By: Peter Kirechu
On March 14, Russian President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly announced the withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria as UN-sponsored peace talks began in Geneva. Putin’s withdrawal–however partial–challenged the Obama administration’s long-held quagmire sentence on the Russian role inside Syria. Putin showed that a limited military campaign could preserve the regime from collapse without committing to a costly ground campaign. Taking stock of the Russian intervention thus far, current evidence suggests that Russian influence is unlikely to diminish.
In deciding to intervene militarily in Syria, Putin concluded that an Assad victory (or accommodation) would likely buttress Russian interests in the region. He secured his current advantage by capitalizing on a divided armed opposition usurped by Salafi-jihadists and what many in the international community perceive as an incoherent US strategy.
As such, an assessment on where Russia’s influence has mattered the most unveils great insights as to Putin’s end-state agenda. Putin’s Syria strategy is tightly wedded to the eventual outcome of the war, and thus a commitment to an eventual negotiated settlement. Russia intends to maintain a pliable government in Damascus; one that ensures Russian military access inside Syria as a balance to other international powers.
Forcing a Rebel “Reset” to Russia’s Advantage
When the last round of UN-sponsored peace talks on the Syrian conflict collapsed in early February, members of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) scrambled to arrest the spiraling violence through the cessation of violence agreement completed in Munich on February 11. This accord set the conditions for a tenuous peace that has so far held despite numerous violations largely attributed to the Assad regime.
Significantly, the Munich agreement attempted to force a wedge between moderate and hardline Islamist groups–principally between the Al-Nusra Front and other close affiliates. Since Russia vowed to continue its aerial campaign in territories occupied by both hardline and moderate groups, observers suggested that the truce was perhaps designed to force division within rebel ranks. Though evidence suggests that the ties between the Nusra Front and some of its allies such as Ahrar al-Sham are often fluid, the Munich agreement was a significant step towards addressing what role (if any) certain powerful Islamist groups may have in Syria’s future.
Through the Munich agreement, Putin ostensibly bound the United States in ipso facto agreement to the Russian perspective on the fractured opposition. By simply defining all opposition groups as irreconcilable terrorists, the Russian position advanced only two non-negotiable options: continued bombardment or a reprieve under ceasefire conditions; roughly 100 armed rebel groups joined the truce before implementation day on February 27. Ultimately, Russia’s discriminate targeting of the moderate opposition, combined with the regime’s collective punishment, exacted the desired concessions from the rebels and their external supporters.
Putin accurately assessed that the likelihood of the US-led coalition mounting a direct challenge to Russia’s aerial advantage was quite unlikely. Meanwhile, the regime parleyed its victories in Latakia, Deraa, and Aleppo to bolster its territorial gains in the event that the truce collapsed. Washington’s most viable relief to the beleaguered opposition rested on escalating arms provisions as an incentive for greater collaboration and unity among the rebels. This option, however, bore minimal benefit given Russian air superiority and the possibility that it would scuttle the developing ceasefire agreement.
But since the brokered ceasefire went into effect roughly one month ago violence has decreased by nearly 90 percent. This relative calm has also opened the space for peaceful protest as hundreds of thousands of local Syrians have again flowed into the streets demanding Assad’s departure. This return to peaceful assembly, however, occurs at a time when the moderate opposition is beset by dwindling prospects of an outright victory, or a favorable negotiating position in Geneva. This is precisely the outcome desired by Russia as peace talks resume: a militarily waning moderate opposition, undermined by the prominence of Salafi-jihadist groups, and thus pliable in any forthcoming settlement.
Managing Assad’s Potential Return to Intransigence
Prior to the withdrawal announcement, the regime was insulated in western Syria and the moderate opposition was increasingly battered and fractured as Assad appeared to have his way militarily. Assad’s resurgence translated into his regime’s growing intransigence on the diplomatic front. Days before talks resumed in Geneva, regime representatives revived the poisonous question of Assad’s political future, stiffening their position on Assad’s surviving role as head-of-state. Perhaps emboldened by their increasing military leverage, the representatives veered outside the primary focus of the talks, which is largely focused on developing a workable transition process.
These developments and the timing of the Russian withdrawal suggests that Putin’s drawdown may to some level curb regime behavior in Geneva. A slight panic within the regime may prove beneficial, though the fidelity of this particular claim is hard to discern. What appears clear is that the extent of Russia’s withdrawal will remain opaque for several weeks.
A complete departure of the Russian military presence is quite unlikely since the naval base at Tartus and the air base at Hmeimim will remain operational. The Syrian battlefield has certainly served as a testing ground for Russian military hardware. And it was (and will likely remain) an excellent proving ground for Russia’s execution of a high intensity aerial and ground campaign; allowing these capabilities to recede would be a gross error in Putin’s eyes.
The Russian Approach Post-Palmyra
Evidence from Russia’s military operations inside Syria revealed the disproportionate targeting of non-Islamic State aligned rebel groups. Nonetheless, Russian air raids have provided the necessary aerial cover for government troops to advance and retake the historic city of Palmyra which was seized by the Islamic State last May. Meanwhile, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of Kurdish, Arab, and Turkmen militias has in recent months wrested away swathes of territory from the Islamic State in a push towards the group’s de-facto capital in Raqqa.
The United States is intently focused on advancing negotiations between the regime and Syria’s main opposition bloc. Such an outcome, if appropriately harnessed, also provides the elusive ground component required to decisively challenge the Islamic State throughout Syria. That Russia floated the possibility of a federal post-war Syria is quite significant, though such an outcome is contingent on an elusive agreement between all parties involved. Given the current conditions, any power-sharing agreement that sets the outlines of a grand security infrastructure will likely be led by the regime, to Russia’s benefit.
The regime’s recent progress in Palmyra opened a new offensive corridor into Deir al-Zor which may extend north into the Islamic State heartland of Raqqa as conditions warrant. Russia calculates that a regime victory in both Raqqa and Deir al-Zor will secure remnants of the regime if Assad leaves in a transition settlement, however unlikely. What remains unclear is whether the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) has the manpower to effectively achieve this objective without substantial reinforcements from surrogate Shia militias from Iraq and beyond. But as Iran deepens its Syria involvement beyond the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) the regime’s manpower deficits will benefit from these reinforcements.
On the other hand, the United States will continue to face a tough challenge in galvanizing Sunni rebel resistance as regime forces move eastward. And despite the regime’s manpower shortages, Russia is likely to exploit this handicap to maintain its footprint inside Syria. That Russian commitment has slowly transitioned from fighter jet squadrons to close air support via attack helicopters suggests that Russian ground presence will continue.
In the past several days, the weeks-long ceasefire has fallen under immense pressure and mutual violations by both the regime and the armed opposition threaten to tear the deal asunder. Whether the ceasefire survives or falters, Russia’s military role inside Syria is unlikely to recede.
Peter Kirechu is Graduate Student at the Mercyhurst Institute for Intelligence Studies where he focuses on civil strife, insurgencies and counterterrorism. Mr. Kirechu was also a 2013 Boren Scholar to Jordan where he studied the security and humanitarian effects of Syria’s civil conflict. @PeterKirechu