UPDATE 8/24/2106: The original article noted that only time would tell if the accouncement Russian withdrawal of forces from Syria was pure rhetoric or a concrete plan. As of August 2016, it appears to have been more of the former; large numbers of Russian aircraft and special forces still operate in Syria.
The Syrian Civil War erupted in 2011 after widespread anti-government demonstrations stemming from the Arab Spring. Many of the protesters demanded greater freedoms and respect for basic rights which had been denied by Ba’athist President Assad and his government. The Assad government cracked down on the protesters, sending the country into a civil war between the pro-Assad Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and various anti-Assad rebel groups. In the power vacuum and chaos, other groups such as ISIS established a foothold and swept across the country.
Syria is currently divided between multiple factions. Large swaths of eastern Syria have been overrun by ISIS, a group widely condemned for brutal domestic policies and external attacks. ISIS administers an Islamic “caliphate” which implements its strict interpretation of Sharia law. Control of the western portion of Syria is split mainly between the SAA and various rebel factions. The aims of these rebel groups vary. Some desire a fully secular democratic state, while others desire a Sunni-dominated regime. Other portions of the West are under the control of Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al-Qaeda aligned Islamist faction. A large portion of northern Syria is under the control of the YPG and YPJ, which are Kurdish militia groups. Many of the aforementioned groups have been accused of committing human rights violations, with the majority of accusations implicating the Assad regime and ISIS.
Many third parties have viewed the Syrian conflict as an opportunity to further their interests in the region. Turkey and Saudi Arabia have provided funding and munitions to pro-Sunni rebel groups, which they hope will establish a pro-Sunni government in Syria. The United States has funded rebel groups it views as “moderate” and supportive of a democratic, pro-Western Syria. As a result, US-made missiles such as the TOW are commonly seen in the hands of Syrian rebels.
Russia, Iran and Hezbollah generally favor the Assad regime as a counterweight to increases in Sunni and US influence in the region. Some of these pro-Assad interests have deployed ground forces directly into Syria in support of Bashar’s regime.
Kurdish militias in the North have generally received widespread support in the conflict, receiving arms from not only the United States but also Europe and Russia. This widespread support exists partially because the Kurds prefer to fight ISIS instead of participating in the Assad versus anti-Assad facet of the conflict.
In addition to providing funding and munitions, outside nations have launched airstrikes in Syria itself. The United States-led air coalition, a multi-national effort, targets ISIS and other Islamist groups while generally avoiding strikes against the rebels and government forces.
Russia, on the other hand, tends to focus strikes against the Syrian rebels, reflecting Russia’s desire for the Assad regime to retain its position of power and influence.
Turkey, fearing a growth in Kurdish separatism as a result of the Syrian Conflict and the success of the Syrian Kurds, has launched attacks against Kurdish forces in Syria
The Western-backed Kurdish YPG and YPJ militias have close ties with the Kurdish PKK militant group, which is classified as a terrorist organization by Turkey and the US. These sorts of uneasy relationships are common in Syria; many “moderate” rebel groups engage in expedient ceasefires with extremists such as al-Nusra.
Withdrawal of Russian Forces:
In an largely unexpected move, Putin announced on March 14th that an unspecified number of Russian forces would vacate Syria. The news comes as peace talks between rebels and pro-Assad forces get underway in Geneva. It is currently unclear how many Russian units will remain and how the remaining units will be employed. It does appear that the withdrawal is not a fluke; preliminary reports indicate that units have begun to return to Russia as of March 17. However, a complete judgement cannot be made until more time has come to pass. Putin has a history of making empty or misleading promises to the West, and it is likely that the withdrawal may be more of a moderate reduction in forces than a cessation of activities in Syria. While the exact nature of the drawdown is unclear, what is possible to examine now is the announcement, which seems to have revealed much about Russia’s intentions in the region.
The withdrawal of Russian forces comes as a surprise primarily because no military breakthrough has been achieved on behalf of the regime. As pretext for the withdrawal, Putin announced that Russia’s objectives in the conflict had been achieved. However, the situation on the ground seems to contradict this: Assad’s regime still controls less than half the country. While the regime has made some modest advances since the Russian intervention began, it still has a long ways to go before it could hope to pacify the country by force. It is also unclear whether the regime could even continue to make headway without Russian support.
Clearly, Russia is not withdrawing because Assad has won militarily in Syria. Rather, Russia’s withdrawal is likely a message to Assad that Russian support is not unlimited. As noted, Assad’s government and various rebel groups have been engaged in peace talks. Russia’s reduction in support is likely intended to push Assad towards cooperation with the opposition and remind him not to overplay his hand. By removing unconditional support for Assad and reducing military assistance, Putin has signaled that the regime should continue to seek a negotiated resolution as opposed to conducting a military offensive.
Thus, Russia’s withdrawal appears to be a sly move on the part of Putin. Russia is able to declare its intervention successful, as it has achieved the desired results of saving the pro-Russian Assad regime (for now) and bringing all parties to the table. This outward appearance of success is important, as Putin’s image and Russia’s resolve would be damaged by a withdrawal seen as “premature.” The withdrawal will also reduce strain on the Russian military and reduce the likelihood of domestic backlash to Russia’s military adventurism.
The decision to withdraw likely was likely motivated by budgetary concerns as well. With the depressed state of oil prices, Russia’s government is running short on cash. Unfortunately for Moscow, this reduction in revenues comes at a time when Russia is looking to modernize its Soviet-era military and needs to continue investment in critical programs to do so. Russia’s intervention in Syria likely cost around $3 million per day. While not a huge chunk of the $50+ billion Russian defense budget, the Russian defense establishment will nonetheless be happy to re-allocate these funds towards modernization and other critical considerations.
Moscow’s decision to withdraw some forces may also improve Russia’s diplomatic standing; many Western nations were critical of the Russian intervention for focusing on the rebels instead of ISIS. The Russian intervention also came on the heels of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, an action which has drawn sharp criticism worldwide. By leaving Syria and giving the US-led coalition more breathing room, Putin has signaled to the West that he still takes their opinions into consideration and is able to cooperate with the international community in negotiations.
While there is much to gleam from Putin’s announcement, the saga in Syria is far from over. Even if a negotiated peace can be reached between the rebels and the government, groups such as ISIS are not involved in negotiations, and they will have to be dealt with before the region can return to stability.
However the negotiations pan out, a new chapter in the Syrian conflict has likely begun as a result of Russia’s announcement, and observers all around the globe will undoubtedly keep their eyes peeled as the situation progresses.