Middle East // Analysis

16 march 2016

Russia’s De-escalation in Syria: Good for Peace, Bad for Warring Sides

Yuri Barmin Analyst on Russia and its Middle East policy, MPhil International Relations, University of Cambridge, RIAC expert
Su-25 crews are prepared to fly home from
the Hmeymim airbase

In a surprising move on Monday Vladimir Putin decided to start withdrawing military forces from Syria. The abrupt manner in which the decision was made is very characteristic of the Russian leader and how he has been handling the Syrian crisis. It has been almost 6 months since Vladimir Putin ordered to launch an aerial operation in the country despite initial assessments that it would only take three to four months.

“I consider the objectives that have been set for the Defence Ministry to be generally accomplished,” announced Vladimir Putin at his meeting with Russia’s Foreign and Defense Ministers. As always the devil is in the details, and as it appears not all of its initial goals Russia has managed to achieve. The one reason Moscow used to justify its airstrikes in Syria was the vaguely formulated fight against terrorism that may spillover from Syria and reach Russia’s borders. To that end the operation without a doubt failed to produce a meaningful result.

Despite certain setbacks the Islamic State is still strong. It has lost a portion of territory but the cost of the Russian aerial operation does not adequately correspond with the losses inflicted on ISIS. Speaking to Vladimir Putin the Defense Minister reported that ISIS oil production was disrupted thanks to Russian airstrikes and that its lifelines to Turkey were cut. But just like airstrikes themselves that initially produced very modest results the effect of bombings against ISIS oil facilities will have a delayed effect that will become apparent gradually when and if their welfare system begins to collapse under financial constraints.

On other fronts Russia delivered far better results. One of the most visible achievements was empowering President Assad whose entire military was by all accounts on the verge of collapse in autumn last year. Unlike in 2015 when Assad’s departure or ouster was only a matter of months or even weeks today things have changed, and it was mainly Russian airstrikes that turned the tide for the Syrian President. Even the White House that has advocated for Assad’s departure throughout the Syrian conflict seems to have changed its stance, largely due to Russia’s adamance to give up on Bashar Al Assad. Propping him up became possible thanks to intensive airstrikes against rebel groups in Aleppo, Idlib, Homs and Hama that were threatening the stability of his regime and that are not recognized as extremists by other world powers. This is something that Russia does not want to admit but that was part of its strategy all along.

The Syrian opposition represented by the High Negotiating Committee in Geneva was caught off guard by President Putin’s decision and welcomed it as a step towards a peaceful solution of the Syrian crisis. The opposition, however, should not have any illusions as to how the status quo is really going to change on the ground in Syria.

The step that Vladimir Putin decided to make costs Russia virtually zero and doesn’t undermine its strategic position in Syria. From what is known at the moment Russia’s bases in Syria, Tartus naval facility that was upgraded during the operation and more importantly the Hmeymim air base in Latakia, will continue functioning as they have been so far. Given the fact that Russia decreased the intensity of its attacks in northwestern Syria it no longer needs to keep over 60 fighters and bombers currently stationed in Latakia even if it intends to continue carrying out airstrikes against the Islamic State and Jabhat Al Nusra. As per Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, the S-400 missile defense system that has essentially allowed Russia to unilaterally create a no-fly zone over the country is also likely to remain at the Latakia base. In that sense the balance of power in Syria will not shift dramatically with Russia scaling down its military presence there. What it means is that Russia may stop using its military power solely to prop up the Assad government.

The timing of the decision is also not accidental, it comes on the same day as the start of a new round of Syrian proximity talks in Geneva and this is exactly where the withdrawal of Russian forces will have a more defined effect. It unambiguously demonstrates Moscow’s determination to reach peace, something opponents have been casting doubt on. On many occasions Syrian opposition groups stated that they would not engage in any talks with the Assad government unless Russia stops its aerial campaign against rebels. This time President Putin not only ceased airstrikes but went even further and ordered to return “the main part of the military contingent” back to Russia. This was a very generous gesture on his part that leaves the HNC no excuse to ignore this round of Geneva talks. Moreover Vladimir Putin likely expects reciprocal steps from the group itself and more importantly from its main international backer Saudi Arabia.

REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
Yuri Barmin:
Syria Talks: Fear and Loathing in Geneva

Making such bold moves without knowing what the opposite side may offer in return would be too reckless for Moscow. We may in fact be witnessing a major shift in the Syrian peace process when it is not Assad and the opposition who are making mutual trade-offs but rather major international powers and their sponsors, Russia and Saudi Arabia. The fact that even US officials were taken by surprise by this decision (or so they claim) and that Vladimir Putin had to make a call to President Obama to explain the rationale behind it means only that Washington may have been left overboard in this new grand bargain.

The scaling down of Russia’s military involvement in Syria also serves as a powerful signal to Assad himself. In February the Syrian president made a statement in which he defied US and Russia’s attempts to negotiate a ceasefire and promised to regain control over the entire country. This emboldened statement was a direct consequence of the Russian operation and a backlash against Vladimir Putin himself for whom a peaceful exit from Syria is paramount. By withdrawing part of the forces the Russian President is looking to return Assad into the diplomatic domain and make him negotiate earnestly because if the fighting resumes he will enjoy much less support.

The next few days in Geneva will show whether President Putin made a brilliant strategic move by ordering to start withdrawing forces from Syria or a terrible mistake. But by single-handedly escalating and de-escalating the crisis when he deems necessary Vladimir Putin manages to shape the agenda around Syria, which no other world power managed to achieve in the last five years.

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Yuri Barmin, “Russia’s De-escalation in Syria: Good for Peace, Bad for Warring Sides,” Russian International Affairs Council, 16 March 2016, http://russiancouncil.ru/en/inner/?id_4=7396

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