Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised onlookers with his announcement on Tuesday, March 15, that he would withdraw most of Russia’s combat forces from Syria, stating that Russia’s military campaign had “achieved most of its aims” in Syria. Although he denied that the withdrawal of Russian forces was a measure aimed at pressuring Bashar Al Assad into being more cooperative with the peace process, Putin press spokesman Dmitry Peskov did point out that Russia’s immediate aims in the Syrian conflict involved “intensifying [Russian] efforts to achieve a settlement in Syria” .
The Context of Russia’s Military Campaign
While the stated aim of Russia’s military intervention in Syria was to quash ISIL before it “could carry out operations in Russia itself” – a reasonable proposition given the hundreds of Russian nationals reported to have joined the group – an examination of the targets chosen by Russian airstrikes reveals that Moscow’s main military operations in Syria primarily targeted (moderate) armed Syrian opposition. This suggests that throughout its military campaign, Russia’s prime objective was to address the balance of powers and, ultimately, prevent the total collapse of the Syrian Army. This would, in turn, allow the Assad regime a chance to engage in negotiations without having been completely defeated.
Yet the Russians would soon discover the enormity of the task they took upon themselves: five years of continuous fighting had taken a massive toll on the Syrian Army, which had found itself incapable of securing even the smallest strips of territory seized by the opposition, even with the aid of intensive Russian bombardment. The Russian military was put to the test soon after the launch of its military campaign, during the battle for the Hama countryside in October 2015, when Syrian rebels managed to stop the advance of Russian tanks with the aid of US-made TW shoulder launched missiles. So painful was Russia’s humiliation that Assad was quickly called to Moscow for consultations.
In parallel to its push to drive back the Syrian opposition, the Russians simultaneously undertook a political charm offensive that would both prevent them from becoming embroiled in a war of attrition and ensure that they had clear channels of communication with the United States. Dialogue with Washington would secure Russia’s position as a vital partner on a number of issues related to the Middle East. Indeed, the Vienna peace talks for Syria, to which Russia was a party along with 16 other nations, was launched within a month of Russia’s first involvement in the Syrian conflict. Multilateral negotiations rapidly evolved into bilateral talks between the United States and Russia, which saw all of the other parties sidelined—including the major European powers , and Iran, which Russia had previously insisted on it being involved in any peace settlement over Syria.
The result of these discussions eventually took the shape of the Vienna Accord, a communique which included a roadmap to resolve the conflict in Syria, and which was adopted by UN Security Council Resolution 2254 (December, 2015). The communique included demands for a non-sectarian governing body; a ceasefire/cessation of hostilities; an amendment of the Syrian constitution; and the holding of UN-supervised legislative elections within 18 months of the ceasefire.
In spite of the failed Geneva III peace talks, which only served as a cover for Russia to continue its bombing campaign while its allies in Damascus capitalized on their military gains, the White House and the Kremlin eventually managed to come to an agreement. On February 11, 2016, on the fringes of the Munich Security Conference, Russian and US representatives came to an in-principle agreement on the broad outlines of a peace settlement in Syria. The final details covering the scope of the ceasefire and, in particular, those opposition groups which would not be covered by its terms, were ironed out in a phone call between presidents Obama and Putin on February 22, paving the way for the ceasefire to take effect on February 27. Notwithstanding multiple major infractions by the regime and its allies, the ceasefire has stood strong in the days since. This reflects Russia’s determination that this ceasefire holds, something which France’s Defense Minister recognized when he noted that Moscow’s planes were no longer targeting sites controlled by Syria’s moderate opposition .
Conflicting Priorities and Motives Behind Russia’s Overture
The decision to partially withdraw from Syria coincided with the resumption of talks in Geneva. Putin’s decision to inform Assad of the move with an unceremonious telephone call is further evidence of Russia’s discontent with the Syrian regime’s seeming disdain for a series of US-Russian agreements which culminated in UNSC 2254 and UNSC 2268 (February 26, 2016), both of which specified mechanisms for the monitoring of ceasefire in Syria.
For some time now, increased tensions between the Kremlin and its allies in Damascus have been increasingly visible. Russia’s UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, described Moscow’s irritation with the Syrian president’s stated wish to reclaim all of the territory lost during the past five years of conflict. He pointed out that Russia “has invested very seriously in this crisis, politically, diplomatically and now also in the military sense. Therefore, we would like that Bashar Al Assad should take account of that." Making matters worse, the Syrian regime announced their unilateral decision to hold parliamentary elections in April 2016, going against UNSC 2254, which envisages all elections be part of a final resolution of the Syrian crisis. Iran’s seeming support for Assad’s plans to hold elections in April—communicated to Moscow’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhal Bogdanov during his latest visit to Tehran—only served to further irritate the Russians, exposing how Assad was willing to play his two main international backers against each other.
Combined, these developments suggest that Putin’s decision to partially withdraw Russian forces from Syria on the eve of the recommencement of the Geneva process was a consequence of growing discrepancies between Russia and its allies in the Syrian conflict over what to expect from the negotiations process. Abetted by Iran, the Syrian regime is categorically against a final peace plan which removes Assad from power. This was clearly expressed by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, who offered the regime’s interpretation of the clauses of UNSC 2254, suggesting that the transitional period entailed only “replacing one constitution with another” and conceding that the Syrian opposition would be allowed to join a government while emphasizing that Bashar Al Assad’s presidency was a “red line”. Muallem also attacked UN envoy for Syria, Staffan De Mistura, for the demand that free parliamentary and presidential elections take place within 18 months of the formation of a comprehensive, non-sectarian governing body.
These differences of opinion reflect a deeper, fundamental divergence in the aims of what the various parties backing the Syrian regime hope to achieve during this stage of the conflict. While Damascus and Tehran are committed to an outright destruction of the Syrian opposition militarily and politically, Moscow’s actions are rooted in its desire to remain an effective and critical player in the Syrian arena. This means, in effect, that Russia must prove its willingness to cooperate with the United States in stabilizing the region, even if its role is to be that of a junior partner to Washington. As a result, the Syrian regime and the militia which support it continue to amass firepower and prepare for the collapse of the ceasefire even as Moscow works to keep it in place. Believing that they can win an outright military victory in the event that the ceasefire collapses, and beginning to doubt Russia’s true motives in the compromises it arrived at with Washington—as well as Moscow’s commitment to his permanence in power—Assad today is marshalling his forces in a number of key locations across the country, and in particular in and around the Aleppo Governorate.
Russia’s Gambit and the Impact on Negotiations
The present phase of the negotiations between the Syrian regime and the opposition began on March 14, and the divergent points of view of the warring parties quickly made itself felt on the progress of negotiations. While the regime continues to insist on prioritizing the fight against “terrorism”, the opposition negotiating team is adamant that the first order of business should be the formation of a transitional governing body in line with UNSC 2254. According to the resolution’s terms, such a governing body would enjoy full executive powers, including the ability to form a transitional cabinet; the preparation of a new draft constitution and the conduct of a referendum to ratify that constitution; the drafting of an electoral law; and the management of international oversight to oversee elections within the country. At present, the opposition delegation remains steadfast in its refusal to broach any other topics until the question of this transitional governing body is addressed. Their resolve was recently given a boost by De Mistura’s statement reaffirming that a full political transition in Syria was the main aim of the negotiations, and that working out such a transition forms the backbone of the three upcoming rounds of negotiations . Finally, the opposition delegation are also forced to emphasize that they reject any suggestion that a third party—approved by the regime—be allowed to join the discussions as further representatives of the opposition side (in other words, the opposition delegation, representing the nucleus of the group which was formed in Riyadh, is forced to defend its position as the legitimate representative of the Syrian opposition).
The above factors combined led De Mistura to join the Syrian opposition in welcoming Moscow’s move to scale down its military forces in Syria. The evacuation of Moscow’s forces will now make the Damascus regime more amenable to open and serious negotiations which could avert the prospect of further bloodshed for the country. Today, and despite the fact that nobody is expecting any immediate results from the present round of negotiations, there is a very clear indication of a global consensus on the need for a political resolution to the conflict in Syria. Such international resolve is the crucial factor missing from previous rounds of negotiations. Further, the determination of the world community that the Syrian crisis be resolved through political and diplomatic means will build momentum for a further round of negotiations which will take place after an impending two-week recess, time which will be useful in understanding Russian aims and motivations more clearly, as well as the nature of the agreements which Moscow arrived at together with the United States.
Likewise, there is the danger that one could overblow the importance of the Russian decision. It is important to keep in mind that even today, Russia continues to maintain its long-standing naval presence in Tartous as well as its air force presence in Syria’s Hmeymim Air Base. Moscow has certainly not abandoned the Syrian regime, the demise of which would be a huge blow to Russia given the massive political, economic and military clout they have invested in propping up the regime. A complete withdrawal from Syria would simply see Syria being lost entirely to Iran. Instead, the partial withdrawal announced this month by the Kremlin must be seen as both a contingency plan and a tactical maneuver timed to ensure that the Russians can eject themselves comfortably from the Levant if the peace negotiations, on which they are betting, fail. The last thing which Moscow needs is another Afghanistan on its hands—in its present economic condition, the Russians cannot afford to be fighting long, hard battles so far away from their borders. Russia’s gambit now is to keep the Syrian state and its apparatus, including the military, intact throughout and beyond the negotiations process.
To read this Assessment Report as a PDF, please click here or on the icon above. This Report is an edited translation by the ACRPS Translation and English editing team. The original Arabic version appeared online on March 16, 2016 and can be found here.
 See “Putin says Russians to start withdrawing troops from Syria, as peace talks resume”, Denis Dyomkin and Sulieman and Khaldi, Reuters, Tuesday, March 15, 2016: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-russia-pullout-idUSKCN0WG23C
 For a discussion of the visit and Russia-US cooperation on Syria, see “Russia satisfied with cooperation with US on Syria”, TASS Russian News Agency, March 7, 2016: http://tass.ru/en/politics/860988