Russia Is Drawing Down In Syria. Will Its Leverage Go Too?
Just as the latest round of Syria peace talks began in Geneva this week — with no “plan B” except a return to war, according to the United Nations’ Syria envoy — there came a surprising announcement. Vladimir Putin, who began an intervention in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime last fall, announced the withdrawal of the “main part” of Russia’s forces from the country.
When Russia launched its bombing campaign nearly six months ago, Putin cast the intervention as a fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. But instead of focusing its attacks on ISIS, Russia’s air force also targeted the armed opposition to President Bashar al-Assad, including rebel groups backed by the CIA, and United States allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The intervention helped stabilize the Assad regime, giving it enough momentum to recapture territory and encircle the partly rebel-held city of Aleppo. It also resulted in the deaths of 2,000 civilians, according to rights groups.
“I think Russia has changed the facts on the ground,” said Will Pomeranz, deputy director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “It has given life to Assad, it has increased territory, it has undermined the rebels, it’s gone after the opposition that was most closely aligned with the West.”
That has made Russia “a more significant player in Syria’s future than the United States,” Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, wrote in Reuters. “Influence is bought by blood and treasure; by being willing to put its bombers, guns and men into play, Moscow not only helped Assad but reshaped the narrative of the war.”
But even as Russia made a point of standing by Assad, Putin’s announcement on Monday signaled that there were limits to how far Russia would go to back him.
“The timing is important and it’s sending a message to Assad, ‘You better be serious about these negotiations, because we Russians are,'” said Randa Slim, Director of the Track II Dialogues initiative at The Middle East Institute. It showed that Moscow’s commitment to the political process is genuine, she said.
The question is whether Assad will hear Russia’s message and take negotiations seriously. While the air campaign has reshaped the dynamics of the war, experts said Moscow’s leverage over Damascus has often been overestimated.
“I think what we’ve learned is all [outside] powers have less leverage than they think they do,” Pomeranz said. “It’s by no means certain that Assad will listen to Russia or necessarily take what Russia has done and say, ‘Yes, now I need to somehow negotiate.'”
Slim pointed to several recent flash points between Moscow and Damascus, even as Russia’s intervention in support of Assad was ongoing. Assad’s insistence in February on retaking all of Syria, for example, was met with a warning from Russia’s envoy to the U.N., Vitaly Churkin, who said if Syria continued “on the basis that no ceasefire is necessary and they need to fight to a victorious end, then this conflict will last a very long time and that is terrifying to imagine.”
The government’s Feb. 22 announcement about holding elections in April drew a response from Russia’s foreign ministry spokesperson “insisting” such elections be held after the regime and opposition had drawn up a new constitution. Putin’s announcement about the withdrawal came just two days after Syria’s foreign minister declared Assad’s ouster a “red line” for negotiations, telling the opposition to abandon “delusions” of a Syria without Assad.
“Mr. Assad believed that Russia was there with him for the long-term, and it was going to be Russia’s intention to help Assad unify the whole country,” Pomeranz said. But Putin’s announced withdrawal showed that Russia was not interested in fighting a long-term proxy war, despite Assad’s apparent desire for Russia’s continued engagement. “Assad is playing a different game than Russia always. Assad is there and he has no place else to go.”
Yet even if priorities between Putin and Assad have diverged, Putin’s announcement may nonetheless send a message to a different audience: the international community and Arab nations involved in negotiations. As Slim explained, “from the beginning [Russia has] said, ‘We’re going to be in Syria to help the negotiation process, we needed to enter this militarily to shore up a regime that was at the time about to be defeated militarily, and now that we’ve achieved this we’re using that leverage to push forward the negotiation process.'”
That doesn’t mean Russia’s military influence will completely go away. A naval base in Tartus will remain operational, as well an airbase in Latakia. A Russian official was quoted saying they would also leave behind the powerful S-400 air defense system in Syria. As of Tuesday, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that “personnel are currently loading equipment, logistics support means and property onto military-transport airplanes,” and Russian TV showed some fighter jets flying back to Russia. However, Russian jets also continued to carry out raids in support of government troops as they advanced toward Palmyra, according to The Guardian. A senior Russian defense official was quoted saying Russia would continue striking “terrorist facilities,” a term that Slim pointed out Assad and Putin broadly define to include any armed opposition fighting the regime, and not just groups like ISIS or Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate the Nusra Front.
Russia’s remaining military presence also leaves the door open to further intervention. However, Pomeranz noted that Putin faces domestic, economic and international pressures that may hold him back from stepping back into the fray.
As for what Russia’s drawdown means for Syria if talks break down, that remains to be seen. Slim said, “Will the Russians step in to help Assad keep territories he has recently gained if he starts to lose them? Which is likely to happen without Russian air support. Will they continue bombing non-ISIS, non-Nusra groups that have been fighting Assad? The picture is becoming blurrier.”
“It’s a new stage,” Pomeranz added. “The problem is no one has the power to put Syria back together again.”