Russia pullout from Syria sends many signals
AMMAN - Russian President Vladimir Putin stunned the world twice in less than six months. First when he decided to engage his air force in Syria to prop up the regime of embattled President Bashar Assad in September 2015. Then a second time when he announced on March 14th the withdrawal of the bulk of his forces from Syria.
Unlike his decision to intervene in the country, which he had shared beforehand with Arab leaders, Putin’s resolution to reduce Russia’s military presence was only communicated to Assad. Even Washington expressed surprise at the move, noting that it was not previously informed about it.
Analysts are divided over the reasons for the Russian decision. For some, it is linked to a wider US-Russian “agreement” and a strong “commitment” to the Vienna-Geneva peace track and UN Security Council Resolution 2254, outlining a road map for a peaceful settlement process. Some argued that Washington and Moscow had gone as far as pledging to rein in their respective allies, in the sense that the former would prevent any possible Turkish-Saudi ground intervention in Syria, while the latter would check Assad’s push for a military solution.
Russia’s partial withdrawal from Syria, the argument said, is also dictated by a consensus with Washington on the need to maintain “a sustainable cessation of hostilities” entailing uninterrupted channelling of humanitarian aid, reactivation of local reconciliation bids and encouraging opposition groups to end their alliance with al-Qaeda-inspired al-Nusra Front, while the two poles would coordinate the war against the Islamic State.
A second group of analysts, however, view the Russian move as a reflection of Moscow’s “dispute” with Assad’s regime, which has remained largely under cover so far. They argued that disagreement erupted over Assad’s push for “a military settlement”, which he highlighted in an interview with Agence France-Presse on February 12th, only to back down in later comments he made to the Spanish newspaper El Pais, following sharp criticism by Russia’s UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin.
Moscow has also expressed its “strong discontent” with Assad’s announcement of general elections in April. The Syrian government later said the polls were a “constitutional event” not meant to abort the “Vienna-Geneva peace track”. This was followed by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem’s saying the presidency was “a red line” and that Damascus refused to discuss Assad’s future with any foreign party.
Syria’s UN envoy, Bashar al- Jaafari, further strained relations with Moscow when he declared that “the transitional period” stipulated in the peaceful settlement road map did not exist in Syria’s dictionary, nor in the talks’ agenda between the regime and the opposition.
Advocates of this viewpoint played down the significance of official statements issued in both Moscow and Damascus, which sought to portray the Russian decision as a result of “consensus” and “a step that was carefully studied for some time” after the Russian intervention had achieved its objectives.
They maintained that the Russian move came in response to growing differences and is designed to put pressure on Damascus to return to the peaceful track and meet obligations required under the terms of the road map and in line with US-Russian consensus.
Neither of the two groups of analysts gives much weight to claims about the success of the Russian military effort in Syria.
However, they acknowledge that Moscow has succeeded in establishing itself as a key regional-international player that holds many powerful cards and that its “Syria adventure” resulted in reviving the chances of a political settlement for the brutal conflict, which has killed more than 250,000 people and forced the displacement of millions.
The move coincided with the start of the political process in Geneva, which is still volatile and its results not guaranteed. It also came after the regime has achieved “gains on the ground”, but the latter could still suffer setbacks and maybe a “dramatic relapse” in the absence of the air cover that Russian planes had provided to the Syrian Army.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria in September helped turn the tide of the war in Assad’s favour after months of gains in western Syria by rebel fighters.
Analysts agree that Russia’s “dramatic” move would not have been possible without a “comprehensive and advanced” US-Russian “consensus” on Syria, which has caused confusion and embarrassment for Syria’s regional allies, including Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. The “dispute” between Moscow and Damascus has obviously reached a level beyond containment within the diplomatic channels.
The observers maintained that while Iran and Russia converge in supporting the Syrian regime, they clearly disagree over Assad’s future and Syria’s regional role, as well as its relations with Hezbollah and its stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
It might take some time for the inner causes of the Russian move to become clear. But one thing is clearer than ever: Russia did not intervene in the Syrian conflict seeking a military settlement in favour of Assad, but rather a “political solution” that would ensure Moscow a safe exit after reinforcing its regional and international role and ensuring its interests. Russia has no permanent allies in Syria, but it surely has permanent interests.