Earlier today, we took a closer look at Vladimir Putin’s seemingly abrupt decision to partially withdraw the Russian military from Syria.
The prevailing view seems to be that Moscow somehow intended to put more pressure on Assad to be amenable to a negotiated, political solution and indeed that may be a part of the plan. However, as we noted, it’s not exactly as if The Kremlin is leaving the Syrian leader high and dry.
Aleppo proper was surrounded just prior to the implementation of the ceasefire late last month. Hezbollah's ground troops and Russia’s air force had the rebels pinned down. Their supply lines to Turkey were cut, and civilians were fleeing the city en masse to avoid what they assumed would be a bloody siege. At that point is was readily apparent that the opposition couldn’t hold out much longer. Besides, it's not as if the IRGC and Hezbollah are just going to pack up and leave once the Russians draw down their presence.
"We are heading toward being liquidated I think,” one opposition official said.
So it isn't entirely clear that Assad is being forced to negotiate in Geneva by Putin's exit any more than the HNC, which surely doesn’t want to go right back into a situation where they are on the verge of surrender.
Rather, it appears to us that Putin sensed the perfect moment to change tactics. As we wrote this morning, “if both sides come to some kind of tenuous agreement, Putin will get to claim that Russia’s military came, saw, and conquered, then brokered a peace settlement - two things no country had been able to do in Syria since the beginning of the war in 2011.”
NYU professor and Russian security affairs expert Mark Galeotti came to a similar conclusion and penned a piece for Reuters entitled “Russia Drops The Mic: Syria Pullout Comes At Perfect Moment,” excerpts from which are found below.
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This was not a casually chosen timeframe: 10 years is how long Soviet troops were mired in Afghanistan, another intervention that was expected to be short-lived and uncomplicated and turned out to be anything but.
Politicians tend to find it easier to start wars than to end them, to escalate rather than to withdraw. For a leader who clearly relishes his macho image and who has been articulating a very aggressive foreign policy in recent years to opt for such a stand-down is a striking act of statesmanship.
That said, Putin’s announcement that “the objectives given to the Defense Ministry and the Armed Forces as a whole have largely been accomplished” is probably accurate.
This intervention was, after all, never about “winning” the war in Syria: even the most starry-eyed optimist would not expect a relative handful of aircraft and ground forces to end this bloody and complex conflict. Nor was it primarily to save Bashar al-Assad’s skin and position.
Rather, it had three main objectives. Firstly, to assert Russia’s role in the region and its claim to a say in the future of Syria. Secondly, to protect Moscow’s last client in the Middle East, ideally by preserving Assad, but if need be by replacing him with some other suitable client. Thirdly, to force the West, and primarily Washington, to stop efforts diplomatically to isolate Moscow. For the moment, at least, all three have indeed been accomplished.
Now, Russia is a more significant player in Syria’s future than the United States. Influence is bought by blood and treasure; by being willing to put its bombers, guns and men into play, Moscow not only helped Assad but reshaped the narrative of the war. The Kurds and even some of the so-called “moderate rebels” are beginning to show willing to talk to the Russians.
At the time of the intervention, Assad’s forces were in retreat, momentum was favoring the rebels, and Moscow was terrified that the regime’s elite might begin to fragment. The client state the Soviets left behind when they withdrew from Afghanistan was actually surprisingly stable and effective. But when Defense Minister Shahnawaz Tani broke with President Najibullah, it began to break apart and was doomed; this was something Moscow feared could happen in Damascus.
However, the unexpected injection of Russian airpower on Sept. 30 not only changed the arithmetic on the battlefield, it also re-energized the regime. The scale of the bombing assault, with more than 9,000 sorties flown according Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, allowed government forces to turn back the tide. Not only were they able to retake Aleppo and some 400 other settlements by Shoigu’s count, but the Syrian Arab Army’s morale recovered considerably too, and with it Assad’s personal authority.
Finally, on the diplomatic front there is no question that Putin’s intervention did indeed end any hope of ignoring and isolating him. Russia and the United States are joint guarantors of the ceasefire in Syria now, and even in Ukraine the two countries have renewed conversations about a settlement in the Donbas, though it was Moscow that began the conflict.
In short, for once there is more truth than rhetoric in claims of a “mission accomplished.”
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And here's a bit more color from Stratfor:
Russia's involvement in Syria has been guided by a number of key priorities. The first is ensuring the stability of the allied Syrian government and by extension Russian interests in Syria. The second is demonstrating and testing its armed forces, which are undergoing a significant force modernization. The third is weakening the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations, especially given the large number of Russian nationals fighting in Syria among extremist factions. The fourth, and the most important, is for Russia to link its actions in Syria to other issues — including the conflict in Ukraine, disputes with the European Union and U.S. sanctions on Russia.
The support that the Russians and other external actors such as Iran and Hezbollah have given the Syrian government has largely reversed the rebels' momentum, and currently loyalist forces have the advantage. However, rebel troops have not been defeated, and a significant drawdown of Russian forces could weaken loyalist efforts. However, it is important to remember that Russia alone did not reverse the loyalist fortunes; Iranian support for the Syrian government could go a long way in maintaining their advantage.
With their actions in Syria thus far, the Russians have showcased their improved combat capabilities and some new, previously unused weapons, which will likely contribute to important arms sales, including some to Iran. Russia has also largely achieved its goal of weakening the Islamic State.
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Or, all of the above summed up in one picture...