By Nandan Unnikrishnan*
Russia’s sudden decision to withdraw the bulk of its troops from Syria appears to have significantly boosted the chances of success at the ongoing Geneva peace talks. Russia’s initiative should facilitate the emergence of a compromise that will lead to the restoration of stability in the Levant and result in the formation of a coalition to battle the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Such an outcome would support Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claims of victory after his nearly six-month long military intervention in Syria. Besides, such a declaration allows Russia to avoid the danger of being sucked into the quagmire of a protracted and debilitating military operation in Syria.
When Russian troops arrived in Syria at the end of September last year, it appeared that the Bashar al-Assad regime was reeling after a series of defeats. Despite support from Iran and the Hezbollah, the government was losing control over territory to ISIS and anti-government rebels supported by a variety of nations, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the US. Aleppo in the north, Palmyra in the west and areas around Dara in the south were all under rebel or ISIS control. The regime essentially held Damascus, the capital, and most of Latakia.
The ground realities changed dramatically with the arrival of Russian forces. On the coattails of Russia’s intensive bombing – over 9000 sorties – Syrian government forces regained considerable swathes of territory – over 10,000 sq. km., including parts of Aleppo, thus ensuring full control of Latakia. Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu while noting that Syrian troops retook over 400 settlements, stressed that 209 oil production and transfer facilities were destroyed, significantly weakening ISIS’ financial flows. He also claimed that 2000 “Russian criminals” – presumably ISIS fighters with Russian citizenship – had been eliminated, thus reducing the chances of blowback in Russia.
Each of these figures is an important component of what Russia’s overall aims were when they stepped in militarily into Syria.
First, undoubtedly, was to shore up the Assad regime to ensure that it firmly held enough territory to warrant being part of the peace negotiations and dispel any notions of Assad’s imminent fall.
Second, was to make sure that the territory held by Assad’s forces would guarantee, in the near- and medium-term future, the continuation of Russian military assets in the region, even if the peace talks broke down. To this end, Russia has announced that its naval facility and air base in Latakia would continue to function. Russia has also not withdrawn its air-defence systems, thus ensuring that anti-government forces will not receive air support if hostilities resume. Russian military sources have repeatedly said that if the necessity arises they could scale up their presence within a few days.
Third, Russia’s military intervention has also ensured Moscow becomes an indispensable participant in any peace talks on Syria, buttressing its claim of re-establishing itself as a major player not only in West Asia, but globally.
With the announcement of the withdrawal of forces from Syria, Putin is suggesting that Russia has ticked all the boxes of the aims it set out to achieve. Withdrawing at this stage, he appears to believe, only adds positive points to his kitty.
The withdrawal ensures that Assad not only loses any incentive to violate the two-week old, tenuous ceasefire, but also forces him to take seriously the participation in the Geneva talks. Bringing the Syrian government to the negotiating table without any serious preconditions on participants or Assad’s continuance in government underscores Russia’s commitment to a political resolution of the Syrian crisis.
It is unfortunate that a similar Russian proposal three or four year ago did not materialise because the anti-government rebels and their backers believed that Assad’s fall was inevitable. The opportunity to stabilise the region should not be lost this time because of vested interests. The fallout of failure would reverberate well beyond West Asia.
This commitment to a political resolution of the Syrian conflict reflects Russia’s belief that external players cannot unilaterally resolve such crises militarily, particularly when these players belong to politically, geographically and culturally distant countries. Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya are examples.
The timing of the withdrawal appears serendipitous because it ensures that if the ceasefire breaks down, Russia may have to re-engage only if Assad’s position significantly worsens. In addition, the withdrawal effectively eliminates chances of inadvertently clashing with Turkey, now that Ankara, apparently with Riyadh’s approval, is stepping up its military campaign against the Kurds. Although, some military observers opine that Russia would have liked a small entanglement with Turkey, despite it being a NATO country, to extract revenge for the downing of a fighter plane and killing of one of its pilots in November last year.
An unintended consequence of the Russian intervention in Syria appears to be that “once again, just like in the previous era, the real “bosses” remain Moscow and Washington, with no one else having the power or capacity to make important decisions and start to implement them,” said well-known Russian commentator Fyodor Lukyanov while noting, with sadness, that multiple efforts to build a new world order appear to have failed so far.
While there may be an element of triumphalism in such a statement, it is difficult not to agree that the European Union, for example, has hardly played any role in mediating a conflict that is taking place so close to it and causing an influx of migrants that is reshaping European politics.
The Russian military intervention in Syria is definitely far from restoring bipolarity in the world, but reasserts that the Kremlin has great capacity to play a positive role in international affairs. Harnessing these positive aspects would require policies alternate to those seeking to alienate and isolate Russia.
About the author:
*Nandan Unnikrishnan is a Vice President and Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He joined ORF in 2004. He looks after the Eurasia Programme of Studies. An alumnus of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), he began his career as a journalist with the Press Trust of India (PTI).
This commentary originally appeared in The Wire.