This article is part of series of articles on the developing situation in Middle East and its impacts on the entire region as well as globe.
The Russian Air Force along with units of Special Forces were deployed in Syria on September 30, 2015 by President Vladimir Putin in the wake of heavy losses suffered by the forces loyal to the President Assad. This was an unexpected announcement and many observers predicted that the mere deployment of few squadrons of Air Force would fail to bring any meaningful changes on the battlefield. The seemingly endless air campaign of US against the self proclaimed Islamic State (IS) was often cited as a proof. However, Russian airstrikes in Syria did alter the scenario on battlefield by targeting the rebel forces supply lines, weapon depots and areas of concentration. This brought huge relief to the weakened Syrian armed forces which were not only able to fend off rebel and Islamist offensives but also to launch the offensives of its own; the most important of them being the SAA advance around Aleppo in which the major rebel supply route with Turkey was cut off. Russian involvement was also responsible for convincing the once determined and uncompromising rebels to negotiate with the Syrian government about the future of Syria.
President Putin did not fail to surprise again and abruptly announced the withdrawal of a major chunk of Russian forces in Syria on March 14. 2016. Putin declared victory in a speech and enforced the point that major Russian aims in Syria have been achieved. He also announced that the long range air defense system S-400 along with necessary air force, navy and Special Forces units will remain in Syria in order to secure the vital Russian interests in the country and to support Syrian fight against the Islamic state and other Islamist forces. Russian Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov also stated that the Russian aircraft will continue to strike IS and Al-Nusra front positions, the implication being that the combat operations will continue. The Russian Naval units are also firmly in place along the Syrian coast however a draw down in naval forces is expected.
President Putin’s diplomatic genius remains unparalleled. He always keep a few cards up his sleeves and is always willing to surprise his foes. His sudden decision to withdraw major forces from Syria is indeed a surprising and smart move. This draw down in forces comes at a time when a major ceasefire is in place between Syrian government and Opposition forces. The Russian involvement in Syria was viewed negatively by USA and allies in EU and GCC which resulted in cold relations between Russia and the West, the relations that were already strained due to Ukraine Crisis. This Russian draw down of troops will send a positive message to the West and will result in normalization of relations. Also, it will send a message to the international community that Russia is serious in settlement of Syrian war through negotiations. This Russian move is an indication for President Assad that the Russian support has its limitations and that the negotiations with Opposition are to be taken seriously.
Russian withdrawal of forces from Syria does not mean that Russia has left Syria totally. The Russian Soviet era naval base at Tartous and the newly established Hmeymim airbase will remain operational. This Russian withdrawal simply implies the withdrawal of additional forces while the necessary forces will remain in Syria. The Russian air force is busy targeting the IS forces in ancient city of Palmyra which indicates that Russian capacity to carry out strikes in any part of Syria has not waned at all. The burden of sustaining additional forces inside Syria is no more to be carried and the new weaponry is replacing the old one. The deployment of latest Russian attack helicopters Ka-52 and Mi28N will not only provide close air support to Syrian forces and will also undergo combat exploitation as part of Russia’s effort to test new weapons system in field conditions. The Russian withdrawal of old weapons has provided the opportunity to the Russian armed forces to test new weapons system.
The partial Russian withdrawal also has economic dimensions as well. The Russian economy is currently in recession partly due to the western sanctions but mainly due to the crashing energy prices. The Ukraine crisis led to the sanctions which are hurting the Russian economic growth. In addition to that the Russian involvement in Syria is also hurting the Russian economy. The daily cost of Russian operations in Syria is about $4 million per day and it totals to about $80 million to $115 million since operations began on September 30, 2015. The drastic draw down of Russian forces will make the Russian involvement in Syria economically manageable. The deescalation in Ukraine along with the Russian draw down of forces in Syria will result in improved relations between West and the Russia which will reduce the economic pressure on the later.
The domestic support for President Putin after his announcement to withdraw part of forces from Syria has increased. Putin who is already viewed in Russia as a powerful leader will surely be able to cash his limited expedition in Syria. The gains made by the opposition parties inside Russia due to the slow economic growth and strained relations with the West will be reversed. Putin has successfully outsmarted his foes at home and at abroad. The policies of Obama administration in fighting IS in Iraq and Syria have so far failed to bring any meaningful change while the Putin’s short air campaign has helped Syrian government forces to make major gains against both opposition and IS forces. The recapture of ancient city of Palmyra which is 210 kilometers away from Damascus with the help of Russian airstrikes only a few hours ago on March 27, 2016 is an indication of successful Putin’s campaign.
The Russian support for President Assad also resulted in high tensions between Russia and Saudi Arabia. The partial withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria will surely help in mending ways between the two states. This withdrawal also comes at a time when the US Saudi relations are not so warm due to the US Iranian nuclear deal and differences on the war in Syria. The relations between Saudi Arabia which is already under pressure due to it’s war in Yemen and the rising threat of IS and Russia will improve providing opportunity to the Russians to exploit the US Saudi differences and make inroads into the Gulf states. The faltering alliance between USA and Saudi Arabia is already being exploited by rising powers such as China and even India who are offering assistance to Saudis in order to ensure internal and external security in Saudi Arabia.
The partial Russian military withdrawal will have great impacts not only on the war in Syria but also on the region in particular and the Russian relationship with the western powers in general. Russia has thus far emerged as a beneficiary in the Syrian war. The Russian airstrikes not only reversed the gains made by opposition forces but also forced them to negotiate with President Assad. The war in Syria isn’t over yet but the Russian air campaign has sent a strong message to all that it is impossible to topple Assad militarily. Moreover, Russia has successfully outsmarted its rivals in the regions. The Russian interventions in Ukraine and now Syria are a message to the world that the past days of unprecedented US power are slowly waning.