Just as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to send his troops into a direct confrontation in Syria last summer was a surprise to many, his decision to withdraw most of his troops from Syria was also a surprise. Therefore, the incident has dominated the media coverage and discussions in the region and across the world over the past two days.
The surprise lies in the fact that Russia has made repeated statements stressing the fact that its forces will not leave Syria without achieving their goals. Since the main declared goal of eliminating Daesh has not been achieved, we did not expect Russia to announce the withdrawal of its forces in this manner or this quickly. Therefore, the Russian official media was forced to change the goals of the Russian campaign from eliminating “terrorism” to killing the “Russian terrorists” in Syria, as well as other marginal goals, in an attempt to portray the withdrawal as the result of achieving the Russian military mission.
If we monitor the statements and responses to this decision, whether from analysts, activists, or some politicians, we would notice a rush or simplification in reading Putin’s decision, perhaps due to the nature of the sudden withdrawal and the unexpected manner in which it occurred.
The rushed reading from both sides, one of which portrayed the withdrawal as being a defeat for Russia due to the strikes of the opposition forces and fighting Syrian factions, while the other side portrayed it as an official declaration of the achievement of the Russian campaign’s goals, which the “victorious” Al-Assad will complete on the ground.
However, a careful reading of the ground and political developments in Syria and the region drive us to conclude that the Russian decision was made in the context of the predictions made by the international position regarding the Syrian crisis. The formation of this position started a while ago, but it has become more established in the past few months and it is being clearly expressed in the preparations for the Geneva conference. This prediction is that there can be no military solution for the crisis in the long run, and that there must be a political solution, while the various parties differ on the details of this solution.
Those who followed the statements and positions expressed in the past weeks could say that all of the regional and international parties, without exception, agree on the same principle when it comes to Syria, i.e. that the solution for the crisis must be political and it must preserve what is left of Syria. However, each party has a different opinion and vision regarding the details, such as the fate of Al-Assad, the federation, classification of the armed Syrian groups, the future of the state, etc.
Hence, the Russian withdrawal is in the context of the international agreement on this principle, and we can analyse Moscow’s assessment of the situation in the following contexts:
First, Russian agrees with the international and regional “consensus” regarding the inability to resolve the Syrian crisis militarily. Therefore, it is not interested in suffering more economic and political losses due to its presence in a battle that cannot be won militarily.
Second, Moscow entered Syria to improve the position of the regime in the strategic and military balance, and it was successful in doing so, however, it does not want to change the balances to the extent that Al-Assad is no longer interested in the political process or in a manner that allows his regime to impose more complications and conditions that hinder the political process. Russia also does not want to put the regime in a position where it can “rebel” against Moscow, which rescued it from successive field losses.
Third, Russia realises that its intensive military presence in Syria has made it an enemy of many of the region’s countries and people, and this is an unprecedented hostility towards Russia. Generally, the popular view of Russia was that it was a potential match for the American superpower, which is hated by most Arab nations.
Russia paid the political price for its military intervention for reasons it considered to be strategic and in order to prove its role as a key player in the Middle East. However, it does not want to suffer from a form of popular Arab hatred for the sake of the Syrian regime’s and Iran’s vision of the political settlement in the Syria, which Russia does not share.
Many of the observers and “analysts” who viewed Russia as an “irrational” player in the region were mistaken, and therefore, they considered Russia’s intervention in the war as merely taking advantage of the vacuum left by the Americans in the Middle East, and they saw Russia’s withdrawal as an angry reaction to the statements made by Al-Assad’s foreign minister, Walid Muallem, and other regime officials. However, the events are proving, day by day, that Russia is a rational player that knows when to progress in a war and when to withdraw or retreat to achieve its national and strategic goals.
Translated from Arabi21, 16 March 2016.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.