Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Putin’s Syria pivot

The abrupt end of Russian military operations in Syria has confounded many. But Putin’s objectives were always limited, writes Fadi Elhusseini

Al-Ahram Weekly

Since Russia officially declared its limited withdrawal from Syria, following the forceful presence of its military, much speculation spread across media platforms worldwide. Observers had seen Russia’s decision to enter Syria as part of a long-term strategy.

The abrupt announcement of Russian President Vladimir Putin that he was withdrawing most Russian forces from Syria put friends and foes alike in a state of bewilderment. Putin ordered a pull out of “the main part” of his troops in Syria, and the exact words he said to his defence minister, Sergey Shoygu, were: “The task presented to the Defence Ministry and the armed forces has been completely fulfilled.”

Examining the avowed goal for Russia’s operation in Syria six months ago is a stepping-stone in analysing what “task” Putin was talking about. Fighting and destroying the Islamic State (IS) group after the US-led campaign proved to be an “abject failure” was the primary stated goal; taking a pre-emptive step to abort any efforts to export those radicals back to Russia was the secondary goal.

Nonetheless, neither IS nor Al-Nusra Front was defeated and Moscow has no solid evidence that these terrorist groups lost the ability to send their radicals back to Russia.

Accordingly, Putin’s recent remarks refute the originally declared goal. This conclusion takes us to the other expected birds that Russia was aiming to kill with one stone.

Among the various goals Russia was hoping to achieve from its intervention were bolstering Russia’s military and, hence, its strategic presence in the region, preventing the fall of President Bashar Al-Assad and balancing military operations on the ground, dictating its political will on any future regime, neutralising mounting Iranian leverage in Syria, and weakening Al-Assad’s rivals. Apparently, Moscow was able to largely realise most of the aforementioned goals over the past six months.


STRATEGIC PRESENCE IN THE REGION: Russia proved to be a key player and a significant element in the Middle East equation, and the Syrian issue in particular. Militarily, while much of the equipment and manpower were being shipped out, Moscow emphasised that the Russian airbase at Hemeimeem and a naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartus would continue to operate.

Russia also indicated that the advanced S-400 air defence system, three Sukhoi Su-34 combat aircraft and a Tu-154 transport plane would stay in Syria. Experts expect that air force and naval assets will also be left behind. After all, Moscow was able to reinforce the strategically important military base in Tartus and found a new one. Thus, Russia was able to not only secure a solid footprint in the Middle East and overcome the international isolation brought about as a result of its intervention in Ukraine, but also to extend its political sway.


THE POLITICAL SOLUTION IN SYRIA: Russia’s intervention turned the tide of war and tipped the balance of combat operations back towards Al-Assad. The Western-backed “moderate” opposition was weakened and Al-Assad’s forces began to regain lands that they lost before Russia’s intervention. Consequently, Russia asserted itself as the pioneer of a new political process.

Brokered by Russia and the US, a ceasefire with Al-Assad still in power was achieved, and diplomatic efforts stepped up to secure peace deal negotiations. One must concede that Russia was able to manoeuvre itself into a position of real leverage and to include Al-Assad and his regime in any peace talks. Meanwhile, Iran’s role in these peace talks appears marginal when compared to Russia and this fulfils another unspoken goal by Moscow.


THE TIMING OF MOSCOW’S ANNOUNCEMENT: Some Arabic-language media channels contended that differences of opinion between Putin and Al-Assad led Putin to abruptly announce the pull-out plans. Differences, according to these channels, arose from Al-Assad’s talk on re-controlling the entire country, which could ruin any potential for a political solution.

Other Arab sources suggested that Putin’s decision came in the light of mounting “Sunni” dismay at Russia’s backing of Al-Assad, who is Alawi-Shia. Both arguments can be true, yet neither answers the crucial question “Why now?” or countenance that Putin had these calculations in mind before the start of his operation.

Perhaps the answer is a confluence of all various considerations, yet the key element is the peace talks. Russia had limited interest in remaining for the long term in Syria. According to Reuters, the Russian campaign has cost Russia nearly $800 million. With Russia’s economy under sanctions, Moscow is fully aware that it cannot afford to sustain long-term combat operations in Syria. Thus, the goal was to realise certain strategic objectives (limiting the capacities of Al-Assad’s rivals and providing him with a better position in negotiations) quickly and then begin redeployment.

From day one, Russia was looking for an exit strategy. With Al-Assad’s improved position on the ground, NATO intervention is no longer possible. In the launching of a serious political process, Moscow seized its moment. Russia’s ally now negotiates from a position of power. If the peace process produces tangible results, Russia alleviates itself from any future commitments. Hence, Russia’s goal was operational and not to delve into nation building.

Moreover, Moscow aims to avoid any conflict with Turkey (in case the latter plans to intervene in Syria) and focus more on the Ukrainian issue. The timing of Moscow’s announcement was hugely significant, especially when at a time when it needs more allies to back its position in Ukraine. Russia’s decision sent positive signals and was warmly welcomed by many countries, mainly Arab states. This will ultimately help Russia repair its relations with Sunni states that criticised Russian intervention in Syria.


CONCLUSION: So far, predictions that Russia will abandon Syria appear unrealistic. Moscow’s decision is purely tactical and time-sensitive. After securing a foothold and loyal ally, Putin used the first opportunity to begin withdrawing his troops, whose mission was deemed to be limited in scope and time. Nonetheless, the element that has been missing and appears to have played no role in Russian considerations, and in those of others, is IS and the fight against terrorism.

The writer is a Palestinian analyst.

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