Everyone was left in shock after it was announced that Russia is withdrawing from Syria. However, some secret plans may be behind that decision.
The Russian intervention is a stunning success, that is indisputable. Vladimir Putin and the Russian military ought to be particularly praised for having set goals fully commensurate with their real capabilities. The Russians went in with a small force and they achieved limited goals: the legitimate authority of the Syrian government has been stabilized and the conditions for a political compromise have been created. That is not an opinion, but the facts on the ground. Not even the worst Putin-haters can dispute that. Today’s declaration shows that the Russians are also sticking to their initial exit strategy and are now confident enough to withdraw their forces.
Still, this leaves many unanswered questions.
By withdrawing their forces the Russians could be giving the signal to the USA that they are free to have their “little victorious war” against Daesh. But this could also be a trap. If you consider the complete failure of the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq, you could wonder why they would suddenly do so much better in Syria, especially considering that besides Daesh they might also come face to face with Iranians and Hezbollah fighters. Furthermore, unlike the Russian Aerospace forces, the Americans will be committing ground forces and these have a much bigger tendency to get bogged down in long counter-insurgency operations. If I was a US military advisor I would caution my commanders against a ground operation in Syria even if the Russians are gone.
Still, what if the Americans are successful? After all, Daesh has taken a bad beating any maybe they can be at least pushed out of Raqqa? Maybe. But if that happens then the question will become whether the Americans will try to achieve a de facto partition of Syria (de jure they cannot, since a UNSC Resolution specifically called for a unitary state).
Partitioning Syria has been, and still is, the longterm Israeli goal. Considering the immense power of the Neocons today (nevermind a Hillary Presidency!) the chances that the US will be trying to partition Syria are immense.
And what if the Americans either fail or don’t even take the bait and stay out of Syria? Does the Russian withdrawal not risk leaving eastern Syria in Daesh hands? Would that not be just another de facto partition of the country? Maybe. Again, this is a real risk.
Finally, if the Turks and their Saudi allies do invade, that would almost certainly result in a partition of Syria as it is doubtful that the Syrian government could take on Daesh and Turkey and the Saudis at the same time. Iran, of course, might, but this would result in a major escalation threatening the entire region.
I think that the risk of a partition of Syria is, alas, very real. However, that being said, I would like to remind everybody that Russia does not have any moral or legal obligation to single-handedly preserve the territorial integrity of Syria. In purely legal terms, this is an obligation of every single country on earth (because of the UN Charter and the recent UNSC Resolution) and in moral terms, this is first and foremost the obligation of the Syrian people themselves. I think that it would be praiseworthy for Russia to do everything she can to prevent a partition of Syria,and I am confident that Russia will do her utmost, but that does not mean that this is a Russian obligation.
In Russian military terminology “generally accomplished” is better than “satisfactory” and roughly equivalent to “good” but not “excellent”. Putin is not saying that the performance of the Russian forces was less than perfect, but what he is saying is that the goals set out initially have not been fully/perfectly reached. In other words, this leaves the door open for a “objectives completion” operation.
The second interesting moment in today’s statement is that Putin added that “to control the observation of ceasefire agreements in the region, Moscow will keep its Khmeimim airbase in Latakia province and a base at the port of Tartus“.
To me the combination of these two statements points to the high probability that the Russians are keeping their options open. First, they will continue to supply the Syrians with hardware, training, intelligence and special operations and, second, they will retain the option of using military power if/when needed. Not only will Russia retain the capability to strike from the Caspian, the Mediterranean or with her long-range bombers, but she is likely to leave enough pre-positioned supplies and personnel in Tartus, Khmeimim and elsewhere in Syria to be ready to intervene at very short notice (say in case of a Turkish attack towards Latakia, for example).
Finally, I am confident that when speaking to the (newly created) “moderate opposition” the Russians will carefully but regularly drop hints about the need to achieve a negotiated agreement with the Syrian government “lest the war resume again with a new intensity” (or something along these lines). Keep in mind that, unlike their US counterparts, the Russian diplomats and intelligence officers truly understand their counterparts, not only because they are fluent in the local languages and understand the culture, but because the single important quality expected from a Russian diplomat or intelligence officer is the ability to understand the real, profound, motives of the person you are speaking to, to put yourself into his/her shoes. I have had enough personal experience with Russian diplomats and intelligence officers to be sure that they are already patiently talking to all the key figures in positions of power inside the so-called “moderate resistance” to maximize the stake each one of them might have in a negotiated solution. Oh sure, there will be beautiful speeches in the plenary meetings and conferences, but they key effort will be made in informal conversations happening in restaurants, back-rooms and various hotels where the Russians will make darn sure they convey to their interlocutors that he/she have a very personal interest in a successful negotiation. There will be a lot of bargaining involving promises and hinted threats and while some will, of course, resist such “gentle pressures”, the cumulative effect of such informal meetings will be crucial. And if that means preparing 500 different approaches and negotiation techniques for 500 different contacts, the Russians will put the manpower, time and effort to make it happen.
It is way too early right now to give a categorical evaluation of the timing and consequences of the Russian withdrawal from Syria.
Putin knows that one of the key factors in any war is time and so far Putin has timed his every move superbly. In fact, what I see is an amazing list of successes achieved against very difficult odds. And they key to Putin’s success might well be that he is a hardcore realist.
Russia does not have such a “luxury of power”, she has to make every bit count and she has to plan each move with utmost precision. Just like a tightrope walker with no safety harness, Putin knows that a single misstep can have catastrophic consequences.