By Afro-Middle East Centre
Russian President Vladimir Putin shocked many with his announcement on 14 March that his 8 000-strong expeditionary force in Syria would begin a gradual withdrawal over the next five months. The move has attracted a varied set of responses from Russia’s allies, critics, and other roleplayers in the Syrian crisis. It is clear this will not be a full withdrawal of all forces, weaponry and materiel. Instead, while most forces – including pilots – will return home, a number will be confined to the Russian naval base in Tartus, and the Russian Hmeimim airbase near Latakia, as will much of the weaponry and military aircraft. Putin claimed the withdrawal was because Russian intervention in Syria had achieved its objectives.
Since September 2015 Russian aircraft have bombarded Syrian opposition groups, as well as some Islamic State group (IS) targets, from the air, while Spetsnaz special forces and Russian military advisers have directed and assisted Syrian, Hizbullah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps forces in their defence of President Bashar al-Asad’s regime, and the Syrian army’s surge into Aleppo’s rebel-held northern countryside. Russia also upgraded its Tartus naval base, and rebuilt and expanded the Hmeimim airbase.
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov had initially said the intervention was aimed at fighting ‘terrorist groups’ in Syria, which, for Russia, included various Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups. But Russia’s objectives also included: propping up the Asad regime and returning it to a position of superiority on the battlefield; removing the immediate threat to the Alawi heartland along the western coast; ensuring that Russian interests in Syria were protected; establishing itself as a global player that is able decisively to deal with international conflicts; use the military campaign to prepare for Geneva negotiations in a manner that would make negotiations favourable to the Syrian regime and to Russia’s role as a mediator. Many of these objectives have been attained, and Russia does not want to extend its stay and risk an Afghanistan-type quagmire.
When Russian aircraft took to the skies above Syria in September 2015, rebel forces had been making substantial and sustained gains on the battlefield, and had posed a threat to Asad’s stronghold of Latakia. The Russian campaign has decisively reversed many of those gains and eliminated the threat to Latakia; and while the regime still does not have full control over the country, it is now more secure and has the upper hand in the war. Russia is not necessarily concerned about Asad having full control over the country, even if that is the Syrian government’s aim.
Russia is eager to secure is its interests in Syria, and has achieved that by securing the regime’s position, thus ensuring Russian influence in the Arab world; fortifying the Tartus and Hmeimim bases, thus guaranteeing Russia a longer term presence and protection of its warm water Mediterranean port. That this is not a real ‘withdrawal’ is illustrated by Putin’s comment that the two bases will be ‘protected from the land, from the sea, and from the air’. Russia might have stopped bombing Syria, but it will still have the capacity to control Syrian airspace and to deter foreign (including regional) powers from intervening.
Russia has also strengthened its influence in Syria through its intervention because it has emboldened forces within the Syrian Ba'ath Party which do not like the Islamist Iranian ally, including senior officers who trained in the Soviet Union and are more comfortable with a Russian role than an Iranian one. Furthermore, Iran has become, for Russia, a slightly less predictable ally after the Iran nuclear deal drew that country closer to the West. Direct influence in Syria means Russia does not need to rely on Iranian influence to achieve its objectives there. Thus, although Iran was pleased when the Russian strikes began, it might see its influence in Syria decrease in favour of Russia.
Putin has also decisively emphasised Russia’s status as a global player that will not shy away from challenges, and is able to play a role in foreign conflicts both at diplomatic and military levels. Unlike the US role in countries such as Libya, Russia is also able to claim that it intervened not against but in support of an internationally recognised government, thus not violating international law.
Significantly, Putin made the announcement on the day that peace talks between the Syrian regime and opposition groups were to resume in Geneva. As co-chair of the International Syria Support Group, Russia was instrumental in setting up the ceasefire – as problematic as it might have been – that was vital for these negotiations to take place. Russia’s support of Asad in the past five months means it will be able to persuade him to participate in the talks in a manner that will lead to some solution. Asad’s belligerence should be sobered by realising that Russia can alter or withdraw its support as it pleases. Furthermore, with the opposition having been battered by Russian airstrikes, these groups will participate in talks while licking their wounds, and with the knowledge that the strikes could begin as suddenly as they had ended. Despite belligerent rhetoric, many of them will also be relieved to find a solution. For Russia, its withdrawal from the battlefield allows it now to present itself as more ‘neutral’ and as a mediator, enhancing its role in the talks and on the global stage.
Putin aims to re-establish Russia’s political standing globally, commensurate to its nuclear capability, UN Security Council seat and historic role in world affairs. Guiding the Syrian war to a settlement which restores relative stability can therefore be significant. While the Syrian role and the withdrawal helps rejuvenate its image as a military-diplomatic superpower, it also assists in rolling back Russian isolation forced onto the state by western sanctions after its intervention in Ukraine. The European Union will decide in July whether to renew sanctions on Russia. If Russia secures a Syria deal that helps reduce the flow of refugees to Europe, and can use a Syria deal to ease tensions in Ukraine, it could realise a favourable outcome in July. It will bank on Italy and/or Hungary – whose representatives have already met Russian officials to discuss the refugee issue – to oppose sanction renewal.
Another gain for Russia, though of a lower priority, has been an increase in Russian arms sales in the past few months. Russian airforce sorties over Syria provided a wonderful advertisement for its weapons’ industry.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
As various parties to the Syrian crisis, including the United Nations, Russia, and the United States, prepare for ‘proximity talks’ to take place this week, and as UN Special Envoy Stefan de Mistura attempts to put a positive face to a ceasefire he oversaw, it was clear within twenty-four hours of the ceasefire going into effect that it would not hold. Within the first week of the ceasefire a total of 135 people were killed according to one monitoring group, although the real number is likely to be much higher.
The cessation of hostilities between Bashar al-Asad’s regime and a selection of opposition groups took effect on 27 February. The ceasefire was orchestrated by Russia and the USA, co-chairs of the seventeen-member International Syria Support Group (ISSG). The joint US-Russian communiqué regarding the aims and logistics of the ceasefire noted that Islamic State group (IS) and al-Qa'ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra were not included in the ceasefire agreement, and mandated that a US-Russian-led ISSG Ceasefire Task Force would be responsible for identifying IS- and Jabhat-controlled territory for continued airstrikes. The communiqué also committed all parties to ensure the safe passage of aid to areas requiring it. Within twenty-four hours of the ceasefire having gone into force, however, Russian aircraft are believed to have bombed targets in Hama province around the village of Herbanafsa, where rebels associated with the powerful Jaish al-Fatah faction are operating. In Darkosh, Idlib province, where Ahrar al-Sham (AAS) rebels are in control, the ceasefire is also not holding. Throughout the week following the signing of the ceasefire agreement, suspected Russian aircraft continued to pound villages allegedly linked to JAN and IS and those controlled by the Free Syrian Army, which is a party to the ceasefire. Due to international and regional actors putting their geostrategic goals ahead of promoting a complete winding down of hostilities, the ceasefire is incomplete and is barely holding even in its targeted areas.
The communiqué notes that the identification of armed groups will be based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Paragraph 8 of the resolution obligates UN member states to suppress ‘terrorist acts committed specifically by…entities associated with Al Qa'ida or ISIL’. A number of groups so identified by this resolution are backed by the USA – either directly or indirectly through its allies in Ankara, Doha and Riyadh. The powerful components of the Jaish al-Fatah coalition, such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, are backed by Riyadh, received training through CIA programmes, and were invited to form part of the Saudi-backed Higher Negotiation Committee. Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam have occasionally fought alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, and also alongside Free Syrian Army-linked units, notably in the eastern Damascene suburbs. Ahrar al-Sham’s position on various issues has been particularly ambivalent. It aims to present itself as moderate and accommodating in various Arab media forums, while also stating that it will not abide by any ceasefire, and pledging support for Jabhat al-Nusra. The group opportunistically allies itself with al-Nusra in areas where IS and the Syrian forces pose a threat, while decrying Nusra’s exclusionary Salafism on the international stage to avoid being labelled a terrorist outfit.
Such tactics have provided Russia with the excuse to continue bombing ‘terrorists’. Meanwhile, Riyadh and Washington see groups such as Ahrar al-Sham as a counterweight to IS and regard them as battle hardened enough to be able to hold ground against the Syrian army. Turkey and Saudi Arabia will likely continue arming and funding certain groups within Jaish al-Fatah; Riyadh hopes to bolster its main proxy groups as the war enters a new and more unpredictable phase. Ankara hopes to strengthen groups that can win political and military victories against the Kurds. The ambition of the most powerful Syrian Kurdish armed group, the Peoples Protection Units (YPG), is to link the Kurdish cantons of Efrin with other Kurdish cantons ofCizire and Kobani by a strip of Syrian territory disputed between various rebel groups and IS. By linking these three cantons the PYD-YPG would be able to forge a contiguous Kurdish-controlled territory in order to entrench its social project and block supply routes to Jabhat al-Nusra, IS and other rebel groups. Ankara views this ambition as a direct attack on its security and foreign policy goals in Syria; an autonomous Kurdish area on its southern border could provide the armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has renewed hostilities with the Turkish state, with a safe haven. Furthermore; any experiment in autonomy could provide inspiration to Turkey’s own restless Kurdish population. Turkey has therefore been shelling YPG positions along the border and threatened intervention into Syria – which is unlikely given the strong involvement of Russia.
Another important element of the ceasefire communiqué is the humanitarian aspect. Parties to the ceasefire are obliged to ‘allow humanitarian agencies rapid, unhindered and sustained access throughout areas under their control’. UN and partner aid agencies had planned to deliver life-saving aid to 154 000 civilians this week, but even this is subject to the politics of the groups involved, with many areas still subject to air raids. The siege of Deir al-Zor, wherein 200 000 people are trapped, continues because IS, which controls that territory, is not part of the agreement; and airdrops which were meant to ease the plight of the besieged inhabitants have been missing their targets.
De Mistura expressed hope that increased aid to besieged areas and a lull in the violence could set the stage for the revival of the halted Geneva peace talks. He wants ‘proximity talks’ to begin on 10 March. It is likely that the Syrian regime will attempt to create a situation on the ground before then that will grant them maximum negotiating power. Riyadh and Ankara, meanwhile, will look at ways to prop up rebel factions in order to both block both an Iranian diplomatic coup and a roll back of Kurdish goals.