Russian withdrawal from Syria is ‘good timing’

Russia's withdrawal from Syria leaves Bashar al-Assad strengthened, plays well domestically and puts Moscow in a good position when it comes to further peace talks. [Dmitry Terekhov/Flickr]

Following Russia’s announced partial withdrawal of troops from Syria, Margarete Klein from the German institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) analysed the reasons behind Moscow’s decision and what it means for future peace talk prospects. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Margarete Klein is deputy head of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs’ Eastern Europe and Eurasia Research Division. The Institute advises the Bundestag and federal government on foreign and security policy issues.

The interview was conducted by Candida Splett and published on the SWP’s website.

Russia has announced that it will withdraw much of its military presence from Syria as its goals have been achieved. Officially, its operation was launched on the pretext of fighting the so-called Islamic State. Was this Russia’s true agenda?

Although IS and other Islamist groups posed a real security threat to Russia, Moscow’s priority was strengthening the Assad regime, which came close to being toppled in 2015. Assad is one of Russia’s most important political partners and a bridgehead for the Kremlin’s interests in the Middle East: Since 2000, Moscow has being trying to re-establish a form of veto power in the region, where it had mostly withdrawn from following the Cold War.

Does Russia need Assad the man, rather than his regime, to achieve its objectives?

No, because there are few personal ties. Should a shift in power happen, Moscow would be greatly interested in the manner and means in which a changeover would occur. Russia would not want the regime to be overthrown by exterior forces, like what happened with Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine and Gaddafi in Libya. Instead, any transition would have to involve Assad, so Russia could be sure that it could maintain its military presence and political influence in the country.

What other motives does Putin have in Syria?

He wants to use a strong position in Syria to counter the isolation that has been imposed by the West following the annexation of Crimea. Russia wants to be an important player in Syria, so that it can seek concession from the West. It’s all calculation.

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How do you explain the timing of the partial withdrawal? Has Russia met its objectives?

For them it is good timing, as it allows them to secure the gains they have made and to reduce the risk that would have come with further military engagements. In terms of what objectives have been met, Assad’s position in UN peace talks is stronger than it was six months ago. Russia has also expanded its military presence in the country and that will be maintained. Another important point is that Russia has shown itself to be capable of protecting its allies.

This doesn’t just apply to the Middle East, it’s also a factor that affects Moscow’s former-Soviet partners, such as Belarus and Kazakhstan, whose governments were openly critical of Russia’s neo-imperial ambitions following the onset of the Ukraine crisis. These regimes also have a vested interest in having guarantees that exterior or domestic powers won’t be able to usurp them. Russia demonstrated that it can play the role of guardian angel if needed.

Will Putin benefit domestically from the decision to withdraw?

Two years after the Crimea annexation, the Russian leadership wants to demonstrate to its people that it is not driven by foreign policy adventures. It wants to show that it formulates clear goals and brings operations to an end once they are met.

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What risks would Moscow run with further military operations in Syria?

Firstly, there is the danger of military escalation, which could force Russia to deploy ground troops. That would be difficult for them to sell domestically, as the Russian people still have the images of soldiers returning in coffins from Afghanistan and Chechnya fresh in their minds.

Secondly, now that Russia has emerged as Syria’s de facto ally, it would risk being drawn into a wider conflict if also associated with Shiite Iran and Hezbollah. It would want to avoid being drawn into the much broader Iran-Saudi Arabia issue. That would significantly limit Russia’s room for manoeuvre in the Middle East. At the same time, it would play out negatively at home, as the majority of Russian Muslims are Sunni.

What does Russia’s withdrawal mean for the Geneva peace talks?

Firstly, Assad has a stronger position, which is in Russia’s interest. The Kremlin is also interested in a negotiated settlement to a conflict which it believes cannot be brought to an end through military intervention. Through its partial withdrawal, Russia can force Assad’s hand and make him compromise, rather than relying on a military solution.

This also puts pressure indirectly on the opposition. If Assad is willing to negotiate and they are not, then they will be seen as sabotaging the talks. When the parties sit down and start to talk, then Russia can present itself as the august brokers of peace.

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So Russia could be the difference here?

Russia might be able to sway the balance of power so that neither side believes that military intervention can provide a solution. This will only increase willingness to negotiate. The price, however, has proven to be very high, as the Russian operation has claimed many civilian lives.

Did Russia make any noteworthy progress in the fight against IS?

IS, like other Islamist groups, have perhaps been weakened. But IS was never the primary objective of Russia’s airstrikes. The fight against Islamist forces, now the Kremlin has issued its notice of withdrawal, has been left chiefly up to the US-led coalition. Thus, it has protected itself from the risk of having to engage in potentially messy conflict scenarios.

What could persuade Putin to continue his operations in Syria?

If Assad comes under further pressure again that could happen. If the negotiations fail and new offensive from rebel groups are launched, his hand could be forced once again. Or if other players such as Saudi Arabia or Turkey start supporting the rebels more heavily.

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