Russia Signals Withdrawal of Military Forces from Syria

The chief of Russia’s general staff, General Valery Gerasimov, said Russia would withdraw military forces from Syria, starting with the withdrawal of the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov from the eastern Mediterranean Sea off the Syrian coast. The warships deployed with the carrier in support of Bashar al-Assad, the President of Syria will also accompany the military withdrawal of Russia from Syria.

Expert opinion is split over whether the warship’s October journey to the Mediterranean was militarily beneficial beyond a symbolic demonstration of Russian naval force. Whether this military maneuver means a decrease in overall Russian firepower in Syria or its military campaign is unknown. Russia’s parliament in October contracted an agreement that allows the Kremlin to deploy military power in Syria to restore stability and peace in the region. Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia ordered the multiplication of the country’s naval facility in Tartus.

However, on 29 December, Putin ordered the reduction of Russian forces in Syria, concurring with the beginning of ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey. The pact, which excludes the Islamic State and the link to al-Qaida, Fateh al-Sham, aims to bring a close to Syria’s six-year struggle by holding peace talks in Kazakhstan later this month.

Putin previously announced a partial retreat of Russian military forces in March 2016, only to reinforce their presence again as trouble intensified. Nonetheless Putin believes that Bashar al-Assad, his Syrian counterpart and ally is militarily secure. The air defense capabilities deployed in Syria by Russia currently include the S-300 and S-400 systems.

Moscow’s September 2015 bombing campaign in Syria turned the tide in favor of Bashar al-Assad. The government forces of Syria targeting Aleppo were supported by Russian firepower on land in Syria and off the Mediterranean coast. Troops loyal to Assad expelled rebels from Aleppo last month, a feat considered remarkable because it paved the way for Kremlin to provide fresh political solution to the war.

Assad clearly expresses his intention to retake all of Syria from Islamic State and opposition control. Pro-government forces continue their campaigns around Damascus, but progress has been slow as Russia’s intervention has proven indecisive in these wars. Retaking Idlib would be a greater challenge as the province is completely under the opposition’s control. Syria’s bid for Idlib would depend largely on Turkey’s cooperation and Russia’s air power, which acted as a deciding factor for the campaign in early 2016.

Syria is the foothold of Russia in the Middle East, and it aims to reinforce its presence in Syria. However, there were no indications that the withdrawal of the Russian military forces are permanent or implies a reduced commitment of Russia to keeping Assad and his authority intact in Damascus.  

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