Vladimir Putin announced yesterday (13 Mar 2016) that the ‘main part’ of Russia’s forces are pulling out of Syria, much to western politicians and main stream media news outlets surprise and bemusement with the narrative regarding Russia needing to be amended again.
Russia’s intervention in Syria primarily revolved around the the need to combat fundamentalist Sunni Islamic groups, who at the time had the upper hand fighting the Syrian Arab Army and associated militias.
It needed Syria to maintain a functioning government to allow a stable transition of power as opposed to a collapse into the chaos of competing groups fighting to fill the void.
In doing so, protecting it’s national and strategic interests within Syria such as the strategically important Russian naval base at Tartus on the West coast of Syria.
The future of Syria without Russia’s intervention was leading to the defeat of the Syrian Arab Army and associated militias, the fall of the secular Assad government, leaving the very real possibility of western deemed moderate and fundamentalist Islamic groups (not just IS) to battle it out among themselves to fill the vacuum and take control of the country.
This would prolong the war, potentially by years. The likely outcome consisting of a country ruled by fundamentalist Sunni Islamist’s, Russia loosing its strategically important naval base on the western coast of Syria and loosing a strategic partner that they have had business with for over 60 years.
Plenty of precedent exists of such a scenario as seen in Iraq, Afghanistan (both Russian and Western Interventions) and more recently Libya.
Russia has stated that it wants to see a stable transition of power with no real desire to see Assad remain per say. In 2012, Russia floated an idea that it would assist in the transfer of power but it would require Assad to remain for a period of time to ensure a stable transition. Western politicians stuck by their narrative of ‘Assad must go’ before any negotiations can take place and ignored Russia’s offer.
Fast forward to 2016 and western politicians have changed their narrative to ‘Assad can stay’ temporarily while negotiations take place to ensure a more stable transfer of power.
Western politicians and mainstream media have portrayed the Russian intervention in Syria as propping up the Assad government and indiscriminately bombing civilians while targeting mainly moderate groups and not IS.
There is truth to this narrative, by bombing opposition groups and IS, they are propping up the Assad government and civilians will be killed and injured during airstrikes that take place in populated areas.
However it is widely known that there are many fundamentalist groups operating in Syria aside from IS or the western deemed moderates such as al Qaeda’s branch Jabhat al Nusrah, the Islamic Front, Ahrar al Sham, Jabhat Ansar al Din, the Turkistan Islamic Party, Jund al Aqsa, the Army of Islam and many more. Such groups have and continued to collaborate with groups or coalitions deemed moderate by the West and have been undeniably influential on the battlefield.
Russia saw the need to intervene and turn the tables in favour of the Assad government that it sees as secular to protect its national and strategic interests from the opposition that it sees as fundamentalist Sunni Islamic groups or terrorists.
In doing so it has forced the opposition to the negotiating table in a fairly short time, something seen as highly unlikely before it intervened. A cessation of hostilities is now in place that does not extend to Sunni Islamic fundamentalist groups such as IS, Jabhat al Nusrah or their affiliates.
This agreement brokered by the US and Russia is volatile but largely holding. Now Russia sees an opportunity to pull out it’s ‘main force’, in doing so it signals a real desire to see the peace process gain traction, for the Assad government to engage in meaningful talks and the eventual transition of power.
It also protects Vladimir Putin’s image and reputation within Russia, not being drawn into a long, costly, protracted war like Afghanistan or recent catastrophic western interventions.
Some Russian forces will remain in Syria, how many exactly is unclear. Many opposition groups not under the agreement are still active and operating on the ground, as such, military action will inevitably continue against these groups.
It remains to be seen what will happen should the cessation of hostilities agreement break down. Will Russia re-deploy it’s ‘main force’ or is it leaving what it believes is enough to deal with any re-escalation?
Will Turkey see an opportunity to further it’s long standing aim of removing Kurdish groups along the Syrian Turkey border?
Many questions still remain and the agreement in place remains volatile. Regardless of political persuasion, the truth is Russia’s intervention has ended with a cessation of hostilities and a chance for negotiations to take place.
This was at best a far fetched hope only a few months ago.
Such skepticism could be partly due to the chaotic precedent set by western military interventions in recent history such as Afghanistan and Iraq.
Both were invaded, both lacked real planning by politicians or an understanding of the tribal culture and implications of this, both naively and arrogantly to try and spread democracy, both interventions fermented chaos and both occupations ended due to politics (David Cameron and Barrack Obama fulfilling their election pledges of withdrawing troops early) despite the narratives to justify the war not being fulfilled.
Libya mirrors many of these same failures such as the lack of planning for what comes after the intervention, the lack of understanding of it’s tribal culture, the ramifications of this and the attempt to support the creation of a democracy in a country alien to the concept.
UPDATE: 20 March 2016:
According to a Russian MOD update on the 18 March 2016:
‘Withdrawal of the main part of the Russian Aerospace Forces’ aviation group is carried out according to the approved plans.
According to the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Aerospace Forces, aviation echelons with Su-24M, Su-25 and Su-34 have returned to their permanent bases in the territory of Russia.
Now the army aviation and logistic units are being prepared for redeployment, which is to be performed according to the schedule. A part of hardware and cargos will be projected by military transport aviation, another – by sea transport.
At the same time the Aerospace Forces continue making strikes against ISIS formations.
Recently the government troops and patriotic forces supported by the Russian Aerospace Forces have been conducting a large-scale operation aimed at liberation of the Palmyra city. On average, Russian aircraft carry out 20-25 combat sorties every day.’
Numbers of aircraft that have left Syria since the announced pull out are not specified in the statement but details of Russian forces and hardware staying are becoming clearer. According to Sputnik News, Hmeymim airbase will allegedly house some 2,000 personnel and the addition of Ka-52 and Mi-28N attack helicopters.
- Sputnik News article (20 Mar 2016) – Not Coming Home: What Russian Hardware Stays in Syria After Pullout and Why:
‘Nearly 20 Russian combat aircraft, an air defense system and some 2,000 personnel will stay at Hmeymim airbase in Syria. According to experts, the task force has several goals – fighting terrorism, supporting President Bashar Assad, and control over the region.’
Two previous questions in this blog appear to have been answered in that it will do both. Russia is leaving a military presence that it feels will cope with on going operations against fundamentalist Sunni Islamic groups still operating in Syria, but according to Vladimir Putin, will re-escalate it’s presence if necessary.
“Of course, if such a need arises, Russia can, in several hours, build up its forces in Syria to a size capable of dealing with an escalating situation and use the entire range of means at its disposal.”
“We wouldn’t like that. A military escalation is not our choice. We hope the parties involved would show common sense and that both the government and the opposition will stick to the peace process.” – Vladimir Putin.