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Russia's Troop Withdrawal From Syria Will Not Shorten Its Clout, Experts Say


FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin applauds Col. Gen. Sergei Surovikin during an awards ceremony for troops who fought in Syria, in the Kremlin, in Moscow, Dec. 28, 2017. Putin says Russia's action in Syria has demonstrated the power of the nation's modernized military to the world.

During a surprise visit to Syria in early December, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the defeat of the Islamic State and ordered the withdrawal of a "significant" part of Russian troops from Syria.

"In two years, the Russian armed forces, together with the Syrian army, have defeated the most lethal group of international terrorists," state news agency Tass quoted Putin as saying. "In this regard, I have decided that a significant part of the Russian military contingent in the Syrian Arab Republic is returning home to Russia."

Putin's pledge to withdraw Russian troops after the alleged defeat of IS in Syria came as the Russian military augmented its operations in support of the Syrian government forces, consolidating their control over rebel enclaves in the country.

FILE - A Russian military helicopter flies over a desert in Deir el-Zour province, Syria, Sept. 15, 2017.
FILE - A Russian military helicopter flies over a desert in Deir el-Zour province, Syria, Sept. 15, 2017.

The increased military intervention by Russia against the Syrian rebel groups contradicted the country's previous announcement that it would withdraw from Syria, some experts charge. They say the declaration by Putin could be aimed at the domestic audience in Russia, as he is bidding for another presidential run in the country's upcoming elections in March.

Political motivation

"I think the announcement was politically motivated and had little to do with the facts on the ground," Frederic Hof, former special adviser for transition in Syria at the U.S. State Department and director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, told VOA.

"What happened in Syria is of enormous domestic political importance to President Putin. Rather than have the Russian electorate focus on massive corruption or on a weak economy, Mr. Putin prefers to have them focus instead on Russia's alleged return to a great power status," Hof added.

Hof said Putin is trying to convince Russian voters that the conflict in Syria and the country's role in it are gradually declining, even as Russian jets increased their support for the Syrian government forces in recent days.

FILE - In this photo made from footage taken from the Russian Defense Ministry website on Nov. 26, 2017, Russian Tu-22M3 long-range bombers strike Islamic State targets in Syria.
FILE - In this photo made from footage taken from the Russian Defense Ministry website on Nov. 26, 2017, Russian Tu-22M3 long-range bombers strike Islamic State targets in Syria.

Last week, Russian warplanes conducted dozens of airstrikes in support of Syria's shelling of rebel strongholds in Eastern Ghouta in the capital of Damascus, where approximately 400,000 civilians still live. The aerial support was later extended to targets in Idlib, where the regime is pushing against several militant groups.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based monitoring group, reported the Russian airstrikes and regime shelling left dozens of people dead and injured in both Idlib and Eastern Ghouta.

The rebel groups responded to the Russian escalation with attacks on Russian targets in Syria, including Khmeimim air base. Multiple media reports indicated that the air base in Latikia had been targeted at least twice since last month.

Prolonged involvement seen

Some experts say the current escalation with the rebel groups shows a prolonged Russian involvement in Syria in favor of the regime, even with IS being in retreat.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad "is extremely unpopular. He used chemical weapons twice against his own population, and the Russians are left as the ones backing this fairly odious regime that has become the face of barbarity to the world," Colin P. Clarke, a researcher on terrorism and insurgency at the Rand Corporation, a global policy think tank, told VOA.

"They are trapped, but they still believe that there might be a potential benefit to remain in Syria," he added.

FILE - Participants shake hands after a final statement following talks on Syrian peace in Astana, Kazakhstan, Jan. 24, 2017.
FILE - Participants shake hands after a final statement following talks on Syrian peace in Astana, Kazakhstan, Jan. 24, 2017.

While Russia will continue its military intervention, it will at the same time seek a peaceful resolution between the Syrian government and the opposition groups to guarantee its influence in the future of the country, Clarke said.

Syrian peace talks in the past have continuously stalled, mainly because of disagreements over Assad's role in the country's political transition.

Russia acknowledged last month that it was planning to sponsor another round of peace talks between the warring factions in the Russian city of Sochi in late January. Many opposition groups are refusing to attend, citing increased Russian military interference.

Boycott urged

A statement by the Working Group for Syria, the umbrella group of 120 Syrian organizations, criticized Russia's military actions in Syria and urged the U.N. to boycott the meeting in Sochi.

"Russia's military intervention in Syria and its repeated use of the veto at the United Nations Security Council makes Russia a party to the conflict," The Guardian quoted the group as saying. "Given its actions in Syria, Russia cannot be regarded as either a neutral mediator or a fair convener of a national dialogue process."

FILE - This frame grab provided Oct. 5, 2017, by the Russian Defense Ministry press service claims to show a target in Syria being hit by a missile launched from a Russian submarine in the Mediterranean.
FILE - This frame grab provided Oct. 5, 2017, by the Russian Defense Ministry press service claims to show a target in Syria being hit by a missile launched from a Russian submarine in the Mediterranean.

According to the Rand Corporation's Clarke, through a military operation and efforts to lead a political transition, Russia ultimately wants to project its influence and compete with the United States, in its NATO role, as a leading power.

The U.S. is supporting a coalition of Kurdish and Arab forces in northern Syria and has said it has shifted its efforts to stabilization after IS was expelled from most of eastern Syria.

"Any NATO gain is seen as a Russian loss, and we started to see the opposite is true, as well, since the Russians and NATO are so at odds these days," Clarke said.

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