How Credible Is The Russian “Withdrawal” From Syria?

Vladimir Putin has raised quite a stir in media and diplomatic circles by suddenly announcing that Russian forces will begin a withdrawal from Syria as of March 15th. Putin claims the objectives of the Russian forces have been “generally accomplished” and thus the time has come to pull back.

The news has rippled through the internet like wildfire; the word “Russian” actually became the 8th hashtag out of the 10 trending on Twitter due to sharing of Russia-related articles. With some Syrians and commentators alike claiming this could result in some breathing space for the opposition, the “withdrawal” requires a closer look.

First of all, by no means did Putin claim that all his troops are just going to just pack up and leave. In fact the devil’s in the details, as has always been the case whenever Putin opens his mouth. In the same statement in which he claimed Russian forces would be withdrawing, Putin confirmed that Russia’s Hmeimim airbase and its Mediterranean port facilities at Tartous would remain open for use.

In fact, Putin merely told the media that the “main part” of the Russian forces would leave. Here’s where the aforementioned devil comes in; Putin never specified what the “main part” of the Russian forces meant, purposefully making this statement ambiguous. This was deliberate; the ambiguity means that Putin can withdraw any number of men and any amount of equipment (however insignificant) and can still turn to the cameras with a straight face and claim he kept his word.

Disingenuous rhetoric is frequently used by Putin in an attempt to cover his own dishonest; whenever he’s confronted he simply claims that he wasn’t specific. The conflict in Ukraine already demonstrated this; despite the presence of Russian soldiers being universally recognised, Putin insisted there were “certainly” no Russian forces in Ukraine.

He then left this statement open to interpretation by suggesting that there might be some “volunteers” from the Russian armed forces in the country. How a huge group of soldiers could turn up in the middle of Ukraine with all their government-issued military equipment was never accounted for.

In December 2015 he finally admitted the presence of the Russian forces in the country. Before he could be criticised for his previous denials, Putin swiftly added: “We never said there were no people there who were carrying out certain tasks, including in the military sphere.” In other words, “You can’t criticise me, my previous denial was ambiguous.”

On closer inspection, it isn’t hard to tell what the “withdrawal” from Syria means. It probably means that a large chunk of  Russian ground forces will be pulling out of Syria and returning home. While this may seem to some to be a positive step in the right direction, this isn’t exactly anything new; Russian forces have been coming and going from Syria for the last few years.

In order to avoid the appearance of an occupation force (and in order to pacify the voices of angry mothers back home) Putin has rotated soldiers in and out of Syria and Ukraine for the last few years.  Soldiers serve several months in Ukraine or Syria before returning home; their places are then taken by other soldiers, and so it goes on.

The same tactic has been applied by Hezbollah in Syria, where the party has taken crippling losses and faces increasingly vocal complaints from Shi’a families whose sons fighting for the group have turned up back home in yellow boxes. Hezbollah actually resorted to labelling many of those killed in Syria as dying in “traffic accidents”, so as to avoid more domestic outcry in Lebanon.

What Putin is doing here is simple – he’s trying to make it seem as if he’s ending his occupation of Syria in order to continue to back Assad with impunity. The memory of the Afghan war of the 1980s is still fresh in the minds of many Russians, making the current Russian occupation simply unsustainable.  Not just militarily (since Russian soldiers are outnumbered and Syria’s demographics are overwhelmingly Sunni) but in terms of public morale. Russian casualties have been rising; another few years of stalemate and atalities would start to damage Putin’s popularity back home.

Putin will probably pull out a portion of the Russian ground forces (their participation has already been made superfluous by the huge number of Shi’a militants imported by Iran) and leave the air force behind, which will continue to bomb rebels and ethnically cleanse civilians. Putin has already admitted as such by claiming that the Hmeimim air base will remain open. In other words, Syrian hospitals and anti-government groups will continue to be called “ISIS targets” and bombed as normal.

Putin’s goal from the start was not to destroy the opposition wholesale. Retaking all of northern Syria would result in more than considerable Russian & Syrian military casualties. The goal from the start was to degrade the opposition via intense bombardments, forcing them to acquiesce to Syrian government demands and agree to a solution which would keep Assad in power.

In his statement announcing the “withdrawal”, Putin added that “Syrian government troops and patriotic forces” have been able to “take the initiative” in the fight against terrorism. In other words, the goal all along was to embolden and strengthen Assad’s negotiating position. Coincidentally enough (or not) this “withdrawal” comes just as UN envoy de Mistura re-opened the Geneva talks, describing it as a “moment of truth”.

In fact, Putin claims that the base and Russia’s naval facilities at Tartous will be protected “from land, air and sea”. In doing so Putin is giving himself the green light to bomb anti-government groups all across Syria and ensure they have no chance of threatening the regime. Should they encroach on Assad’s power base in Latakia, Putin could claim to be ‘protecting’ nearby Russian military interests by bombing their forces. Hence why the Russian mission is “generally” complete – the bombing has just begun.

Putin spoke with Assad over the phone about the withdrawal. It was rather cordial for a conversation in which bad news was allegedly broken; Assad thanking the Russian army for the “professionalism, courage and heroism” they showed. The two congratulated each other on strikes that “disorganized militants’ infrastructure and inflicted fundamental damage upon them.” Hardly a sign that Russia’s efforts are about to be toned down.

True to form, Putin is attempting to strengthen his own hand with smoke and mirrors. George Bush declared “mission accomplished” in Iraq in 2003, and Obama is still claiming that he’s in the process of closing Guantanamo. Observers should stop focusing on what leaders say, and take note of what they actually do.