On the 14th of March, 2016, the Russian President Vladimir Putin held a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. The meeting resulted in a decision to stop the Russian military action in Syria due to the fact that its main objectives have been already achieved. It was also said about the withdrawal of the majority of Russian military equipment and militaries starts from March 15th.
Quite naturally, before taking this decision, the Russian President informed of his decision on the phone the President of Syria Bashar al-Assad of Syria. The Syrian President highly appreciated the assistance of the Russian Federation in the fight against terrorism and in solving the Syrian conflict inside the country.
According to opinion of the analysts, at first glance, it really looks and is presented as a goodwill gesture, aimed at reinvigorating of the peace settlement in Syria. But the fact is that the peace process has not really started yet. So it would be strange to leave the game at this stage. Therefore, there are only two possible explanations. The first one is that Russia recognized that the maximum possible in military terms has been achieved. Then it is almost a defeat, because the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (the organization banned in Russia) has not been destroyed. The militants - natives of Russia and the CIS - are safe and sound and the terroristic threat has not diminished at all. The second option is that while mentioning the "major forces", Putin means only those forces which at this stage are not needed. That means much ado about nothing. However, it is possible the third explanation: Putin introduced some troops only to withdraw them or – in other words - to show Russian military force without any plans to fight really.
Nevertheless, the international community gave largely positive assessment of Putin's decision, describing it as one that would help to achieve success in Syrian talks in Geneva, but at the same time showed some restraint and skepticism. According to analysts’ opinion, the decision to withdraw Russian military units was not such a surprise in the context of Russian-American agreement (achieved in February) about the cessation of Syrian hostilities in and the resumption of Syrian dialogue at Geneva talks by increasing pressure on its allies, participating in them. On the one hand, President Obama wants to achieve political victory in Syria before leaving the White House, and President Putin is trying to weaken - if not remove altogether - the European and US economic sanctions against his country, which had been imposed on Russia in connection with the situation the Crimea and the south-eastern regions of Ukraine. By the way, this explains the increasing pressure on the allies from Obama, who recently criticized the position of Saudi Arabia and Turkey on the Syrian issue in an interview with edition "Atlantic". In his turn, Putin's decision to withdraw military forces is a continuation of the joint position - agreed with Obama - on the Syrian issue.
No less interesting seems the fact that the Russian President's decision knocked the ground from under the feet of not only his opponents in the West and the Middle East, but also of the Syrian opposition, which argued that the deployment of Russian troops prevents a peaceful solution of the conflict and changes the balance of power in region. At the same time, the decision about withdrawal surprised even Russian allies (the Syrians and the Iranians), somewhat loosening their intransigence, which they have developed in the course of Geneva talks, when they used the factor off Russian military intervention. First of all, Putin has shown that it is necessary to solve the problem immediately. And secondly, he preferred to achieve the victory by political means through agreements with the US, which, according to analysts, will also help the future rapprochement of Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Putin is well aware that a political solution to the Syrian conflict will draw to his side the Persian Gulf countries, and even the Syrian opposition, but will also allow to take the initiative to address the Syrian problem from Washington's hands. At the same time, Moscow does not want to lose its influence in the region, which it pursues through its alliance with Tehran and Damascus. As reported in an official statement from Moscow on the withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria, "the objectives assigned to the militaries have been largely achieved," but the threat of war remains. This means the continuation of the fight against the Islamic State, but not against the Syrian opposition. In this way Putin wants to try to engage in peace talks the other representatives of the Syrian opposition, and above all, the Kurds.
In addition, the quality and quantity of the military units, withdrawn by Russia, are completely unknown, although it is clear that the military airfield in Hmeymime and the naval base in Tartus remain in Russia’s hands. The units conducting aerial reconnaissance and electronic surveillance for compliance of armistice conditions and the movement of the Islamic State groups still remain in the country. And in this regard, the question arises: will these military objects be taken into account at the conclusion of a broader peace agreement on Syria with the participation of Russia, the United States, some of the regional parties in the face of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other countries?
And this is possible only under the condition that Putin receives the guarantees from the US.
Among the possible causes of a "sudden" withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria some experts mention the possibility of creating a Kurdish state! But it is provided that after the elections in the country the decision will be taken about the federal structure of the state, and the United States agrees with this fact.
Without any hint of doubt, Moscow's decision to withdraw troops from Syria is due to one fact. Kremlin is sure: in response to this withdrawal the West will make concessions on Ukrainian issue in the context of the revision of economic sanctions against the Russian Federation. In the future Russia, of course, could change its decision, especially if it is clear that all the efforts had no effect on the position of its opponents. It explains the fact why the Russians do not leave their military bases in Syria forever, even if the massive return of Russian troops in Syria seems quite unlikely.
As a result, despite the fact that social networks have rapidly reacted to the withdrawal of Russian troops ("Budget At Zero," "Islamic State Is Being Tricked," "Putin’s Premature Evacuation"), it should still be noted that one of the main objectives of Putin - concerning his image - which he pursued before the start of the military operation in Syria, has been reached. He manages to make the West talk about himself, even if he dreamt, of course, to talk on equal terms. In addition, Syria has become a chic modern proving ground to demonstrate the possibilities of the actual – even if not the most formidable - but still fearsome Russian weapons. In less than two months of the operation against the banned in Russia “Islamic State”, the Russian bombers, cruise missiles, drones, submarines and missile boats have definitely become the objects of close attention of experts and the media worldwide.
One way or the other, but it seems that is now Syria will be waiting for so familiar to Ukraine calls for federalization, Geneva-2, Geneva-3 and so on talks.
Prepared by Marseille Bondarchuk, "Vector News"
Translated by Maria Kryzhanovska