On September 30, 2015 following an official request by the Syrian government for military assistance against the jihadist groups acting in the region, Russia decided to launch a fierce military campaign against ISIS positions in Syria. The objective was to hit the terrorist command and control centers, oil facilities, major hideouts, and deliver a sizeable advantage to the government forces acting on the ground to regain control over the lost territory. The intention of the exercise was to weaken the ISIS and its ability to generate revenue to sustain its operations. After nearly five months into its first ever military adventure outside the post-Soviet space, Russia did achieve its objectives. While briefing to President Vladimir Putin on March 14, 2016 the day the decision to withdraw forces from Syria was taken, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu stated that the Russian military had “successfully hindered major resource support to the terrorists. 209 facilities for producing and processing and transferring of fuel were destroyed by the air force along with 2,912 sources of petroleum delivery (read trucks)”.[1] Moreover, with the support of the Russian Air Force, the Syrian army liberated more than 400 towns and over 10,000 kilometers of territory, thereby achieving a decisive advantage in its fight against the terrorist groups.

 

Russian action proved crucial in strengthening the government forces fighting against the terrorist groups. Importantly, the two most important bases in Syria, i.e. the naval base at Tartus and the Hmeimim air base at Latakia were also safeguarded following the action. Furthermore, the effective military actions by Moscow also helped create conditions to initiate peace process which are demonstrated with the creation and implementation of the international support group Syria; agreements on the parameters for achieving a political solution to the Syrian crisis as seen in the drafted UNSC resolution 2254 and addressing the overall situation leading to ceasing of hostilities, combining efforts to address the humanitarian crisis and starting the intra-Syrian talks. In this context, understanding the Russian decision of withdrawal needs to be understood. For doing so, three vital aspects need to be taken into consideration; a) the official position of Russia towards the Syrian conflict, b) what Russia seeks to achieve from the withdrawal and c) implications of the withdrawal on Russia’s foreign policy.  

Russia’s position towards the Syrian armed conflict has been very clear right from the beginning. On simply comparing the stand that Russia took in 2012 when it vetoed against the UNSC resolution[2] favoring a free license for the US military intervention in Syria, to the December 2015 UNSC resolution 2254,[3] a clear indication of Russia’s position towards the crisis can be understood. Indeed the Russian government took a big step in 2012, when it opted to support the Assad government given the pretext that, open support to the Assad government would have invited criticism from the world powers who were deeply impressed by the Arab spring of 2011. More so, Russia also stood against the notion of regime change that several countries including the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey were interested in. Furthermore, by supporting Assad, Moscow also risked the possibility of reviving Cold War like hostility, with the United States, shunning the efforts made at achieving a ‘Reset’ in the strained relationship between the two countries. In the present context Russia has still held on to its view that it stood for in 2012, and insisted that it will not allow external powers to facilitate a regime change in Syria. Russia in other words favored the replacement of Assad through democratic process within the boundaries of Syria. Russian diplomacy has worked to its charm because the same Russian view is being endorsed and adopted in the UNSC resolution 2254, which has laid the roadmap towards a peace process in Syria.  

When Russia started its military operations in September 2015, it abundantly made it clear that the nature of its operation would imbibe limited military use over a limited period of time. However, the West was critical about Russia’s intervention, stating that the intervention was not to defeat the Islamic State but to curb the US influence in West Asia and to project Russia’s emerging military potential. The West also accused Russia for systemically bombing Syrian armed opposition groups fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Moreover, what also remained critical was the fact that the intervention was coming at a time when Russia was struggling economically, following the steep decline in the oil prices and the sanctions imposed by the West over its actions in Ukraine. In addition to all these factors, there also emerged a threat that by directly bombing the radical elements in Syria, Russia might end up reviving the lost elements of insurgency in the north Caucasus region, especially Chechnya where Islamic radicalization was a grave problem.

Keeping all this in mind, Russia went ahead with the intervention, but more clearly emphasized that there could be no permanent military solution in Syria and that the military actions were not just to protect President Bashar al-Assad but to save the Syrian statehood.[4] In fact, this notion was further strengthened in an interview by the Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in February 2016, where it was stated, “Russia does not support President al-Assad personally, but maintains friendly relations with Syria as a country. Russia believes, there is currently no other legitimate authority in Syria apart from Bashar al-Assad. He is the incumbent president, whether anyone likes it or not. Taking him out of this equation would lead to chaos. We have seen that on numerous occasions in the Middle East, when countries simply fell apart, as it happened with Libya, for example.”[5]

Having stated Russia’s position towards the crisis, the decision of withdrawal only becomes important in understanding Russia’s effort towards achieving peace and stability in Syria. Moreover, it also addresses the fundamental challenge of having an ‘exit strategy’ that many strategic thinkers pointed towards, once Putin opted for military action. Russia intervened under the slogan of combating ISIS, following air strikes and effective ground campaign primarily with the joint effort and support of the Syrian army and other fighters fighting alongside the Syrian force. The recapture of Palmyra by the Syrian government forces from ISIS after days of intense fighting, serves as a major victory in this aspect. It not only legitimizes the efficacy of Bashar al Assad forces fighting against the ISIS but also gives a big boost to the overall Russian military strategy in Syria. In fact, in a statement given to SANA news agency, President Assad brought up a similar notion stating, “This is an important achievement and new evidence of the effectiveness of the strategy followed by the Syrian army and its allies in the war against terrorism.”[6]

Another important aspect of Russia’s strategy is the significance of both Russia and Assad as important players at the negotiating table. It is important to remember that before Russia militarily intervened in Syria, the West and more importantly the United States called for ouster of Bashar al-Assad as a precondition to peace talks. However, with successful Russian military action, ouster of Assad no longer remains a precondition. More importantly, by demonstrating military power and effective diplomatic skills to broker peace talks, Kremlin has cemented a place for itself as an important factor in the geopolitics of the West Asian region. This became evident when Russia partnered with the United States to monitor the implementation of the ceasefire agreement. It not only demonstrated Russia’s significance in ending the conflict but also a yearning for its former role as the other super power during the Cold War era. China which is also seen as the Russian ally in the Syria conflict and a strong competitor of the United States in its own race of becoming a global power, has also expressed its support in favor of Russia’s anti-terrorist operations in Syria. In fact, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying was cited by the TASS saying that, “We have always supported the efforts of various countries, including Russia, to ensure international security. As for Russia’s strikes against terrorist organizations in Syria, we have also expressed our support previously and noted that Russia carried out the fight against terrorist organizations in Syria at the invitation of the government of this country. China’s stance on the war against international terror was in harmony with the Russian approach”.[7]

The limited intervention also provided the right kind of training and exposure to the Russian military to carry out precise and effective intervention if and when required, whether in the post-soviet backyard or near abroad.[8] Domestically also, by deciding to withdraw forces, Putin has created an image of a leader who can take both strong political decision and also manage situations diplomatically. Such kind of an image is easy to sell to the Russian public keeping in mind the popularity of President Putin.

From the foreign policy perspective, Putin’s decision to intervene and exit from Syria needs to be understood as a bold policy measure given the fact that the western world was at odds with Russia over its action in Ukraine. The annexation of Crimea and the ongoing conflict in parts of the Donbas region, led many western strategists to portray Kremlin’s action as offensive with tendencies of reviving the old Tsarist Empire or at best the Soviet Union. However, time and again, Putin made it clear, that the actions undertaken in Ukraine and in Syria are done keeping in mind Russia’s national interest. Particularly in Syria, while Europe and the United States focused primarily on removing Assad from power, Russia on the other hand not only managed to protect Assad but also limited the operations of the ISIS militants by conducting vital air strikes. Using the success of airstrikes to its advantage, Russia now has the advantage of portraying itself as a credible military power in the international domain. The operation in Syria also serve as a bargaining chip for Russia’s action in Ukraine, with the likely result of sanctions being lifted, if the West and Russia agree to work together to eliminate the common threat, i.e. the Islamic State. With the attack in Paris and Brussels, it seems like Europe would have limited options in terms of not working hand in hand with Russia given their relative success. At present on the geopolitical and geostrategic level things are working well for Russia, but the major problem for which Putin now has to find solution is the deteriorating state of the Russian economy. Hopefully, the success in Syria will give Putin an advantage in terms of managing oil prices and making sure that the sanctions no longer remain a problem.  

*Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are personal



[1] Sanjay Kapoor, “How Putin has changed the future of oil”, The Hindu, 25 March 2016, see http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/how-putin-has-changed-the-future-of-oil/article8396942.ece?homepage=true, accessed on 28 March 2016.

[2] “Security Council Fails to Adopt Draft Resolution on Syria as Russian Federation, China Veto Text Supporting Arab League’s Proposed Peace Plan”, United Nations, 4 February 2012, see http://www.un.org/press/en/2012/sc10536.doc.htm, accessed on 1 April 2016.

[3] “Security Council Unanimously Adopts Resolution 2254 (2015), Endorsing Road Map for Peace Process in Syria, Setting Timetable for Talks”, United Nations, 18 December 2015, see http://www.un.org/press/en/2015/sc12171.doc.htm, accessed on 1 April 2016.

[4] Fyodor Lukyanov, “Why Putin’s Policy in Syria Has Laid the Groundwork for a Political Settlement”, Russia in Global Affairs, 21 March 2016, see http://eng.globalaffairs.ru/redcol/Why-Putins-Policy-in-Syria-Has-Laid-the-Groundwork-for-a-Political-Settlement-18052, accessed on 22 March 2016.

[5] Isabelle Kumar, “Medvedev: Syria, Ukraine and the economic crisis – an exclusive interview”, Euronews, 14 February 2016, see http://www.euronews.com/2016/02/14/medvedev-syria-ukraine-and-the-economic-crisis-an-exclusive-interview/, accessed on 1 April 2016. 

[6] Syrian army 'recaptures city of Palmyra from ISIL”, ALJazeera, 27 March 2016, see http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/03/syrian-army-recaptures-city-palmyra-isil-160327063713862.html, accessed on 4 April 2016.

[7] Alexander Korablinov, “China expresses support for Russian actions in Syria”, 7 December 2015, Russia Beyond the Headlines, see http://rbth.com/news/2015/12/07/china-expreses-support-for-rusian-actions-in-syria_548043, accessed on 8 April 2016.

[8] “Russia’s withdrawal from Syria: Five things you should know”, Chatham House, 17 March 2016, see https://medium.com/@ChathamHouse/russia-s-withdrawal-from-syria-five-things-you-should-know-17e3a1f07e70#.wpxe2l1bz, accessed on 8 April 2016.