Journal Essay

Mission Accomplished? Russia's Withdrawal from Syria

Emil Aslan Souleimanov

Summer 2016, Volume XXIII, Number 2

Dr. Souleimanov is an associate professor of political science at the Institute of International Relations, Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University in Prague.

On March 14, Russian President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly announced the end, effective the following day, of the Russian intervention in the Syrian Arab Republic. Russia's military — including elite ground forces, the latest Su-34 strike fighters, Buk-M2 missile systems, KA-52 attack helicopters, and other technologically advanced assets — had been deployed in the Middle Eastern country, apparently at Bashar al-Assad's request, since August 2015 and in combat since late September. According to Putin, Russian forces "largely managed" to meet their goals, while their "effective work has created conditions for the beginning of the peace process [in Geneva]."1 And while Putin announced the preservation of Russia's Khmeimim airbase and the Tartus naval facility, both in Assad-held coastline areas, Russia's unpredictable withdrawal sparked heated debates about Moscow's true intentions in Syria, its failures and successes, and the prospects for its further involvement there.

ANTI-IS OR PRO-ASSAD?

Putin underscored that it was "with the participation of the Russian military men that the Syrian Army and the patriotic forces of Syria managed to cardinally stem the tide in the fight against international terrorism and gain momentum in all directions."2 Indeed, the fight against international terrorism ranked among Moscow's most frequently declared goals in Syria. Pointing to the unprecedented concentration of international jihadists in Syria, including those from the North Caucasus, Russian authorities had, prior to their actual military intervention in the Middle East, discussed the possibility of wrecking the jihadists on foreign soil — before the latter could turn their sights on Russia.3 This would imply that Russian airstrikes would mainly focus on the Islamic State, and to an extent also on the al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra), for the simple reason that these groups have hosted thousands of international jihadists, including those from Russia's predominantly Muslim areas.

Yet Russian-led airstrikes generally bypassed the Islamic State and dealt the al-Nusra Front only glancing blows, concentrating instead on Syria's western areas, where the Syrian army and the affiliated Shiite armed groups were capable of operating. Indeed, according to U.S. official estimates, at various times, 70 to 90 percent of Russia's airstrikes avoided targeting the Islamic State, a finding shared by independent observers as well.4 Russian authorities have on many occasions questioned these claims, stressing their focus on fighting the Islamic State and similar jihadist or terrorist groups — as all of Assad's opponents were labeled by Moscow. Yet from the outset of its military engagement in Syria, Moscow's main goal appears to have been saving the Assad regime instead of fighting the common international jihadist foe. Importantly, Russian airstrikes only began in late September, as rebel forces advanced as close as eight kilometers from the presidential palace in Damascus.5 Russian airstrikes focused almost exclusively on the strategically key areas of western Syria, where the Assad army and its allies had relative strength and, particularly along the coast, considerable popular support. Hence, moderate rebels — the Free Syrian Army (FSA) militias and affiliated secular or moderate Islamist groups — quickly became the main targets of Russian airstrikes and ground offensives carried out by the Assad military and its allies.

For its part, even before Russia's direct involvement in the Syrian civil war, the Assad army and the Islamic State had generally "avoided" each other.6 Instead, the Islamic State engaged in fighting other anti-Assad groups, including various factions of the FSA-affiliated secular and moderate rebels and the al-Nusra Front. This trend has remained intact since Moscow's intervention in Syria, with some episodic exceptions — for instance, the Russian-backed recapture of the isolated Islamic State-held town of Palmyra in late March. In some instances — for example, during the Russian-backed Assad army's advance in the Aleppo area in October 2015 — the Islamic State went so far as to synchronously attack the local rebel positions threatening the Western-backed rebels' supply lines.7

With the Assad army critically debilitated, it was clear to Moscow strategists that regaining control over all of Syria was impracticable. Moreover, for Moscow, helping Assad reclaim the whole of the country would be too costly and, in strategic terms, rather unnecessary. As Josh Cohen noticed as early as November 2015, the Russian military intervention was "not about restoring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's control over a 'stable and unified' Syria, but rather to preserve a functioning Syrian state — preferably one that can also protect Russia's interests in Syria."8 The deprivation and war fatigue of the Assad army and various pro-Assad ground forces were part of the problem. In fact, according to a high-ranking official in Russia's Ministry of Defense, even though the Syrian top brass spoke of 130,000 soldiers being at their disposal in late September and early October, when joint military operations were launched, the actual number of combat-ready loyalist troops was around 25,000.9 The same source admits that, at the outset, Russians and Syrians had reached an agreement on the need to regain control over part of Syria's territory; Russia was committed to avoiding ground warfare at all costs.10 Significantly, Putin launched the military campaign in Syria after General Qasem Souleimani, the legendary commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, paid a visit to Moscow, where he most likely assured the Russian leadership of the Iranians' determination to provide the pro-Assad coalition with boots on the ground.11 Shiite volunteers or mercenaries from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere have also been encouraged to join the Assad forces, adding up to a thousand or so fighters.12

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