During the final hours of Monday, when perhaps no one expected, Russian leadership announced the end of their military mission in Syria. Such a move can definitely influence power equations in the operational and political arena of the Syrian battle. Therefore, either the Russians believe that the situation in Syria has been stabilized now, or they have adopted a new approach to how they should intervene in the Syrian crisis. Now the main question is what significance and consequences Russia's move have for the Syrian crisis under the current circumstances?
There are three possible answers. The first one is that Russia achieved the objectives for which it had become operationally involved in the Syrian crisis and, as a result, it ended its military presence in the country. Based on the first answer, Russia's move marks the end of one stage and the beginning of a new one in Russian Syria’s policy. The second possible answer is the Kremlin has fundamentally changed its approach and policy in Syria and that from now on we will be witnessing a new Russian policy. The third answer is that Russia's unexpected withdrawal signifies that the country has lost all hope for success in the Syrian field.
One of the most important questions that were raised when Russia entered the arena of military operations in Syria was the possible end point for Russia's military presence in Syria. Under what circumstances will Russia conclude that its mission in Syria has been accomplished? There is no doubt that Russians, for both politico-military and economic reasons, did not have much time for presence in the operational arena of the Syrian battle and had to complete their military operations in a limited period of time. At the beginning, Russian leaders unofficially spoke of a three- to four-month schedule for this operation. However, now more than five months after the beginning of Russia's military operations, many international observers were somewhat surprised at the Russian move. The fact is that, before Russia's military intervention in Syria, the power equations in this country were in a deadlock, and in practice, the only winners in the Syrian crisis were extremist groups. When Russia became operationally involved in the Syrian battle, not only was the deadlock broken in favor of the government forces, but there were also at least two other important results. First of all, a fresh wave of activity started at the regional and international level regarding the fight against Daesh (ISIL) and, with the support of Kurdish groups, the situation became more difficult for Daesh. Second, the opponents of the Assad government were forced to agree to talks with the government in the framework of international peace talks. These two results, in turn, helped further clarify the scene of operations in Syria, and the dividing line between the extremist and moderate opponents of the Assad government became more distinct. For Russians, from the outset, the military intervention in Syria was a means to achieve diplomatic and political objectives. Therefore, as soon as the necessary conditions were present, the Russians proposed several plans for the diplomatic settlement of the crisis. In this regard, Russia not only initiated direct talks between the opponents and supporters of the Assad government, but also managed to establish a nationwide ceasefire among the negotiating parties.
This achievement is considered to be a remarkable and relatively positive development in the Syrian crisis. Under these circumstances, we can consider the withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria to be the product of an agreement between Russia on one side and the regional and international opponents of the Assad government on the other. This agreement is probably about Russia's new plan to federalize Syria. It is not clear yet to what extent the implementation of this plan with the consent of the other parties is possible. It is clear, however, that if Russia fails to maintain its influence at least in Damascus, Latakia, Tartus, and the Mediterranean coasts of Syria, it will have gained nothing in practice from its operational involvement in the Syrian battle.
So far, Russia has achieved a major portion of its objectives in Syria and, therefore, we cannot consider the Russian forces' withdrawal to be a result of Russia's failure or despair. However, what makes things difficult to understand is that the situation in Syria is still too fragile for Russians to be able to rely on a possible behind-the-scenes agreement with the opposition.
Mahmoud Shoori, a lecturer at the University of Tehran, is the senior fellow at The IRAS Institute.
This article first appeared in Iran Daily
. (In Farsi)