Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Russia pulling out of Syria?

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Update from AIJAC

March 17, 2016
Number 03/16 #04

Russian President Putin announced on Tuesday that Russia is pulling out the “main part” of Russia’s expeditionary force in Syria - but are keeping a key airbase and naval base. This Update is about the significance of the announced withdrawal, especially for Syria, and what was likely behind Putin's decision to announce it now.

We lead with Washington Institute Russia expert Anna Borshchevskaya, who describes what Putin is doing as a facade, with it unclear how many forces will even be withdrawn given the retention of the Tartus naval facility and Hmeimim Air Base. She says that Putin's claim to have largely achieved the objectives of the intervention makes little sense - the announced objective was to defeat ISIS, and Russia has not only not done that, but has concentrated most of its efforts on other rebels. She says the likely intention of the announcement is to strengthen Russia's hand at the Geneva peacetalks, by playing the role of peacemaker, and thus force the US and rebels to make concessions to the Russian position there. For her full analysis, CLICK HERE. Another analysis of the possible explanations for Russia's intentions comes from Aron Lund of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Next up is US strategic analyst Max Boot, who attempts to place this latest announcement within the context of an overall Russian strategic formula employed in Ukraine, Georgia and elsewhere. Boot says Putin is a master of maximising his gains while minimising his risks, and uses limited interventions to create "frozen conflicts" - situations where conflicts are unresolved but Russia remains an essential player in managing them. He says Putin will therefore want to try and preserve the current status quo in Syria - Assad in control of limited key areas of the country but unable to gain more - and the people of Syria will pay the price as the Syrian civil war drags on. For Boot's complete discussion of Putin's strategy, CLICK HERE.

Finally, Jonathan Spyer, in a piece written before Putin's latest announcement, analyses the partial ceasefire that has been in place beforehand, since Feb. 27. While he say the ceasefire was a partial success - allowing humanitarian aid to some areas and reducing casualties - Spyer is pessimistic that any longer term peace will be possible. However he does raise the possibility that a precarious stability in a divided Syria may be possible if ISIS loses its base to the advancing US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces military alliance. Interestingly, Spyer also hinted at the possibility that Russia might soon declare it had achieved its aims and pull back from Syria. For this important look at the background in Syria to Putin's announcement from a very knowledgeable observer, CLICK HERE. More on the Syrian ceasefire from Israeli academic experts Zvi Magen, Udi Dekel and Vera Michlin-Shapir.

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Russia's Withdrawal Is Another Facade

Anna Borshchevskaya

Policy Alert, March 15, 2016

In addition to Moscow's purposeful ambiguity about the true scope of its withdrawal from Syria, the announcement's timing reflects Putin's intention to force favorable terms in the latest peace talks.

As the Syrian peace talks resumed in Geneva this week, President Vladimir Putin announced a partial withdrawal of the "main part" of Russian armed forces as of March 15, according to the state-owned TASS news agency. Noting that the Defense Ministry had "on the whole" achieved its goals in Syria, Putin explicitly connected the withdrawal with the Geneva talks: "I hope that today's decision will be a good signal for all conflicting sides. I hope that this significantly raises the confidence of all participants in the [peace] process." He added that Russia's Foreign Ministry would "intensify" its involvement in that process.

It is unclear exactly which forces will withdraw from Syria, particularly since Putin specified that Russia's Tartus naval facility and Hmeimim Air Base will continue to operate as usual. The air base was established after Russia's military campaign began last September, so it will certainly require Moscow to keep more forces in Syria than it had before the intervention, even if it does make good on its pledge to withdraw some units.

As for the notion that Moscow has achieved its goals in Syria, Putin has previously stated that the purpose of the intervention was to defeat the Islamic State (IS). But the group is obviously not defeated, and Moscow's varying statements about the IS threat do not offer much clarity. On March 14, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed that Russia had destroyed over 2,000 "bandits" in Syria who had originated from Russia, including seventeen field commanders. Last year, however, the Kremlin justified the intervention in part with claims that 5,000-7,000 fighters from Russia had joined IS -- and those claims themselves diverged drastically from earlier reports citing much lower figures. Besides the fuzzy numbers, Moscow's decision to deploy troops to Syria may have increased the IS threat to Russia rather than decreased it; only time will tell, but the group has already targeted Russian civilians in apparent retaliation for the intervention (e.g., last October's downing of a Russian passenger jet in Egypt was attributed to an IS cell).

More tellingly, the vast majority of Russia's airstrikes in Syria have been against rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad's regime, not against the Islamic State. Rescuing Assad from the rebellion and securing Russia's interests -- as Putin defines them -- has been the real goal in Syria, and on that matter he can certainly claim success. The intervention has strengthened the regime's position in the peace talks in Geneva, with Assad reportedly stating that Russian assistance helped him achieve "victories against terrorism" and stabilize the security situation. Both Assad and Putin define "terrorist" as any armed person who opposes the regime. Assad also noted that Russia will scale back its presence but keep some forces in place.

In broader terms, Putin's seems to be laying the groundwork for casting himself as a "great world leader" -- a peacemaker who successfully carried out a limited campaign with "minimum casualties," then withdrew in order to lead international peace efforts. In doing so, he will undoubtedly seek to pressure both the United States and the Syrian opposition to stick with the Geneva process and more important, to make concessions that would benefit Putin above all else. The Russian language has a concept that best describes this situation: "pokazukha," a facade or window dressing, something Putin knows all too well how to construct.

Anna Borshchevskaya is the Ira Weiner Fellow at The Washington Institute.

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Putin’'s Formula for Destabilization

What does it mean that Vladimir Putin is withdrawing the “main part” of Russia’s expeditionary force in Syria? It’s unclear because the words Putin uses are subject to interpretation — and, in any case, he has repeatedly revealed himself to be as truthful as his number one American fan, Donald J. Trump. Putin’s announcement, which like all of his acts has caught Washington by surprise, can best be understood as a proclamation that he has achieved his basic goals in Syria and feels able to ramp down his commitment — without ending it entirely.

And what are those goals? The ostensible justification for Russia’s involvement was to defeat ISIS. But less than 10 percent of Russian munitions have actually been targeted on the Islamic State. The rest have been reserved for more moderate rebels supported by the United States and our allies, for the simple reason that it is those rebels, and not ISIS, that pose the gravest threat to the survival of the Russian-Iranian client, Bashar Assad. Putin sent his aircraft and troops into Syria last fall because he did not want to risk seeing Assad toppled. But that does not mean that Putin is committed to achieving unconditional victory for Assad.

Putin is certainly enough of a realist to know that there is no way that Assad can, at acceptable cost, defeat his myriad enemies. Routing all of the insurgent factions in Syria, which include ISIS and the al-Nusra Front (an al-Qaeda affiliate), would require an Afghanistan-style invasion by Russia — something that Putin has no appetite for. Indeed, the cost of staying committed in Syria even at the current levels was made clear this week when a rebel, shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile (reportedly an American-made Stinger) shot down a Russian-made MiG-21 flown by the Syrian air force.  Russia’s Syria intervention has also further aggravated the international community, making it harder for European states and the U.S. to relax the sanctions they clamped on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.

In his foreign adventures, Putin has revealed an impressive grasp of how to maximize his gains while minimizing his risk. In Ukraine, he has relied on proxy forces augmented by a relatively small number of ostensibly off-duty Russian soldiers (“the little green men”) backed up by Russian tanks and artillery. In Syria, he has relied on Iranian, and Assadist proxy forces backed up by Russian aircraft and a relatively small number of Russian troops. While President Obama has been afraid to get too involved in either Ukraine or Syria, making it impossible for the U.S. to achieve its basic aims in either country, Putin has delivered a master class in how to manage a military intervention smartly (if also immorally).

Part of Putin’s shrewdness is knowing when to be content with limited goals. In neither Ukraine in nor Syria has he pressed toward unconditional victory — the inevitable American impulse. He has been content to extend and defend Russia’s sphere of influence while leaving the rest of both countries in other hands. In Syria’s case, that means essentially leaving a patchwork of cantonments that are never likely to be reassembled into a unitary state. Assad and ISIS control large chunks of land on either side of Syria — Assad in the east, ISIS in the west. The Kurds control a growing sphere of influence in the north — the budding state of Rojava – along the Turkish border. In the north, around Aleppo, and in the south, around Daraa, various rebel groups hold sway. No individual group is able to rule the entire country. And while that may be a tragedy to Syrian patriots, to Putin it is an opportunity to be exploited.

The Russian autocrat specializes in creating “frozen” conflicts. In Georgia, Moscow supports the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia; in Moldova, Transnistria; in Ukraine, the renegade provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk along with the now-annexed Crimea. Add to these the Assad state in Syria which controls a narrow strip of territory in the east running from Damascus to Latakia along the Mediterranean coast, which is home to a Russian airbase that looks to be a permanent fixture. Putin’s goal in peace talks in Geneva will perpetuate this status quo indefinitely. As long as Assad retains at least this much authority, Russia will be able to project power into the Middle East and stymie American efforts to (in Moscow’s thinking) dominate the region.

It goes without saying that this also means the continuance of a terrible tragedy for the Syrian people as well as nearby states. A civil war that may already have killed nearly half a million people, and made millions more into refugees, will continue — and terrible tyrants such as Assad and ISIS will continue to rule a substantial part of Syria’s territory. But Putin couldn’t care less. As long as Russia appears powerful, he is satisfied, in no small part because power projection outside his territory — spun into a glorious military victory by the compliant, Kremlin-controlled media — helps him to keep power within Russia. You can almost see why Trump admires Putin so much: Putin does appear “strong” (the highest term of praise in the Donald’s lexicon) compared to Obama, who once again looks weak. Only if you inject considerations of morality (as alien to Trump as to Putin) would you realize that Putin is hardly an admirable leader or a model worth emulating.

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Will the Syrian Ceasefire Last?

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