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What's behind Russia's surprise Syria withdrawal?

© Alexander Kots, Komsomolskaya Pravda, AFP | Russian air force pilots and technicians checking a Russian Sukhoi Su-30 jet fighter at the Hmeimim airbase in the Syrian province of Latakia on October 5, 2015.

Video by FRANCE 24

Text by Sam BALL

Latest update : 2016-03-16

Russian media hailed it as a political victory, al Qaeda a stinging defeat for Moscow, while almost everyone else has been taken by surprise by the Kremlin's announcement Monday it is pulling the bulk of its military out of Syria.

With Russia's military backing of Bashar al-Assad seemingly putting the Syrian president back on the front foot in the country's long civil war, Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to suddenly pull back his support rather than press it home has shocked both analysts and diplomats.

According to the Russian president, Moscow's military intervention in Syria has already achieved its aims.

"I believe that the task put before the defence ministry and Russian armed forces has, on the whole, been fulfilled," Putin said in a statement on Monday.

"With the participation of the Russian military... the Syrian armed forces and patriotic Syrian forces have been able to achieve a fundamental turnaround in the fight against international terrorism and have taken the initiative in almost all respects."

Mixed signals

But any gains made by Assad's forces are likely to be precarious at best. The initiative in Syria has already changed hands numerous times during the five-year conflict. On Tuesday, less than 24 hours after the Russian announcement, al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate al-Nusra Front promised a new offensive.

"It is clear that Russia has suffered defeat, and within the next 48 hours Al-Nusra will launch an offensive in Syria," a commander of the group told AFP.

"The Russians withdrew for one reason, and it is because while they were backing the regime, the regime was unable to hold onto the territories that it took over," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

There is, given Russia's use of covert forces in the annexation of Crimea, plenty of suspicion that Russia's withdrawal might not be as extensive as Putin has suggested. Already, there are mixed signals coming from the Kremlin.

At the same time as Russian military jets were shown on state TV taking off from the country’s air base in Syria on Tuesday in order to head back to Russia, the country's deputy defence minister, Nikolai Pankov, was quoted as saying that strikes against "terrorist targets" in Syria would continue.

"I would be very, very cautious, from the point of view of the West, and monitoring on the ground exactly what is going and what is staying," Sarah Lain, a Russia specialist at the Royal United Services Institute international defence and security think tank in London, told FRANCE 24.

"I think Russia will certainly maintain some ability to go back in if it becomes necessary."

From the point of view of Russia's pro-Kremlin media the withdrawal is a political masterstroke, allowing focus to shift back to the peace talks that resumed in Geneva on Monday .

"Russia is setting an example of a peaceful approach to settling conflict," the pro-Kremlin Izvestia daily said.

According to Lain, even if a complete withdrawal is to believed, it was a largely "opportunistic" decision by the Kremlin because, coming at the time of a ceasefire, it gives Russia the chance to make a relatively clean exit from the Syrian quagmire.

"There is a ceasefire in place that although fragile is holding, you have the talks in Geneva restarting after a lot of problems. Russia saw an opportunity to get out and took it," she said.

Russia a victim of its own military success

Whether or not the Russian withdrawal makes sense strategically is something that ultimately depends on what Moscow's aims were from the beginning, something it has been adept at keeping obscure.

If it was to win Assad the war, then stepping back now would indeed be surprising. But if the goal was to ensure Assad's involvement in the peace process, something most in the West have always opposed, then it may well be a case of mission accomplished.

Moscow's military might has succeeded in putting Assad in a position of strength whereby his inclusion in any diplomatic solution to the Syrian war is now a necessity.

But by withdrawing now, Russia is also putting pressure on Assad to take those talks seriously, knowing he can no longer rely on Russia's military to overwhelm his enemies on the battlefield.

"In a way Russia's military action in Syria was a victim of its own success," said Lain.

"It led to Assad becoming overconfident, making statements saying he was going to continue the war to the end, which was never the Kremlin's goal.

"The intention is probably to put pressure on the political transition process and put pressure on Assad, using Russia's leverage to force him to be more constructive in the peace talks."

For others though, the Kremlin's goals were broader than Assad and the future of Syria.

"If we are honest, the task was to overcome (Russia's) international isolation over the Ukraine crisis," Political analyst and Moscow Times contributor Georgy Bovt told Russia's Business FM radio.

"And this has been implemented in full."

Date created : 2016-03-15


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