast majority of Russian air operations were targeted against the anti-regime rebel groups, many of whom are supported by the United States and its allies.

The Russians, through brute force - very little of their ordnance was of the precision-guided variety - were effective. Since they began dropping bombs and firing missiles on September 30, 2015, they have successfully altered the situation on the ground.

The Syrian Army, under the umbrella of massive Russian air support, has been able to retake virtually all of the territory they had lost to the rebels, push north to almost surround and cut off the city of Aleppo, consolidate their supply lines to the city, push rebel forces east out of the mountains overlooking the northern port city of Latakia - including the home of Bashar al-Asad's politically-powerful 'Alawite minority - and relieve pressure on Damascus from rebel groups in the eastern suburbs of the city.

Successful, yes, but have they actually guaranteed the survival of the Syrian regime? Maybe, maybe not, but the timing of the announcement is interesting. Syrian peace talks resumed in Geneva on the same day Putin made the announcement - is he telling Bashar al-Asad that it is time to reach a political agreement? One could make that case.

When the Russians intervened, in my role as a CNN military analyst, I stated that Putin's primary interest in Syria is not the regime of Bashar al-Asad. Rather, it is a regime or government that will allow the Russians continued access to the joint Russian-Syrian naval facility at Tartus, access to the port at Latakia, and possibly the Humaymim Air Base just south of Latakia. Humaymim is the base being used by Russian aircraft to conduct most of the operations in Syria.

Russian facilities in Syria

If there is a proposed political agreement that calls for a replacement government which would guarantee Russian access to those military facilities, it is doubtful that Putin would risk its failure by insisting that Bashar al-Asad remain in power. (See my earlier article on this, Russian intervention in Syria - what is the endgame?)

Are the Russians going to completely withdraw from Syria? No, they will maintain some level of force in the country for several reasons. In addition to maintaining a presence which guarantees access to the air base and naval facility, they need to ensure that they have input to the future of Syria. It may not be a future with Bashar al-Asad - despite the regime's "red line" that Bashar remain in power - but it will be a future acceptable to Vladimir Putin.

Oh, two parting thoughts.

First, in the title of this piece, I ask if this withdrawal is a sham. It is a play on words for my readers who understand Arabic. Al-Sham is the Arabic word for either the city of Damascus, the country of Syria or the region of the Levant, depending on context. The announcement took many of us by surprise - I am not sure if it is real or merely political theater.

Second, this is the Syrian Revolution Network's Facebook post on Putin's announcement:

The red reads: Putin orders the withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria beginning tomorrow, Tuesday.
The comment above the red: Now: The Russian bear announces the withdrawal of its forces from Syria, leaving the tail of the dog alone (as in "wag the dog").