by Gordon M. Hahn
To understand the withdrawal of Russian air forces and cessation of Russian air sorties in Syria, one needs to understand Moscow’s overall military-political tactics and strategy. Specifically, one needs to understand that, contrary to the Washington consensus’s paranoid memes, Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks not conquest but the removal of security threats to his country. In order to achieve this, he occasionally uses military tactics in order to achieve security goals through political means. In other words, he is a rational actor who seeks to resolve problems threatening Russian national interests and security. Putin understands that military power is a means to such political ends. If we look at Putin’s most recent deployments of military force in Ukraine and Syria, we would notice–if we were not blinded by the aforesaid memes–that military deployment was followed by peace talks proposed by or brought about because of Moscow’s military intervention.
Russia in Ukraine
Contrary to Western strategic propaganda there were never 40,000 or even tens of thousands of Russian troops in Donbass, and of the forces that were deployed there–some 5,000 regular forces and another several thousand ‘demobilized’ and volunteer fighters–they rarely intervened in actual combat. They did so in large numbers but twice, and in both cases they did so to prevent the encirclement and rout of Donbass rebel forces and opened the way to ceasefires and peace talks.
In the first case, the battle of Ilovaisk in Donetsk Oblast from 7-30 August 2014, Donbass rebels were on the verge of being routed and expelled from the strategic town of Ilovaisk. After Ukrainian army forces and neofascist-dominated volunteer battalions took the city center, at most several thousand Russian forces at most reinforced–and did not spearhead–the rebels’ counteroffensive. The latter of course received crucial Russian intelligence, guidance, and heavy weapons support in the form of artillery and tanks. The Ukrainian forces were encircled inside the city and ultimately routed with some able to leave through corridor of safe passage offered by Putin under an agreement that broke down on the ground leading to heavy Ukrainian casualties. The Minsk 1 talks started days later, with Russian participation representing the Donbass rebels. On September 5th an agreement on a ceasefire and steps towards a full cessation of hostility was concluded.
The battle of Debaltsevo and its aftermath followed a similar patter. In the late fall the Minsk 1 ceasefire broke down and fighting resumed. In late January 2015 Ukrainian regular and volunteer forces on the verge of encircling Donbass rebels were in turn encircled and routed after an intervention by Russian forces with heavy weapons, including artillery located over the border inside Russia. This forced talks on a new ceasefire agreement in which Russia again took part along with the rebels, the Ukrainian side, and European intermediaries. On February 12th the Minsk 2 accord was signed. It included a ceasefire agreement and a series of 14 measures to secure both the ceasefire and a lasting peace and political agreement for Donbass’s eventual return to Kiev’s full jurisdiction.
Russia in Syria
In Syria now, the same patter has unfolded. Before Russia’s military intervention the forces of Bashar al-Assad’s regime were on the ropes in battle against a fluid set of multifarious revolutionary rebel groups but dominated by Islamist and jihadist elements, most of all Jeish al-Fiteh, Jabhat al-Nusrah and the Islamic State (IS). At the same time, IS had consolidated its ‘caliphate’ in northwestern and north-central Iraq and eastern Syria and was beginning to deploy terrorists out-of-area to places like Paris. Several thousand jihadists from Russia, mostly from the North Caucasus, were fighting under the banner of these various groups. An IS affiliate, the Caucasus Vilaiyat (Governate) of the Islamic State, had been formed in the North Caucasus from most of the mujahedin in the disintegrating Al Qaida (AQ) ally, the Caucasus Emirate. Turkey was letting fighters, funding, weapons, and IS’s oil business traverse through its borders and territory to the benefit of these jihadi and other groups fighting in both Syria and Iraq. The West and its Arab Sunni allies had wittingly and unwittingly, respectively, supplied IS and AQ-allied groups in Syria with weapons and financing.
Then Moscow intervened on September 30th, and Putin was again able to parlay Russian military operations into peace talks. This and the achievement of other goals explains Putin’s decision to sharply draw down Moscow’s military operations in Syria.
With Moscow’s air, logistical and other support, Assad’s forces turned a counter-offensive against the rebels which has taken back hundreds of Syrian villages and towns against the rebels and jihadists. Syrian forces have taken back all of Latakia, most of Homs and Hama provinces, and are on the verge of taking Aleppo and Palmyra. From there the rebels will only have the desert in the east, where some are likely to end up fighting with IS forces. Moreover, it does not appear that Moscow’s withdrawal will be a complete one. Putin noted in has March 14th Kremlin announcement of the draw down that there will be a continued Russian presence will remain at the new Hmeymim air base in addition to that at Tartus, which existed prior to the intervention. Syrian President Assad said in his announcement of the decision that he and Putin had agreed “to decrease the number of the Russian air forces in Syria.” Or is there possibly a discrepancy in statements signaling differences in policy preferences between Moscow and Damascus, with the latter wanting a more robust Russian presence be left behind? Regardless, the new Russian presence in Hmeymim will reinforce Syrian forces and itself can be reinforced by a return of air and/or ground forces from Russia. Thus, at least for the present, Putin has secured the survival of the Assad regime – a major goal of the intervention – and can now sit back a little, husband resources, and see how the peace talks and fighting proceed.
Moreover, Moscow’s intervention forced Washington and West to step up its limited efforts to fight IS and exposed the West’s and the Arabs’ support for ‘moderate’ rebels, the supply of weapons to jihadists which that led to, and Washington’s Brussels’s, and Ankara’s looking the other way regarding IS’s oil trade and its other lines of supply and communication running through NATO member Turkey.
This achieved two goals. First, it exposed the Barack Obama administration’s fecklessness in the war against jihadism (here in the U.S. sometimes called ‘workplace violence’).
Second, it reduced the capacity of the Caucasus-Levant jihadi terrorism axis that threatens Russian homeland security. Thus, the day before Moscow announced its withdrawal, the Pentagon confirmed that one of the main IS jihadists originally sent to Syria by the Caucasus Emirate’s then amir ‘Abu Usman’ Doku Umarov had died. Tarkhan Batirashvili, aka Omar al-Shishani (Umar the Chechen), had been captured by American forces and was reportedly all but dead when apprehended last week. After leaving a large group of foreign jihadists, the AQ ally Jabhat al-Nusra, fighting against the Syrian army, Batirashvili defected to IS and became its military amir in Syria. According to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s report at the meeting in March 14th Kremlin with President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov during which Putin announced the draw down “more than two thousand bandits from Russia, in particular 17 field commanders, were destroyed” in the course of Russia’s operations in Syria.
One can rest assured that if Russian sorties have not got most of the other Caucasus and other Russian mujahedin fighting in the Levant, then Western, Iraqi, Kurdish, Syrian, or Iranian ground and air operations or a second Russian phase will get the remaining ones. The overall degrading of such mujahedin, IS and other jihadi groups will render Russia and the West that much safer from domestic attacks. Thus, in addition to buttressing the position of its Syrian ally, Moscow has reduced the threat of jihadi terrorism than would exist without the intervention. There will be IS and other attacks in Russia in future, but there would be more without substantially degrading the jihadi hub in and around the caliphate and the Levant.
In addition to all this, Putin’s military intervention, just like his interventions in Donbass, forced the interested parties–the West, the Arabs, Iran, and Syria–to the negotiating table in order to resolve a problem Russia wishes be resolved.
In his March 14th announcement of the draw down of Russian forces in Syria, Putin emphasized several times that Russia’s military intervention “created the conditions for the start of a peace process.” At a minimum, the talks buy time for Assad, who could survive simply because the Syrian opposition and its backers lose the will to continue the fight over time or under the clarity of mind often imposed by defeat on the battlefield. At a maximum, peace talks can avoid a regional or world war, help forge cooperation if not an alliance with the West against IS and other jihadi organizations, and secure a way for Assad to remain in power in one entity or another: today’s Syria or some rump thereof.
In addition, the withdrawal appears to be a signal that Moscow wishes to create an atmosphere in which the talks can proceed without confounding incidents on the battlefield that can be blamed on Moscow. This was signaled by Putin’s synchronization of the his March 14th announcement on the draw down with the day on which the peace talks resumed in Geneva and his statement in the announcement that Moscow hopes the Russian draw down “will be a good signal…and significantly raise the level of trust between all participants in the Syrian peace process.” Assad noted in his own statement that the decision to draw Russian forces down is intended “to cope with the current field stage and the continuation of the cessation of hostilities.” All this underscores once again that Russia’s use of military force is being used to force negotiations, through which Moscow seeks to attain its national security goals. Finally, in this regard, in Putin’s announcement of the Russian deployment to Syria back in late September, he stated that the operation would last as long as it took for the Syrian army to carry out offensive operations, and later it was clarified that this was expected to be a matter of several months; that was five and a half months ago.
Unverifiable counts of civilian casualties–such as the 1.700 in 2015–supposedly inflicted by Russia’s sorties and so emphasized by Western governments and media pale in significance to the number of casualties the regular fighting plus jihadi terrorists would have inflicted in the same period and those inflicted in the period before Russia’s intervention when Western forces did little to stop IS and other jihadi groups from slaughtering the Iraqi and Syrian populations. Now, thanks to the Russian intervention that concentrated the minds of the western powers, those civilian casualties should abate.
Finally, Moscow’s draw down also opens up possible opportunities to demonstrate again the usefulness of Russian military power in the region. Also, it cannot excluded that Russian intelligence has gotten wind of some new wild card about to insert itself into Syrian-Iraqi maelstrom that Moscow might want to avoid or be called upon to help address–for example, a military intervention by other players, such as Turkey, the regime of which is appearing increasingly shaky, at growing risk of terrorism, and may need a foreign adventure to consolidate the nation.
In sum, Putin has been undertaking a very traditional military-political practice: seeking to create a balance or stalemate that forces parties to see the futility of further military efforts and thus turn to the negotiating table. The problem is that in today’s Washington and Brussels, a combination of neo-imperial hubris and a ‘politically correct’ aversion to the open use of military force leads to the use of extremely imprecise and uncontrollable regime change strategies that cause military debacles in an absence of the necessary will to resolve them once created. We have seen this repeat over the last few years in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Ukraine.
Putin initially dispatched and now is drawing down Russian forces because issues of concern to Moscow first emerged and now, at least in part, have been ameliorated: Assad’s near demise, the growing jihadi threat to Russian emanating from the Levant, and a raging war that threatened to aggravate both problems, overwhelm Russian national security efforts, and breakout into a regional, even world war. None of these threats are fully extinguished, but they are in a better place from Moscow’s point of view than before the intervention.
To be sure, we will soon be hearing that Putin’s draw down in Syria was forced by shallow Kremlin coffers. Or it is fraught with grave danger for the West. The Kremlin will be said to have imminent plans to subvert Minsk 2, restart ‘its’ war in Donbass, and seize Kiev. It may be said to be preparing to invade Moldova and/or the Baltic Republics, perhaps Sweden and even Scotland–as some news reports claimed in the wake of the Crimea takeover. For these invasions the air armada had to be removed from Syria, don’t you know. In Syria, Putin will also be up to no good, out to get the West, strained voices from Washington, Brussels, Warsaw, Vilnius and Tallinn will scream. The draw down, perhaps, is part and parcel of a sophisticated ruse, an unknowable Kremlin scheme, the essence of which will be revealed during the next Russo-Western crisis.
We can doubt Moscow’s flexibility on the issue of Assad, but it was evidenced during February 2012 negotiations between the envoys of the UN Security Council’s five permanent members, according to former Finnish president and Nobel peace prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari. At that time, Russia offered to abandon support for the Syrian dictator as part of a three-part peace process. But the western powers–presumably the three Western UN SC permanent members, the U.S., U.K. and France–rejected the plan because they thought Assad’s regime would soon fall (www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/15/west-ignored-russian-offer-in-2012-to-have-syrias-assad-step-aside). Ahtisaaris’s version of events was recently backed up by former Special Envoy United Nations and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi (www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/syria-conflict-west-should-have-listened-to-russia-says-un-special-envoy-lakhdar-brahimi-a6927571.html).
Thus, regardless of what one might think of Putin’s soft-to-mid-range authoritarianism, in foreign policy he is a rational, if at times overreactive actor (e.g., recognition of Abkhaz and South Ossetiyan independence and the seizure of Crimea), when provoked. Putin knows how to use power, if, at times, overly so, ultimately he seeks to protect Russian national security, advance Russian national interests, and preserve–not achieve–Russia’s great power status. For Russia never lost its great power status in the post-Cold War period. If it did, it was only in its self-perception and lost political will in the 1990s. Now, with repeated rounds of NATO expansion and Western ‘revolutionism’ in Ukraine and the MENA region and more on the way, Moscow has a revamped self-image and revived political will and, despite claims to the contrary, it is able to carry out a fairly coherent military-political strategy that on occasion produces real results.
(Can the West’s present leaders in Washington and Brussels claim the same? Unfortunately, not for almost a decade now.)