Syria: Russia is withdrawing in order to stay

Maria Dubovikova

Published: Updated:

Russia’s withdrawal from Syria was not a surprise to those who have been following it foreign policy. In Oct. 2015, President Vladimir Putin said: “Our goal... is to stabilize the legitimate power in Syria, and to create conditions for the search for political compromise.”

Despite his open declaration of intentions, outsiders have been listening more to the Foreign Ministry and Ministry of Defense, which cite fighting terrorists as a key reason for Russian airstrikes in Syria.

A few days before Moscow’s intervention, ground forces in Syria and Iraq had been expecting the fall of Damascus in two weeks, maximum a month. The situation was extremely imbalanced in favor of extremist groups and rebels due to Western and Gulf support. This imbalance and the fall of Damascus would destroy any fair peace process, and dramatically increase civilian casualties and displacement.

Balance of power

During Russia’s air campaign, Washington and Moscow made significant efforts in pushing the warring sides to the negotiating table in Geneva, and have achieved a long-awaited truce that the White House acknowledged has gone better than expected despite numerous violations. For the successful continuation of negotiations, Russia needed to announce its withdrawal, thus maintaining the equilibrium reached between the warring sides.

Russia has returned to the Middle East and will not leave, especially since it feels that most of its regional plans are being successfully implemented.

Maria Dubovikova

This equilibrium is pushing the Syrian regime to be more compliant, and the rebels to be more willing to talk in the knowledge that if negotiation fail, Russia will most likely return with its full air power.

It is vital to take note that the withdrawal is partial. Russia is leaving the S-400 missile system in Syria, and while declaring the withdrawal of its main force - officials say around 1,000 military personnel will remain - it had not clarified how many were previously deployed. Russia says both its bases in Syria will keep functioning regularly, and will be strongly protected. Meanwhile, it says it will keep striking “terrorist” targets.

As such, the partial withdrawal is most likely a political maneuver rather than a real step. Putin does not need new approval from parliament to send forces back to Syria, as the one granted in September remains in force and parliament is not going to cancel it. Russia is withdrawing to reinforce its positions in Syria.

It has reached its main goal of stabilizing the regime, and strengthened the chances for negotiations. It has trained its air force in a real war and demonstrated its military power. Keeping its mighty S-400 in Syria completely changes the balance of power. Moscow has managed to kill most of the Russian citizens who left the country to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and posed a grave threat to its national security.

Russia will most likely get more involved in the peace process. It has returned to the Middle East and will not leave, especially since it feels that most of its regional plans are being successfully implemented.
Maria Dubovikova is a President of IMESClub and CEO of MEPFoundation. Alumni of MGIMO (Moscow State Institute of International Relations [University] of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia), now she is a PhD Candidate there. Her research fields are in Russian foreign policy in the Middle East, Euro-Arab dialogue, policy in France and the U.S. towards the Mediterranean, France-Russia bilateral relations, humanitarian cooperation and open diplomacy. She can be followed on Twitter: @politblogme

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