"I order the Defense Ministry and the chief of the General Staff to begin the pullout of the Russian military group from the Syrian Arab Republic to permanent locations from Tuesday," Putin told an audience of military personnel.
At the same time, the Russian Ministry of Defense’s press center announced that the long-range Russian bombers after doing their task of bombing the terror positions in Syria started pulling out of an airbase in North Ossetia to their original bases in the Russian territories. The ministry also stated that a military police unit that during the mission had been deployed to Syria was transported by two aircraft from the Syrian territories to Dagestan.
Why is Russia pulling out?
Russia and the US, two international powers with a role in the West Asian developments, work with two different viewpoints. The US approach focuses on the occupation of the target states under the cover of fighting terrorism and struggling to establish a permanent presence there. The American invasion of Iraq and stay of the American forces on the Iraqi soil is a convenient evidence. However, Russia adopts a different line of policy. The Russian leader by ordering pullout from Syria wanted to send the message that the Russian approach is different from that of the US in other countries. Moscow wants to emphasize that the powers should send forces for campaigning against terrorism and settling the crisis at the behest of the hosting country to achieve legitimacy of presence. Then, withdrawal comes when the job is done.
The Russian forces were deployed in September 2015 at the official call for help of the Syrian government. Now, while the Syrian government has not demanded exit of Russia from Syria, the Russian military has begun leaving that country. This draws clear lines between the two countries' attitudes. But why did Russia pull out of Syria right now?
Highlighting the terrorism defeat
The Syrian government’s six-year war against terrorism has reached its closing stages. Now only Idlib province remains held by the terrorists. Last month, Iran, another ally of the Syrian government, declared the end of battling ISIS. Now withdrawal of the Russian forces from the Syrian territories is an additional evidence marking the statement about the end of the Syrian crisis after six years. If any security threat was in place against Damascus, the allied Russian military had no reason to leave. This move is, in fact, an emphasis on the fact of failure of all of the efforts that meant to topple the Syrian government.
Joint force project
Another reason for the Russian military pullout is related to a plan to found a new joint military force in Syria. Turkey’s Yeni Safak newspaper has reported that the project of founding a joint Syrian-Russian-Iranian military force in Syria was a drive behind the Russian president’s decision. The Turkish newspaper, citing sources familiar with the issue, said that the force will soon be established and will be responsible for bringing back peace and security to various cities including Hama, Homs, Aleppo, Latakia, and Daraa. The newspaper added that the new force will comprise 20,000 troops and will work toward a more unified national Syrian army and also will secure the future elections and cleanse the Syrian territories of more terrorist threats.
Giving intra-Syrian dialogue a chance
Syria is now living a post-ISIS period after crushing the terrorist group in its various strongholds that once accounted for large swaths of the Syrian territories. Now, naturally, the biggest need is to pave the way for peace negotiations between various Syrian opposition factions and the government. Russia’s Putin hoped that withdrawing from Syria will spur all of the Syrian factions into stepping towards a peaceful solution to the devastating war, now in its seventh year. Therefore, the Russian exit is a green light given by Moscow to the warring sides to start dialogue. Putin wanted to send the Syrians a message, telling them that in the future of the Syrian political process Moscow will be a neutral mediator. Mohanad Dalighan, a member of the Syrian opposition delegation in the Geneva peace talks, commented on the Russian pullout, saying that this meant that time has come for the Syrian struggle to be settled.
US exit from Syria
Despite the fact that ISIS terrorist group, the biggest security threat to Damascus, has been obliterated, all of the threats have not been removed permanently. Now the presentence of the American forces who are deployed under the excuse of counterterrorism campaign pose a serious danger to the Syrian government. The US helped the Kurdish forces, united under the Syrian Democratic Forces, to take from ISIS the city of Raqqa, once the de facto capital of the neutralized caliphate. But Washington does not seem to have a schedule of withdrawal from Syria. Meanwhile, the Russian president’s pullout order appears to be aimed at putting strains on the Americans, who came through a military coalition to fight ISIS, to follow suit. But the American officials said that even if Russia takes its troops out of Syria, Washington will continue presence there.
In conclusion, Russian exit in the first place might give the idea that Russia is leaving the allied Syrian government alone. But it has to be taken into account that Moscow intends to set up military bases in West Asia, nearly two decades after it left the region following the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin noted that part of the Russian forces will remain at Khmeimim Airbase in the coastal province of Latakia. He ordered the operational bases in Latakia and Tartus to keep their normal activities. He said: “We need these bases to defend the sea borders and airspace. Based on strategic logic, Russia cannot and will not want to leave Syria face to face with the uninvited American military presence. Full Russian withdrawal will trigger anew the US-eyed Syria split project. So keeping two major military bases in place, Russia sets up firm roadblocks ahead of any Syria partition plots.