A Well Timed Move?: Russia Leaves the Syrian Conflict

The Kremlin

In a move that left many Western analysts scratching their heads, Putin announced on Monday that Russian forces would be partially withdrawing from Syria. He stated calmly at a press conference “I consider the objectives that have been set for the Defence Ministry to be generally accomplished,” and that the six months of Russian military intervention would end with troops pulling out gradually starting Tuesday.

The unexpected move was met with cautious optimism by the key players in the Syrian conflict. The White House said Obama welcomed the reduction in violence but “underscored that a political transition is required to end the violence in Syria.” Furthermore, rebel groups and opposition fighters in Syria welcome the news of reduced Russian involvement, which was inflicting major setbacks on their operations against Bashar Al-Assad’s regime.

The unexpected move was met with cautious optimism by the key players in the Syrian conflict.

Whilst Putin claims to have achieved his aims, it is still somewhat unclear what these ‘aims’ may have been. Russian forces entered Syria in September with the vague objective of ‘fighting terrorism’. However, much of the West has criticised Putin for bombing moderate rebels fighting against the Kremlin’s ally, Bashar Al-Assad, instead of so-called ‘Islamic State’ targets.

It appears a key aim for Putin was the shoring-up of Assad’s regime, rather than co-ordinated efforts with NATO against IS. The UK based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has published figures stating that Russian airstrikes have killed 4,408 people, 1,733 of which were civilians – claims hotly disputed by the Kremlin.

Despite the announcement of a partial withdrawal, it is key to note that Russia’s new airbase in Latakia will remain open, as will its recently-bolstered naval base at Tartus. Moreover, just three days after Putin’s announcement, he remained true to his mercurial form and reassured everybody that Russia had the ability to redeploy troops to Syria in a matter of hours if need be. He also added that the advanced S-400 missile defence system would remain in Syria.

Just three days after Putin’s announcement, he remained true to his mercurial form and reassured everybody that Russia had the ability to redeploy troops to Syria in a matter of hours if need be.

The timing of the announcement by Putin may be indicative of a larger-scale Russian foreign policy tactic. The ceasefire and the current negotiations in Geneva have allowed Russia a prominent place at the diplomatic table. A place that Western diplomats have been reluctant to give to Russia since the Ukrainian crisis.

Russia’s withdrawal and apparent commitment to a diplomatic solution can be construed as an attempt to establish themselves as a world power, rather than a regional aggressor. If the peace talks and ceasefire are successful, Putin will claim that Russia’s involvement was a catalyst towards peace. If the talks are unsuccessful and the conflict rages on, he will claim Russian involvement on the ground in Syria has proved to be imperative.

Whatever the Kremlin’s motives, there is a cautious optimism that the Syrian conflict, which entered its sixth year on Tuesday, may be edging closer to a diplomatic solution.

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