President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that Russia will begin to withdraw forces from Syria resembles a familiar baiting strategy implemented by the Kremlin in the past.
Its scope? To push for a political settlement that can end the seven-year-long Syrian crisis and have Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad as a key player,
Since Russia officially deployed its forces into Syria in September 2015, this is the third time (March 2016, January 2017 and now) that Putin has announced the withdrawal of Russian forces, only to apply a tactical reduction instead.
Russia shocked many Western nations, including the US-UK coalition, when it deployed its most powerful and special operations troops to back the Assad regime in 2015. That defiant move dramatically changed the stakes in favor of Assad, helping him hold on to power, with catastrophic consequences for the Syrian population.
Clutching its United Nations Security Council veto power on one hand, Russia promised to assist Assad to restore stability by supporting only the legitimate Syrian government and prevent the systematic crumbling of an already volatile Middle East region, following the “Arab Spring”.
Russia promised a political settlement process with Assad, rather than a “regime change without Assad”—rhetoric promoted by the US.
With special forces, aerial capability and naval strength, Putin waged a war against ISIS and any other militant group in Syria that “look, act or walk like a terrorist,” including US-backed moderate militants.
Russia has not yet achieved its goals
Russia has not yet achieved its goals in Syria and we are not likely to see a complete pull out just yet, in spite of the fact that the Islamic State (Isis) was defeated in its strongholds Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq.
Although the coalition has achieved a key objective in the success of pushing ISIS out of Raqqa, Putin is much aware that ISIS still maintains control of pockets of territories in Syria, especially around the city of Deir ez-Zor, by the Euphates River.
This is an indication that ISIS continues to enjoy local community and tribal support in Syria by hook or by crook, and continues to propagate its extreme Salafist ideology. There are strong indications that the group will soon find a safe haven in North Africa, from where it has the potential to re-group.
Russia and Assad are masters of their game and they will keep enough room for any manoeuvre from ISIS, which, however, is not the only problem.
The threat of terrorism is further exacerbated by the presence of independent rebel groups and a growing Al-Qaeda (AQ) presence in Syria, especially near the town of Idlib, along the Turkish border.
While coalition forces have focused their targets mainly on ISIS strongholds, AQ branches, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (previously Jabhat al -Nusra ) and its estimated 30,000 fighters, will pose a serious threat to the stability of Syria, even if ISIS were to disappear for good.
Assad and Russia will have to maintain a force capable of responding to any open bold moves by AQ.
Russia is reasonably expected to withdraw special forces (with the potential to recall them if the need arises), air and naval power, just as it did with the withdrawal of the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier and other ‘show of force’ ships in January 2017. However, the mission in Syria is semi-accomplished.
The Russian intervention into the Syrian crisis has been the greatest counter balance to the US coalition hegemony in the Middle East and its insistence that a regime change in Syria is the only viable condition for a sustainable peace process.
As long as a political process is not achieved with Assad as a key player, and as long as ISIS, AQ and other rebel groups still have the potential to threaten the stability of Syria and the entire region, Putin may continue to reduce troop numbers as a tactical necessity, but boots on the ground will remain visible for strategic reasons.
David Otto is the Director of TGS Intelligence Consultants Ltd and the Preventing Radicalisation and Violent Extremism Programme – Step In Step Out (SISO) – based in the United Kingdom. He is also Senior Counter Terrorism Advisor for Global Risk International.