In the wake of the horrific terror attacks that took place on March 22 in Belgium, the focus of the world seemed to land once again on issues of national security, terror and the ongoing conflicts that have engulfed much of the Middle East. However, as both the news media and America's presidential candidates asserted on the Tuesday's tragedy, another earlier development in the war on ISIS was left by the wayside, a development holds a much greater impact over the Syrian Civil War. In a move that shocked many observers, a Kremlin spokesperson announced early last week that Russia would withdraw its military forces from Syria as peace talks began on Monday, March 21. The Wall Street Journal reported that after speaking on the phone with President Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly announced the halt of Russia’s then-ongoing bombing campaign. Speaking about the mission that began in September of last year, Putin stated that the, “…principal tasks set for the armed forces of Russia in Syria have been accomplished.”
President Putin’s announcement of Russia’s withdrawal radically changes the status quo of the Syrian Civil War, a conflict that involves not only Bashar Al Assad (the erstwhile President of Syria) and the Islamic State, but also a plethora of different rebel groups fighting against both forces, not to mention the masses of refugees still attempting to flee the active warzone. Indeed, the Kremlin’s pivot leaves many more questions than it does answers, as policymakers once again are forced to examine the effect Russia’s involvement and its retreat will have on the Assad Regime, ongoing peace talks, the fate of ISIS and the United States’ potential involvement in what has now become a conflict with global implications.
But why did Russia initially become involved in Syria in the first place, and were its efforts, as Vladimir Putin claims, “effective”? While Russia’s self-declared goals at the beginning of their launch into Syria were to protect human life and preserve order, most foreign policy experts have identified several additional motivations for the military campaign. Firstly, the Assad Regime has long been a supporter and strong ally of Russia, even before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia maintains a small naval base in Tartus on the Syrian coast, a unique asset for Russia that it would be hasty to protect. In addition, if Assad’s government were to fail and Syria be seized by ISIS or devolve into numerous warring factions, Russia could face destabilization and terror threats along its southern border with Georgia, Azerbaijan and Chechnya. With the Islamic State’s ability to strike countries not directly adjacent to the conflict having been made heart-wrenchingly clear by attacks around the world, Russia holds as much an incentive as any to preserve stability.
To do so, Russia began a sustained series of aerial bombardments to soften anti-government forces’ hold on territory. The targets of these bombing raids has been debated, with Reuters reporting on December 20 that the vast majority of air strikes have been against non-ISIS rebels, and CNN reporting on March 15 that several runs were on civilian targets. However, the campaign seems to have elicited the desired effect; Syrian government forces, who the Economist reported on March 19 were losing ground before Russia intervened, have regained momentum in the war and moved in on the once-rebel held cities of Damascus and Aleppo. In recent weeks, Syrian government forces led a successful operation to recapture the ancient city of Palmyra. While Syria remains a quagmire, ISIS and other rebel groups maintain control of large swaths of the country; it does appear that Russia has met its initial goal to bolster the Assad regime itself, at least at face value.
Why then, has Russia declared its withdrawal if the missions appeared to have been successful? Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, believes that Putin's goal was not to help Assad and his Alawite allies gain control of all of Syri (an infeasible task) but instead to bolster his ability to negotiate in the ongoing peace talks taking place between moderate rebel groups and government representatives in Geneva. Haass stated, “It seems to have essentially shored him up, strengthened him, and now you begin a political process against a much lower-key military process”.
So what does Russia’s pulling out mean for the future of Syria and the Middle East? In short, it’s impossible to say for certain; but Vladimir Putin’s announcement last week opens many doors for new international involvement by the US and other western countries that previously may have seemed closed.
American presidential candidates have offered their own positions on the wider Syrian issue. While, in early American presidential debates Russia’s presence in Syria, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie proclaimed his readiness to shoot down Russian fighter jets and Donald Trump suggested that he could make a deal with Putin, a lack of a Russian military presence makes many possibilities once shelved feasible again. No-fly zones, a strategy favored by both Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush before the latter ended his campaign, would have been impossible to enforce with a Russian air presence, but a renewed lack of one might allow NATO to set up such measures as well as refugee safe zones free from government bombing runs. Assad is once again lacking an active international ally. A diplomatic end to the conflict, however unlikely, may emerge from the peace talks currently taking place in Geneva. While the Syrian Civil War might look to have no end in sight, Russia’s withdrawal offers new opportunities for relief from the violence and chaos that plagues the region.