Headed North for the Summer: Russia’s Mission Accomplished in Syria
Visiting Editor, Leksika – Steven Luber
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Monday that the ‘main part’ of Russia’s forces in Syria would immediately begin leaving the country, declaring that Russia’s mission in Syria had been accomplished. This sudden and unexpected move has led to a firestorm in the Western media and policy community, generating a wide variety of commentary and speculation as to the Kremlin’s reasoning.
Moscow’s Objectives in Syria and Beyond
Utilizing open-source information from both Russian and Western sources, tentative conclusions can be reached regarding both what Moscow’s goals were and how successful the Kremlin was in achieving them.
- Stabilization of the Assad government – Successful. The loyalist-controlled heartland stretching from Damascus in the south through the Alawite homeland on the Mediterranean coast has been largely stabilized. Pockets of resistance remain, however most of these groups are party to the Russian-American ceasefire agreement, and clashes have momentarily ceased.
- Consolidation of government-controlled territory – Successful. The Syrian Armed Forces have made significant territorial gains such the beginning of the Russian air campaign. Assad’s forces have nearly encircled the rebel stronghold of Aleppo and are presently making strong progress toward re-capturing the ancient city of Palmyra.
- Halt the advance of the Jihadist forces, Islamic State affiliated or otherwise – Successful. Russia has received widespread criticism for disproportionately attacking armed opposition groups other than the Islamic State in northern Syria. From Moscow’s perspective however, many of these groups are just as threatening as ISIS – especially given their deep connections to extremist group in the North Caucasus and Central Asia. The establishment of safe-zones for Jihadist groups from the former-Soviet space is for Russia a more immediate threat than the Islamic State is. Such groups are also operate geographically closer to Russian air bases in Latakia and surrounding towns, and therefore needed to be targeted first simply from an operational security standpoint.
- Orchestrate a ‘Diplomatic coup’ – Inconclusive. Russia likely saw Syria as an opportunity to demonstrate that it is still a military power with a global reach. The relative brevity of their campaign was likely intended to demonstrate military effectiveness vis-à-vis the United States’ drawn-out interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is too early to judge whether or not this will be successful.
- Demonstration of new weapons technology – Successful. The Syria intervention afforded Moscow the opportunity to test and demonstrate new weapons technology in a real operational theater. Moscow successfully hit targets in Syria from as far as the Caspian Sea and placed state-of-the-art anti-aircraft missile in the country. Russia’s armed forces are currently undergoing rapid modernization in terms of both structure and technology, and Syria offered the perfect proving group for them.
- Leverage over European countries – Inconclusive. It is probable that Russia saw in its Syria intervention an opportunity to gain leverage over Western Europe. The EU’s core countries are burdened by a severe migration crisis which threatens to destabilize much of the continent. Political polls and election results have seen a rapid increase in support for parties advocating tighter border controls – many of whom are also more willing to work diplomatically with Moscow. This could give the Kremlin much more leverage when negotiating an end to sanctions and even position in the Ukrainian crisis.
The Withdrawal that is Not a Withdrawal
As this assessment was being written, pro-government forces were making significant progress toward re-capturing the ancient city of Palmyra with Russian air support. Moscow is not simply abandoning its Syria campaign or its allied government in Damascus. The withdrawal of Russian personnel represents a tactical and operational shift – not a strategic one.
According to a War on the Rocks assessment, “it seems likely the number of aircraft present will be reduced by half, close to the original numbers Russia fielded in Syria in October 2015. The remaining aircraft will continue to operate over Syria, and in fact have conducted strikes in recent days in support of Syrian army efforts to retake Palmyra from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). This means that, according to the Pentagon, they’re focusing on ISIL for the first time.”
Key positions such as the Hmeymim airbase are being maintained, and expansion is even underway at the Russian naval station at Latakia. Russia is not abandoning its interests in Syria, merely adjusting its approach.