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Putin’s Syrian withdrawal announcement: neither a full Russian withdrawal nor victory in Syria

Putin’s withdrawal announcement does not spell the end of Russian involvement in Syria or signal the end of the war in Syria

President Putin’s brief stop-over visit to Russia’s Khmeimim air base in Syria is in danger of being over-analysed.

At a time when President Putin is undertaking a tour of the Middle East it would have been politically speaking extremely unwise for him not to have made a stop-over to meet the Russian troops at the Khmeimim air base whom Putin himself sent to Syria.

A failure to do so might have conveyed the impression that Putin takes these troops for granted, an impression which Putin is far too good a politician to want to give.

No Soviet leader – not Brezhnev or Gorbachev – ever visited the Soviet troops sent by the USSR to Afghanistan in the 1980s.

That however was at a time when the USSR did not have competitive elections.  With Russia due to hold Presidential elections in March Putin cannot afford to appear as indifferent to the Russian troops in Syria as the Soviet leaders were towards the Soviet troops they had sent to Afghanistan.

Doing so would make a very bad impression, not just amongst the troops themselves but also across the whole Russian military and with the troops’ families.

With Russia’s military – including Russia’s military families – constituting one of Putin’s strongest electoral constituencies, needlessly annoying them is not a mistake Putin is going to make just three months before he stands for re-election as Russia’s President.

That this was the reason for Putin’s visit to Khmeimim air base and for his making his withdrawal announcement is shown by what he said to the troops when he was there.

In order to show this I will reproduce these comments here in full as the Kremlin’s website reports them

The most important thing for a military person – and we are very much aware of this – is the defence of our Fatherland, our people. This is not just the purpose of military service, but also the purpose of life for those who have devoted themselves to serving their people.

At the same time, a soldier is truly tested for loyalty to the Fatherland in a military operation fraught with huge risks to life and health. Here, in Syria, far from home, you are doing exactly that – you are protecting our country.

By helping the people of Syria to maintain their statehood, to fight off attacks by terrorists, you have inflicted a devastating blow to those who have directly, brazenly and openly threatened our country.

We will never forget the sacrifices and losses incurred in the struggle against terrorism both here in Syria and in Russia. However, it will not make us fold our hands and retreat. This is not in our peoples’ nature.

On the contrary, this memory will continue to motivate us to eradicate this absolute evil – terrorism – whatever face it hides behind.

Yes, the threat of terrorism around the world is still very high. However, the task of combating the armed groups here in Syria, the goal that needed to be addressed with the help of the large-scale use of the armed forces, has been largely resolved – and brilliantly resolved. Congratulations!

Our Armed Forces and our defence contractors have shown the growing power of the Russian Army and Navy, and the high combat capability of the various military units.

Pilots, sailors, members of special forces, reconnaissance, troop-control and logistic support units, military police, medical personnel, field engineers and advisers working in the battle units of the Syrian Army have displayed the best qualities of Russian soldiers, such as courage, heroism, combat cohesion, determination, as well as excellent training and professionalism.

The Homeland is proud of you. I am convinced that you will always faithfully serve the Fatherland, defend and uphold our national interests, our country and its people.

Syria has been preserved as a sovereign and independent state. Refugees are returning to their homes. Favourable conditions have been created for a political settlement under the UN. The Russian Centre for the reconciliation of opposing sides in Syria continues to operate in line with international agreements.

The two bases, in Tartous and Khmeimim, will continue to operate on a permanent basis. If the terrorists raise their heads again, we will deal unprecedented strikes unlike anything they have seen.

In just over two years, the Russian Armed Forces and the Syrian Army have defeated the most combat-ready group of international terrorists. In this connection, I have decided to redeploy most of the Russian military contingent from the Syrian Arab Republic to Russia.

You are returning victorious to your homes, your families, parents, wives, children and friends.

I hereby order the Defence Minister and the General Chief of Staff to start redeploying units of the Russian army group to their permanent bases.

The Homeland is waiting for you, friends. Godspeed! Thank you for your service.

The key point is that Russia’s deployment to Syria was a controversial step in Russia, including amongst Russia’s military.

As The Saker for one has repeatedly and correctly pointed out the Russian military unlike the US military is not structured to intervene constantly abroad but is overwhelmingly focused on a single mission, which is the defence of the Russian homeland ie. of Russia itself.

The Saker summed it up perfectly with these words written in an article which can be found here

The legal purpose of the Russian Armed Forces.

The Federal Law N61-F3 “On Defense”, Section IV, Article 10, Para 2 clearly states that the mission of the Russian Armed Forces is to

repel aggression against the Russian Federation, the armed defence of the integrity and inviolability of the territory of the Russian Federation, and to carry out tasks in accordance with international treaties of the Russian Federation“. 

That’s it.  Defend the territory of Russia or to carry out tasks in accordance to ratified treaties.  These are the sole functions of the Russian Armed Forces.

The Russian Constitution, Chapter IV, Article 80, Para 2 clearly states that

The President of the Russian Federation shall be guarantor of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, of the rights and freedoms of man and citizen. According to the rules fixed by the Constitution of the Russian Federation, he shall adopt measures to protect the sovereignty of the Russian Federation, its independence and state integrity, ensure coordinated functioning and interaction of all the bodies of state power“.

Now, for an American used to having, on average, about one new war every year, this might seem mind boggling, but the Russian Federation has absolutely no desire to become an “anti-USA” and get involved in constant military operations abroad.  Not only that, but the laws of the Russian Federation specifically forbid this.

Russia is not the world’s policeman, she does not have a network of 700-1000 bases worldwide (depending on your definition of ‘base’) but an army specifically designed to operate within 1000km or less from the Russian border and the President does not have the legal mandate to use the Russian armed forces to solve foreign crises.

Deployment of Russian troops relatively far from the Russian homeland to a place like Syria is for the Russian military a considerable departure from its normal role, and is something which has to be explained carefully if it is to attract support.

Putin has succeeded in doing this because he has explained carefully to the Russian military and to the Russian people that this deployment is actually in defence of Russia itself, since the Jihadist terrorist groups Russia is fighting in Syria are a threat to Russia.

The Russians have had to fight a bitter war against Jihadism on their own territory in the northern Caucasus during the 1990s and the 2000s, and have also suffered sustained Jihadi terrorist attacks on their main cities on a scale that no Western country – not even the US – has experienced.

No Russian wants to go through that again, so it was not difficult to persuade most Russians that preventing the establishment of a Jihadi enclave in Syria which might become a springboard for a Jihadist terrorist offensive against Russia was for Russia an urgent security interest.

Maybe the intervention in Syria also serves other purposes, though I personally doubt it.  However it is important to stress that this was the reason Putin gave to justify the intervention to the Russian military and to the Russian people, and why they agreed to support it.

However though most Russians – including critically the great majority of Russians serving in the military – have understood and accepted the need for the Syrian intervention and have supported it, it most definitely is not a war which the Russian people have enthusiastically embraced, and which they wish to see perpetuated indefinitely.

A comparison of Russian attitudes towards the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria illustrates the point.

Whilst there is no shortage of men in Russia who are willing to go and fight as volunteers to protect the Russian speaking people of the Donbass – regarded by all Russians as their kith and kin – there has been no similar flood of volunteers signing up to fight the Jihadis in Syria.

On the contrary most Russians – including those who serve in the military – want to see the war in Syria ended as soon as possible, and the troops once their mission is successfully accomplished quickly brought home.

Putin understands this completely, and this explains many of the things he said in his address to the troops at Khmeimim air base.

Thus the address begins with an acknowledgement that for Russian soldiers

…..the most important thing….is the defence of our fatherland, our people.

(bold italics added)

Compare those words with The Saker’s words quoted above.

The address then went on to repeat that this is a war carried out in defence of Russia

By helping the people of Syria to maintain their statehood, to fight off attacks by terrorists, you have inflicted a devastating blow to those who have directly, brazenly and openly threatened our country.

(bold italics added)

Note that flowery language of the sort beloved by US or Western leaders about defending things such as ‘values’ and ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ appear nowhere in Putin’s address.  Not only does Putin have no time for such language but the Russian troops he was addressing have no time for it either.

Having then congratulated the troops on their victory Putin then went on to fulfil what the troops and their families consider to be the explicit promise which was made to them when they were sent to Syria: that at the earliest possible opportunity they would be brought home

You are returning victorious to your homes, your families, parents, wives, children and friends.

I hereby order the Defence Minister and the General Chief of Staff to start redeploying units of the Russian army group to their permanent bases.

The Homeland is waiting for you, friends. Godspeed! Thank you for your service.

(bold italics added)

Given that the war in Syria is now visibly winding down, politically speaking it would have been risky for Putin on the eve of an election to have done otherwise.

If all this explains the reasons for Putin’s visit to Khmeimim air base and his withdrawal announcement, it is nonetheless in no sense the end of the affair.

The war in Syria is not over and it is not won.  Though ISIS’s back has been broken, it is still a force under arms in rural Deir Ezzor where it has recently taken the offensive against the US’s Kurdish allies.

In addition hundreds of ISIS fighters are still roaming free in the desert regions of central Syria even if they no longer control any important towns there.  These bands of fighters still pose a significant security threat, and will continue to do so for some time.

Further west Syria’s Idlib province remains under Jihadi control.

Worse still, there is now growing evidence that ISIS is trying to redeploy as many of its fighters as it can from central and eastern Syria to Idlib province.

With the Syrian military as always heavily over-stretched and still not in full control of much of the countryside it seems that this apparently planned redeployment of ISIS fighters from central and eastern Syria to Idlib province is not only taking place, but that it is actually meeting with some success.

Recently there have been reports of bitter fighting in Idlib province between Al-Qaeda – previously in undisputed control of the province – and the ISIS fighters who are being redeployed there from central and eastern Syria.  Moreover it seems that with Al-Qaeda severely weakened because of the massive losses it suffered last year in the Great Battle of Aleppo, it is ISIS which is gaining the upper hand in this fighting.

Whilst it is probably still alarmist to say that ISIS’s caliphate which has been driven out of Raqqa, central Syria and Deir Ezzor is now in the process of reconstituting itself in Idlib, the possibility that something like that might happen is certainly there, and the Russians cannot be unaware of it.

Elsewhere there are still significant pockets of Jihadi resistance in south western Syria, especially in the Golan Heights and near Damascus, whilst the Syrian government still faces a serious problem with the US-backed Kurds who currently control around a fifth of Syria’s territory in the north.

Last but not least there are still thousands of US troops in Syria, uninvited and potentially dangerous, with no one outside the Pentagon and CENTCOM knowing exactly how many of them there are.

Though victory in Syria is therefore now in sight, it is premature to declare it, as Putin did in his comments to the troops in Khmeimim air base.

As it happens Putin’s comments show that he knows this perfectly well.  How else to explain comments like this?

We will never forget the sacrifices and losses incurred in the struggle against terrorism both here in Syria and in Russia. However, it will not make us fold our hands and retreat. This is not in our peoples’ nature.

On the contrary, this memory will continue to motivate us to eradicate this absolute evil – terrorism – whatever face it hides behind…..

The two bases, in Tartous and Khmeimim, will continue to operate on a permanent basis. If the terrorists raise their heads again, we will deal unprecedented strikes unlike anything they have seen.

(bold italics added

Those familiar with the history of the Syrian war know that we have been here before.

In March 2016, shortly after the Russians negotiated a cessation of hostilities agreement in Syria with the US, Putin announced a very similar draw down of Russian troops from Syria.

In the event within weeks it had become clear that the cessation of hostilities agreement with the US was a dead letter.  After a short break Jihadi attacks on Syrian military positions resumed, and the Russians were obliged to reverse their drawn down and escalate again their air campaign.  The Great Battle of Aleppo and the struggle against ISIS in Palmyra, central Syria and Deir Ezzor followed.

With both Al-Qaeda and ISIS routed conditions for a drawn down are more favourable this time.  However Putin’s comments show that the Russians stand ready to reverse the drawn down if the need arises, just as they did before.

As for peace in Syria, that will only be achieved when fighting in Syria finally stops, with all the Jihadis there having been either killed or forced to lay down their arms, and with all of Syria’s territory which was previously under Jihadi or Kurdish control once more returned to the control of the Syrian government in Damascus.

Only then will it be possible to declare victory in Syria.

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