“Your friends and homeland await you,” Russian President Vladimir Putin told his soldiers at Russia’s Khmeimim air base in northern Syria on Monday. It was great news for the soldiers, advisers and pilots who had “completed the mission of fighting terror in Syria,” as Putin put it. But these soldiers don’t yet know when they can start packing, and mainly, how many of them will get to leave.
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Does Putin plan to withdraw his forces as part of the diplomatic efforts being made in Geneva, or does he plan to leave them in Syria until he knows the results of the talks from which the regime’s people pulled out and then returned on Sunday? And will Russia end its oversight of the de-escalation areas (security zones) in southern and central Syria, or will these missions continue as per the guidelines agreed on with the United States, Iran and Turkey?
In his announcement, Putin didn’t detail the conditions for the troop withdrawal, its scope or date, so one can assume that the plan isn’t to totally abandon Syria but to partly reduce the Russian presence. The critical areas, like supervising the security zones and the country’s eastern border, will continue as usual. A week from Thursday the forum on the security zones is scheduled to convene in Astana, the Kazakh capital, to discuss inspection arrangements and how to divide responsibility between Russia, Iran and Turkey.
Given Putin’s announcement, this meeting must interest Israel very much, since it wants to see if Putin can persuade the Iranians to move their troops eastward past the 25-kilometer (15.5-mile) line in southern Syria. Turkey, meanwhile, wants Russia’s consent to let its forces deepen their control over northern Syria so it can block the expansion of the Kurdish-controlled region, an issue also expected to be discussed in Astana.
Putin’s commitment to strike the terror groups if they raise their heads makes it clear that he doesn't plan to leave the military arena or change his strategy that shifted the balance of power in Syrian President Bashar Assad’s favor. But a withdrawal – even a partial one – may make it legitimate for him to insist that all foreign forces leave Syria.
This would mean mainly the American and Turkish forces, which don't enjoy the legitimacy of the Russian and Iranian forces that were “invited” by Assad, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov put it two weeks ago. This is reinforced by the wording chosen by Putin – that Russian forces defeated most of the Islamic State forces. Therefore the United States, which justified its military involvement in Syria as a war against the Islamic State, now has no reason to be in Syria.
The Pentagon reacted skeptically. “Russian comments about removal of their forces do not often correspond with actual troop reductions, and do not affect U.S. priorities in Syria,” the Pentagon spokesman said. But the United States has had only one declared objective in Syria – eradicating the Islamic State. After the Iraqi prime minister announced last week that the group had been defeated in his country, with Russia now chiming in with its declaration of success in Syria, it isn’t clear what the Trump administration means by “U.S. priorities in Syria.”
Russia’s success, which will certainly play a key role in the Russian election campaign in March, isn’t just seen in the way it changed the balance of power in Assad’s favor.
Particularly striking is the way it removed the United States from the scene and managed a complex weave of local cease-fires that let it establish security zones. But this achievement will have a hard time surviving without a military umbrella that oversees the ban on attacks in the security zones while continuing to battle regime opponents that are defined as terror groups. To achieve both objectives, the regime will need significant Russian forces, especially the air force.
A withdrawal of Russian forces throws Iran’s military involvement in Syria into even sharper relief. The Israeli and American assumption is that Tehran will seek to exploit the Russian withdrawal by increasing its number of military bases in the country and dispatching large numbers of fighters.
But this isn’t the only possible scenario. Russia and Iran aren’t conducting a zero-sum game in Syria and aren’t competing for Assad’s heart, which is totally dependent on both of them. In any diplomatic agreement on Syria’s future, the status of the Syrian dictator is assured, at least in the short term; the question is how the economic and diplomatic booty will be divided between Russia and Iran. Neither can force the other out of the arena, and both have an interest in stabilizing the country and preventing the establishment of cantons.
Realizing this interest is dependent on agreements Iran and Russia will reach, not on a military struggle over territorial control that would require keeping troops in Syria for a long time, which neither country wants. Moreover, both Iran and Russia have experience achieving influence in other countries by economic and diplomatic means, not necessarily military force.