Russian pullout alters Syria war, negotiations

Friday 18/03/2016
Russian pilot receiving flowers upon arrival from Syria

BEIRUT - Russian President Vladimir Putin’s surprise decision to partly withdraw his forces from Syria leaves the Damascus regime vulnerable to rebel assaults and is a powerful message to President Bashar Assad that he has to negoti­ate to end the war.

Putin made it clear right from the start that the Russian interven­tion in September 2015, as unex­pected as the Russian pullout, was not open-ended and that Moscow had its own strategic imperatives in stepping in to save Assad.

The mercurial Russian leader’s March 14th announcement of the partial withdrawal, as the war en­tered its sixth year, was widely in­terpreted as a strong nudge to an obdurate Assad, his bargaining po­sition greatly strengthened by Rus­sian power, that now is the time to seriously compromise and negoti­ate a peace deal at talks under way in Geneva.

Putin’s move may well have been prompted by Assad’s grandiose boast two weeks ago that with his military position immeasurably im­proved by Russian forces, he now seeks to reconquer all the vast ter­ritory lost since the war began in March 2011.

That seemed to have grated with Moscow and prompted Putin to give Assad a sharp reminder of his vul­nerability amid a partial ceasefire brokered by Russia and the US that began on February 27th.

“This is Russia’s way of saying ‘You know what, there are no more offensives. This is as far as you’re going. We’ll protect your territory, but we’re not going to go any fur­ther than this. You’re going to have to negotiate a deal’,” observed Ran­da Slim of the Middle East Institute.

On the battlefield, the Russian withdrawal, however partial, will leave Assad’s forces exposed after a ferocious Russian air campaign ef­fectively blocked rebel advances in northern Syria.

“The Russian drawdown… will certainly affect the loyalist forc­es’ overall prowess, the US-based global security consultancy Stratfor observed. “The rebels will take ad­vantage of their renewed freedom of movement. And loyalists will lose much of their ability to soften up enemy positions before ground assaults.

“The rebels, especially jihadist factions such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Jund al-Aqsa, will also seek to dem­onstrate their strength, potentially weakening efforts towards a perma­nent ceasefire.”

It is not entirely clear what el­ements Moscow is withdrawing from its deployment of 40 top-line combat aircraft and a dozen attack helicopters. But military analysts believe that a quarter of that force would likely be enough to allow As­sad’s forces to hold onto the terri­tory they have gained.

“I don’t think Russia would pull out unless they’re confident that there will be no external assistance to the opposition of the kind that might upend the military balance that exists in Syria today,” Slim said.

“Russia has obviously shown to the opposition’s backers… that if the regime is under threat, it will go in and draw the lines.”