Syria: The Russians are leaving, or are they?
Lt General S A Hasnain, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM (Bar), VSM (Bar) (Retd.), Distinguished Fellow, VIF

Russian President Putin’s decision to pull out his military resources from Syria has been received with much skepticism and analysts are pulling out all the stops to examine the decision from every angle. Till late the Russian Air Force was using its might with 140 sorties against the defences of Palmyra in the last three days of the battle against the ISIS (Daesh). Although some fixed wing aircraft are reported to have been withdrawn there have been an equivalent number of attack helicopters which are reported to have been inducted. Attack helicopters are also lethal platforms particularly useful against dispersed targets and search and destroy missions. Russia has approximately 5000-6000 military personnel in Syria not in direct contact role, although in recent days a Russian Special Forces soldier is known to have been killed and Russian Special Forces have been employed in an as yet undetermined role. The two main assets that the Russians have established or strengthened beyond what earlier existed are the port city of Latakia and the adjoining air base where air assets and command and control infrastructure has been set up. Most of the ground fighting has been in the hands of the Syrians loyal to Bashir Assad, the Hizbollah and some undetermined number of Iranians. The Russians have had reasonably good success in terms of Assad’s army managing to push back the rebels and now in cease fire with them under the Geneva process; Daesh capability has been partially eroded with targeting of the oil infrastructure. In fact it is the entry of the Russians which finally ensured that the illegal flow of oil from Mosul was largely stopped with supply routes to some of the buyers being interdicted. The refinery itself is still producing oil but at much lower levels. This has affected the financial position of Daesh who has had to halve the payments to the fighters.

How should the Russian presence in Syria across six months and now reported pulling out be viewed? For the Russians the experience to fall back on is Afghanistan of the Eighties. That will bring them to ensure that there is no over reach. Russia does not have the economic muscle to sustain a long drawn presence but yet must be seen to be defending its interests. It does not want to push beyond a certain optimum level as the Ukraine involvement too stretches its commitment and confrontation everywhere is not a prudent strategy. It has achieved most of its basic aims. The retention of Latakia was crucial as there is no other base in the eastern Mediterranean. The air base outside Latakia has become Russia’s mainstay. There is likely to be continued presence at these two locations. Air defence resources in the form of S-400 missile defense systems set up in November 2015 after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane, will in all likelihood stay as a defensive measure against the unpredictable Turks. The Assad regime has been reasonably well strengthened with the capture of Aleppo which could only be achieved due to air power.

It is not as if the Russians are getting up and leaving, mission achieved et all. This is a subtle messaging that Putin is putting out and allowing the Geneva process to play out now that it appears that Assad’s continuation for the moment is something no longer a stumbling block. There is no doubt that it is the more robust Russian response which has adversely affected Daesh. With the happenings in Europe in terms of the immigrant crisis and the terror attacks there is greater focus towards ensuring that between the twin Western concerns of Daesh and Assad it is the former which needs to be addressed on priority. Tackling both creates utter confusion because weakening Assad plays advantage for Daesh which is seen as the core from where the terror threats to Europe are emanating. This is the incremental approach which should have been followed right from the outset once the early intelligence reports on the arrival of Daesh were available. It was Assad who was the main target until Putin’s military focused on Daesh and led to a fair degree of dilution of its effectiveness.

There is conjecture which believes that Putin is projecting a ‘go slow’ to allow the cease fire within Syria’s civil war conflagrates to succeed. It will also place some pressure on Assad that Russian support cannot be taken for granted. That is why he must exert in finding a compromise with the rebels. The Russians have not ceased their operations against Daesh although after the capture of Palmyra there has been no major resumption yet. It is still unlikely that Obama and Putin will now look at Daesh with a joint focus although that is exactly what the need of the situation is.

The Russian strategy of announcing a withdrawal and not implementing it leaves many in a quandary about further intent. Turkey for one will be nervous with a nebulous situation, although neither Syria nor any other Arab states are likely to support a Kurdish union. However the Turks would be happy to see a cessation of aerial bombing of population centers which is leading to movement of migrants. Iran is probably a part of the strategy and will find itself more overtly involved. The events post the nuclear deal and end of sanctions are moving a little too fast for it to fully comprehend its interests. For Iran the bottom line of course will remain the dominance of Hezbollah and an Allawite regime in Syria.

Israel has expressed its concern about Russian withdrawal primarily apprehending a strengthening of the hold of Iran and Hezbollah. The Saudis are happy at the possible withdrawal because it opens up the space to aid the rebels in their cause both by strengthening the military support on ground and diplomatic support at Geneva. However, the Saudis also need to be wary of Iran stepping in more proactively and with Russian support. A direct confrontation would not be in Saudi interests.

I can surmise a few deductions from all the imponderables above. Firstly, Putin has kept the lid on the situation by announcing one thing and executing another. The uncertainty increases and those rushing into the vacated strategic space physically or through proxy would be extremely wary of Russian ‘yes & no’ presence. Secondly, the Shia connection has been empowered with Russian presence. It cannot now be left in the lurch. Putin has been responsible for this empowerment and cannot simply abandon it. Thirdly, the US should happily be stepping aside and allowing Russia to use the Shia power to crush Daesh and then seek regime change in Damascus as quid pro quo. The US prefers to slow down its own involvement in an election year. It too would remain wary of marginal Russian presence, especially in the air.

Strategic surprise at an opportune moment sometimes slows down options for all. Perhaps Putin’s decision has achieved just that; allowing a regrouping and some re-ideating. Daesh itself would be surprised first by the announcement and then by the ground reality, opening up some vulnerability and forcing it into mistakes. Obviously Putin is old world in his strategizing, believes in confounding through psychological war and hopes to ultimately wrest advantage through the altered conditions as the players all slow down and look for consolidation which in the dynamic of Middle East is hardly ever possible.

Published Date: 2nd April 2016, Image Source:
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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