By Dr. Peter Brookes ~
As I suggested to readers two weeks ago here (see “Russia playing Syria ‘cease-fire’ to its advantage,” March 2), Moscow wouldn’t have settled for a “cease-fire” in Syria if it didn’t think it was in a good spot.
The Kremlin basically confirmed that on Monday.
As you know by now, Moscow announced that it would start to withdraw some forces that were sent to Syria late last September to intervene on the side of Damascus in the now-five-year-long civil war that has snuffed out some 300,000-plus lives.
While we don’t have all the details about the Russian pullback, such as how many forces will go home or stay and over what period of time, some TV news clips show movement of personnel and equipment at Moscow’s air base at Hmeymim near Latakia.
Of course, what the Kremlin says isn’t always what the Kremlin does – like when it told us Russia was joining the fight in Syria to battle the Islamic State, but ended up bombing mostly anti-Damascus regime groups-some U.S.-supported.
I think it’s reasonable to predict that Russia isn’t getting out of Syria lock, stock and barrel. It will likely keep its long-standing naval base at Tartus, its (new) Hmeymim air base and will probably have advisers, spies and arms merchants on the ground in Syria.
But be that as it may, why is Russia reportedly “retreating” from Syria now?
First, in less than six months Russian President Vladimir Putin has arguably achieved a lot. He’s certainly scored a public relations victory for the Motherland, markedly raising Russia’s status as a political-military player in the Middle East.
Then, of course, with its bombing campaign, Moscow rescued its ally Damascus from an almost certain demise last fall, helping the sinking Syrian army regain territory around the capital and along the western part of the country.
The wresting of key countryside for Damascus (with the help of Moscow, Tehran, Shiite foreign fighters and Hezbollah) puts the regime – and Russia – in a position of strength at the Syrian “peace talks” which opened Monday in Geneva.
Similarly, with its political-military support, for the moment Putin has personally “pardoned” his pal Syrian President Bashar Assad from being unceremoniously tossed into the dustbin of history – something that seemed imminent before Moscow moved in.
While unclear, it’s also possible that the sudden Russian departure is a strong signal to Damascus that its fate rests largely in Moscow’s hands (considering the failure of the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah axis) and that it should be appropriately grateful.
A “plus” for Moscow is that all of this “progress” amounts to a painful poke in Washington’s eye, which has seethed at Russia’s humiliating moves in Syria – not to mention in Ukraine/Crimea previously.
On the money side, it’s also possible that, with oil and natural gas prices tanking, Moscow found the military intervention to be a tad on the expensive side at the moment.
All of this said, the situation in Syria isn’t static – nor is the Kremlin’s decision-making. Moscow can rejoin a post-cease-fire fight in Syria anytime it wishes if things aren’t going well for Russian interests at the negotiating table or on the battlefield.
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor Dr. Peter Brookes is a Senior Fellow for National Security Affairs at The Heritage Foundation . http://www.heritage.org/ and he is a member of the U.S. – China Economic and Security Review Commission.