Russian pullout alters Syria war, negotiations
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.”