Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1288, (24 - 30 March 2016)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1288, (24 - 30 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Russia’s withdrawal from Syria

As with his move to militarily intervene in Syria last September, Putin’s limited withdrawal is an example of savvy realpolitik that confirms Russia’s place as a key international player, writes Hassan Nafaa

Al-Ahram Weekly

Putin took the world as much by surprise with his decision to withdraw from Syria as he had with his decision to intervene militarily there. Just as he succeeded in justifying his decision to intervene, marketing that move globally and achieving significant results from it, Putin believes that he can similarly justify and globally market his latest decision.

He also appears convinced that the outcome will be no less significant and will add considerably to what he has already achieved. Putin’s decision to intervene militarily in Syria precipitated a flood of commentaries and analyses. His sudden decision to withdraw will probably precipitate an even greater flood.

Most Arab treatments of Russian policy on the Syrian crisis approach the subject from the perspective of this or that party in the crisis. They therefore contain heavy doses of ideological bias and fail to depict a full and accurate portrait of Russian policy and its various dimensions. We will try to avoid that pitfall here.

Federal Russia is not the former Soviet Union and ideological considerations based on Marxist analytics no longer carry weight in Moscow’s foreign policy calculations. While we can take this for granted, it is difficult to understand this policy without considering the Russian experience in Afghanistan, on the one hand, and NATO expansionism, on the other.

The international and regional powers that the Soviet Union regarded as hostile and opposed to the expansion of its influence in the world are pretty much the same powers that the Russian Federation regards similarly. Also, just as those powers previously used “mujahideen” groups to halt the expansion of Soviet influence and defeat it militarily in Afghanistan, they are using various means today to clip Russia’s wings and prevent it from regaining its stature as a superpower.

In fact, we can say that they have made considerable progress toward this end through attempts to blockade it regionally, incorporating neighbouring states into NATO and deploying ballistic missile systems in them. After Putin succeeded in restructuring the Russian political system on new, stable and sustainable foundations, he clearly pledged himself to defy these NATO policies.

Putin’s decision to intervene militarily in the Syrian crisis must be seen as an integral part of the Russian foreign policy drive to breach the NATO blockade, and as an extension of the same active interventionist policy that Moscow put into effect in the Georgia and Ukraine crises, which also enabled Putin to score several points.

I believe that Putin’s decision to intervene militarily in the Syrian crisis last September sought to establish, above all, that the Russian Federation has shed the Soviet defeat complex and to deliver a message to the West that it is time to treat Russia with respect and to take its interests into account.

Some Western analyses have suggested that Putin’s decision was an impetuous move that presented the West with a new opportunity to ensnare Russia in a trap more dangerous than the one encountered in Afghanistan. I found such thinking surprising, as anyone who studies Putin’s decision closely will find that it was based on several crucial considerations.

First, the Obama administration, as aware as it may be that wars are not won by aerial strikes alone, would never intervene directly on the ground in Syria, regardless of developments in the Syrian war theatre. Second, the aims of the various forces fighting the Bashar Al-Assad regime were sufficiently at odds with each other to convince the US that it was too dangerous to furnish them with the qualitative military support that could turn the military battle in their favour.

Third, the Islamic State (IS) group’s victories in Iraq and Syria, combined with the terrorist operations it perpetrated in Europe, especially in Paris, elevated it to the foremost challenge to the West. Such is the danger of IS that it overshadows that of the Syrian regime, which is allied to both Russia and Iran. Accordingly, the West felt compelled to reorder its priorities and, at the outset of the interim phase, to relinquish its demand that Al-Assad had to go.

At the same time, Putin was fully convinced that, as the situation stood, any government that came to power after Al-Assad would not be friendly to Russia or Russian interests. Moreover, it would most likely be led by terrorist groups that posed a direct threat to Russia, given the numbers of foreign jihadists in Syria that hail from the Caucasus.

Accordingly, Putin realised that military intervention in Syria could yield great strategic benefits, but on the condition that he managed to neutralise the US and its regional allies so as to ensure that Russian intervention would not ignite a regional or global crisis that could spiral out of control. Ultimately, he succeeded in this.

In fact, it is worth noting here that Putin was extremely careful to restrict his military intervention to aerial and missile strikes and to avoid any possible contact in Syrian airspace with the forces of the US or its allies. He succeeded in this as well. True, the Turkish downing of the Russian military jet triggered fears of an escalation of tensions with Turkey, a NATO member.

Interestingly, however, NATO moved to calm the situation, particularly after Russia demonstrated that it held many crucial cards, not the least being the Kurdish card, which it could use to deter Ankara from its escalatory approach.

All the abovementioned factors combined enabled Russia to reap numerous rewards, internationally, regionally and inside Syria. Internationally, Russia has emerged as a major player able to intervene in international crises with an efficacy that the US lacks. In the process, it has ensured that the Syrian crisis will not be remedied without Russia in the picture, or at Russia’s expense.

Regionally, Russian intervention succeeded in strengthening the position of its regional allies, including Iran. At the same item, it avoided causing considerable damage to its relationship with regional powers allied with the US. In fact, it may have succeeded in enhancing Russian prestige among these powers after having demonstrated that it is the party most able to influence the theatre of events.

In Syria, itself, Russian intervention enabled the Syrian regime to regain its self-confidence and to redeploy its forces in a manner that would help it improve its strategic position in the field which, in turn, would encourage it to enter negotiations on a better footing. But perhaps more important than all the foregoing is that it was Russian military intervention that generated the conditions conducive to the realisation of a truce and resumption of negotiations under an actual cessation of hostilities.

Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, this was the first time a development of this sort even came within reach, and it could not have happened without Russia’s intervention. Still, Putin constantly bore in mind two major apprehensions that help explain his sudden decision to order a partial withdrawal of Russian forces.

The first was his fear that the Syrian crisis would drag on without solution for many years to come, wreaking considerable economic attrition at a time when the Russian economy was suffering due to the sharp decline in oil and gas prices. The second was his concern that certain hostile regional and international powers might use the Russian military intervention as a pretext to send in more advanced weaponry to the Syrian armed opposition in order to shift the balance of forces on the ground and lure Russia into another Afghan-like snare.

The partial withdrawal is highly significant in terms of timing and very intelligent in terms of goals and ramifications. First, the decision was taken at an ideal time as it came in the immediate wake of a truce that brought a cessation in hostilities, enabled relief convoys to reach besieged civilians, convinced the parties of the need to resume negotiations in Geneva and made it difficult for the Syrian regime to claim that it was being abandoned or sacrificed before the battle was settled.

The decision also sent an important message to all regional and international parties, telling them that Russia is serious in its desire to seek a genuine political solution to the Syrian crisis, but that it is also determined to safeguard its interests, defend its national security, and preserve a particular balance of power in the region and the world.

It has made it clear that these ends are more important to it than defending a particular individual or even an allied regime and that it, moreover, is in a position to independently control most of the threads involved in the management of the crisis.

Putin’s decision to withdraw militarily from Syria will enable Moscow to become the chief player in the negotiations in Geneva and it will enhance its ability not only to communicate with all local, regional and international stakeholders in the Syrian crisis but also to pressure them into reaching a settlement that will serve Russia’s interests in the region.

If, on the other hand, the negotiations fail to reach the type of settlement Russia desires, it will be able to cast blame on the intransigence of the other parties before taking a decision to resume its military intervention.

In such an event, it would be intervening from a stronger position and the intervention itself could be more intensive. It is important to bear in mind that it has only withdrawn partially and that it still maintains naval and air force bases in Tartus.


The writer is a professor of political science, Cairo University.

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