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According to this news article, President Putin says that Russia will start withdrawing from Syria, after a relatively brief presence in the area. Why does he choose to withdraw at this moment, and how would it benefit his government (or his ally Assad's)?

One line in that news article even says:

The anti-Assad opposition expressed bafflement, with a spokesman saying, "Nobody knows what is in Putin's mind".

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    Well, the situation in Syria is hopeless and they don't have funds to deal with that anymore. They also don't want to do it american style where they are policing the world. That way Russia appears like a major power, and a reasonable one in addition to that. It's really a win-win situation for them. – Bregalad Mar 25 '16 at 19:20
  • They did what they came for, and now they needed this in order to weight more on the peace talks that are taking place. – Shautieh Mar 28 '16 at 5:00
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As we may see, that was rather "reducing" and "rotating", not a full withdraw.

Most notably, Russia brought home bombers SU-24 and SU-34, and replaced them with a pack of MI-28 and KA-52 battle helicopters. That reflects new tactics: peace talks with so-called "moderate opposition" in Geneva, and major offense against ISIS on the east. So now Russian air-force stopped flying about the whole Syria from north to south, and moved to support Palmyra offense. Choppers seem to be more suitable for this work.

Why does he choose to withdraw at this moment

We don't know. My best guess it was an attempt to push on Assad and to promote Geneva talks. But there could be other points too.

how would it benefit his government

Just now Russia seems to rely much on the talks. If this works then there will be a win for free. But if not then Putin will return bombers back, as he said a couple of days ago. But I must say that it seems really risky to me, and I see no win-win situation for Russia.

or his ally Assad's

Assad is only to lose here. His main goal was to take Aleppo, but now he can't do that.

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    So far attacking ISIS wasn't a major part of Russia's strategy. Their primary target were rebels fighting against Assad's forces. – Philipp Mar 25 '16 at 20:30
  • @Philipp Do not confuse strategy and tactics. In 2015 "rebels" were a major threat for Assad, so Russia had to take care of them first. And now it's time for ISIS. – Matt Mar 25 '16 at 20:42
  • There is no way Aleppo could have been retaken without deploying at least about 50,000 well trained forces (the rebels there are entrenched and supported by the local population). Neither Iran, nor Russia had any plans for that. At best the rebels there could have been cut off from Turkey, and that's pretty much what has happened. By cutting off the supply lines one can force them to take more realistic positions at the negotiations, the logic that if they don't get their way they can always ask the Saudis for more TOW missiles, won't work anymore. – Count Iblis Mar 28 '16 at 16:03
  • And that also applies to Assad, because Russia and Iran cannot give Assad control of the entire country, that would require an army of many hundreds of thousands of soldiers. So, both sides are now forced to negotiate seriously as neither side can get what they want on the battlefield. For Assad that has been the case for quite a while, but the rebels had come close to obtaining a strong enough position last year from where they would pose a mortal threat to the Assad regime. – Count Iblis Mar 28 '16 at 16:07
  • @CountIblis At best the rebels there could have been cut off from Turkey, and that's pretty much what has happened Actually it didn't happen. Aleppo is under threat, but it's not fully encircled. And that threat is mutual, as rebels could counterattack anytime (given that they have enough firepower) and encircle SAA. So stopping offense at this point is very risky decision. – Matt Mar 28 '16 at 16:17
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The main aim of the mission has been accomplished, the rebels no longer pose a direct military threat to the survival of the Assad regime and the gains made against the rebels are solid enough to be maintained by the Syrian army itself. It doesn't require the Russian air force to constantly bomb the rebels to keep them at bay. With rebel supply lines cut and the regime having more supply lines, the rebels would need quite some time and effort to be able to regain their former position on the battlefield and that would give the Russians plenty of time to move some assets back.

Also there is now a ceasefire in place so, it's quite safe for the Russians to withdraw part of their forces. The Syrian army can now safely redeploy part of their forces to the front with ISIS, they are now fighting in Palmyra, helped by Russian air strikes.

Russia disagrees with the West about the nature of the terrorist threats in general. The Russian position is that regime change by even the most moderate rebels imaginable is dangerous because those moderate rebels are likely to be replaced by radical terrorist groups later. So, from the Russian point of view it would have been rather pointless to defeat ISIS and let the moderate rebels defeat the Assad regime, as that would only have led to ISIS 2.0 down the line.

  • I don't think that's an accurate description of the Russian position concerning moderate rebels. It's pointless to try to differentiate a moderate rebel from a radical one, and time has proven several time they were right. The USA helped Al-Nosra until they recognized they were part of Al-Qaeda (and even then France foreign minister continued to support this branch of Al-Qaeda because they were "getting the job done"). The Free Syrian army is under the influence of Al-Nosra now too.. Who said they are moderate rebels again? – Shautieh Mar 28 '16 at 4:59
  • @Shautieh Russia does raise the issue of Al Nusra, but Russia has launched attacks against positions of the FSA. One has to consider what Russia's doctrine in general is to understand why this has happened, Russian spokespersons on t.\v. will have to say things that appeal to the public, the arguments they put forward don't always give the complete picture (from their perspective). So, I think this has a lot more to do with the AL Nusra ISIS etc. of tomorrow, new terror organizations that do not exist yet than any such organizations that exist at present. – Count Iblis Mar 28 '16 at 15:57
  • Indeed, but the soldiers and officers of the FSA, Al-Nusra and ISIS permeate each other. FSA and Al-Nusra even became allies now and then. How are the Russian supposed to differentiate them ? – Shautieh Mar 29 '16 at 16:10
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    @Shautieh Yes, that's also a problem. But I do think the there also a public relations issue where explaining why you choose to do X has to be done using small bullet points that appeal to the public. The more sentences you need to explain something, the less well people will pick up your arguments. – Count Iblis Mar 29 '16 at 17:09
  • PR relations is the most important thing nowadays, I completely agree with that :) – Shautieh Mar 30 '16 at 5:36

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