By Iran Review
By Mohammad Khajouei*
Since old times, an analogy has been drawn between politics and a chess game in which winning or losing are both a function of correct and timely movements of pieces. What Russians did in the Syria chess game, especially through their military presence and withdrawal from the armed conflict in the war-torn country, clearly proved that they are skillful and smart politicians and chess players.
Six months ago, when Russians entered the Syrian war theater, they knew that their first experience of military engagement beyond their borders following the collapse of the former Soviet Union could turn into their Achilles’ heel and a cause of dishonor, or on the contrary, project a new image of Russia’s power to the world.
However, Russians’ pragmatism caused major goals of this war to be objective, small-scale and quite resilient on the basis of what was possible and existing limitations, so that, Syria would not turn into a quagmire for the Russian forces.
Although for many people the order issued by the Russian President Vladimir Putin for the withdrawal of the main body of the country’s military forces from Syria seemed untimely and weird, a comparison between conditions that exist today and six months ago would clearly prove that Russia has achieved the main and important goals that it pursued through this military campaign and, at least, as long as new conditions do not undergo any serious change, there would be no justification for further presence of Russian forces in Syria.
The main goal of Russia is to maintain its strategic position in the region and guarantee its own future presence in political and security environment of Syria, and on a larger scale, in the entire Middle East.
To achieve this goal, sometimes war and sometimes stopping war and initiating the peace process can be the most effective steps to be taken under appropriate conditions.
Six months ago and before Russia launched its military campaign in Syria, the course of developments in that country was not favorable for Russians. At that time, the Syrian opposition had the upper hand and the country’s army was practically worn out. Therefore, peace talks under those conditions could not have possibly been beneficial to the government of Syria and, of course, Russia.
Under those conditions, Putin’s historical decision to enter the Syria war militarily turned the table. Of course, Russians mentioned fighting against Daesh as the main reason behind their military action in Syria, but their most important goal was to change equations on the ground in favor of the Syrian government and this goal has been achieved.
It was through the support provided by Russian forces that Syria’s government forces managed during past months and weeks to wrest important and strategic swathes of Syrian territory out of the opposition’s control and change the equation in their own favor. However, Russia’s support for Syria in the battlefield has not been, and still is not, unquestioning and unlimited. In other words, Russia did not, and does not, want the Syrian government to end the game through military means because it has been proved to Russia that the solution to the crisis in Syria is not through war, but should be sought through peace negotiations. In better words, Russians consider the war not as an end, but as a means. It was for this reasons that just on the first day of the new round of Syria peace talks in the Swiss city of Geneva, Putin announced withdrawal of his forces from Syria.
The fact that the Syrian government can now take part in the peace talks more strongly due to recent achievements in the battlefield is considered as enough and suitable by Russia because this situation can serve as a good ground for a balanced and intermediate agreement. On the other hand, withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria can have a positive effect on Russians’ relations with Syrian opposition groups and those countries which support them and this will open up more options to Moscow in order to further play a role in the country. In fact, the pendulum-like measures taken by Russians on Syria chessboard have helped Russia become the focal and axial point of developments related to the case of Syria and this was exactly the strategic objective sought by the Kremlin.
Another important outcome of Russia’s military operations in Syria was a show of power by Russia as a major global actor. By entering a war beyond its borders, Russia once again proved its seriousness and power to other international actors. Without a doubt, the memory of Russia’s military operations in Syria will linger in people’s minds and this can have an effect on the calculations of countries with regard to other issues and crises that may come about in the future.
Libya was a bitter and of course didactic experience for Russia. In that development, Russia practically found itself trapped in the game designed by the West and the United States. Its agreement with the resolution passed to defend civilians in Libya practically benefitted the West, which aimed to use that resolution as a means to achieve its main goal, which was overthrowing the country’s former ruler, Muammar Gaddafi.
In Syria, however, Russia tried to design a game of its own, instead of playing the game planned by the West or even regional countries. As if Moscow believed that in such a state, it would have everything under its control and would be able to enter into interaction or even a deal with other involved parties, including the United States, from an active and powerful position.
Of course, there are other reasons, which may have affected Russia’s recent decision to withdraw its troops from Syria. Increasing security threats along Russia’s borders and rising activities by various terrorist groups in Central Asian countries, which call for more concentration on the part of Russia to contain these crises, were among those reasons. On the other hand, economic problems and reduction in Russia’s foreign exchange revenues as a result of the plummeting oil prices were further factors, which may have prompted Russians to cut short their military activities in the Middle East.
Of course, the above explanation is based on the existing equations. Syria is the land of quicksand and equations there are constantly changing. Therefore, it is not unlikely that unpredictable developments may further change Russians’ decision, especially taking into account that they are running two active bases in Syria – one in the port city of Tartus and the other one in Hmeimim – which can pave the way for more military moves by Russians.
In the short run, however, one can hope that withdrawal of Russia’s military forces from Syria and continuation of the cease-fire will have a positive effect on the process of peace talks. This is especially true because the withdrawal can bring positions of foreign parties that influence domestic conditions in Syria closer together as a result of which the government and opposition may reach an agreement to put an end to this bloody war, which has been overshadowing Syrian people’s lives for more than five years.
* Mohammad Khajouei
Senior Middle East Analyst