Russian forces have begun to withdraw from Syria. Akshay Narayan examines why Vladimir Putin’s decision may benefit the peace process.
In a surprise decision on Monday 14th March, Vladimir Putin announced that the majority of Russian forces present in Syria would begin to withdraw from the country. Russia has been a staunch supporter of Bashar al-Assad’s government during the civil war, and is perhaps the regime’s most significant international backer. The only way for Russia to protect its interests in Syria is to ensure that Assad remains in power.
Moscow has a crucial naval base at the Syrian port city of Tartous, which gives the Russian Black Sea fleet quick access to the Mediterranean. Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, Russia has vetoed numerous anti-Assad resolutions at the UN Security Council and has continued to supply weapons to Assad’s government despite heavy criticism of the regime’s use of barrel bombs and potentially chemical weapons.
Russia had tried to avoid a military intervention in the country for as long as possible, but when the Syrian military almost capitulated in mid-2015, the Russian armed forces took action and in doing so, helped Assad gain the upper hand again. Airstrikes began on 30th September 2015, and targeted all rebel forces, despite the Russian claim that only the so-called Islamic State was targeted. 6 months later, the decision to begin the withdrawal makes perfect sense for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the Russians do not want to get stuck in a war for a long period of time. Their experience fighting in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989 is not one that they want to repeat – as is characteristic of all guerilla wars, Russian troops were in the country for years, fought numerous battles, suffered heavy casualties and never made any progress with regards to the political goals of the conflict.
The Kremlin realises that the Syrian civil war is much more complex than the Soviet war in Afghanistan was due to the numerous factions involved, their international backers and the spillover into Iraq. Moscow’s decision to not commit troops into frontline combat was, militarily, extremely sensible. When it intervened, Russia’s aim was to level the playing field by helping the Syrian armed forces gain ground, which it has successfully achieved (10,000 km2 of territory has been retaken). The Kremlin knows that this is Assad’s war, not theirs, and as such they will leave the majority of the fighting to him. It is clear that Russia is not going to let Assad lose this war. Should the regime ever be on the verge of capitulation again, the Russians will no doubt conduct a short intervention to steer Syria back onto the path they want it to travel on.
Secondly, Putin believes in a political solution to the conflict. He is fully aware of the fact that no amount of force (aside from nuclear weapons) will end the war – the rebel groups are far too experienced and well-equipped to let that happen. The only way for Russia to protect its interests in Syria and for Assad to stay in power is through a peace process.
The peace talks in Geneva led to a fragile ceasefire coming into effect on February 27th, which has largely held. The prospects are still dim due to the stubbornness of both sides, but there is no other way forward. Assad may have been hoping that Russian forces would fight beside his troops until the end of the war, but by withdrawing, the Kremlin has forced him to the negotiating table.
Additionally, the backers of the Syrian opposition (most notably Saudi Arabia) probably recognise the fact that encouraging the rebels to launch major offensives would prompt another quick response from Putin, whose air power is decisive. The US is certainly aware of this, and the success of the peace talks may depend on the Americans reining in the Saudis.
However, this does not mean in any way that a peaceful solution will be reached. A democracy in a unified Syria is not something that the Russians want – Assad would rapidly be voted out and Russia’s interests in Syria would be lost. But the rebels are adamant that Assad will not be a part of Syria’s political future. What will most likely happen is that Syria will become a number of “states” that are largely autonomous. These “states” will probably be determined on sectarian lines – the western Shia heartlands will belong to Assad, whilst most of the Sunni east will be governed by the current rebels. The Syrian Kurds may even demand their own land in the north and northeast. An extremely devolved federal government is what will happen if the opposing parties are willing to compromise – if not, all separate parts of the country will break away and Syria as we know it will cease to exist.
Putin has achieved what nobody else has so far. He has levelled the playing field in the war such that the government forces will never collapse, while simultaneously stimulating peace talks and negotiations. The decision to withdraw was made intelligently, as it minimised the economic and human costs of the intervention for Russia and brought all the parties to the negotiating table. This is the only way that this prolonged, bloody conflict will be brought to an end, but for now, everything rests entirely on the shoulders of the opposing factions.