Exclusively for SouthFront by J.Hawk
The order to begin the withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria, which occurred wholly unexpectedly and even as these forces were engaged in a successful offensive against Islamist forces naturally requires a closer look. There are several possible mutually complementary explanations as to what had happened, though some are more plausible than others.
As has been predicted by many analysts already in September, Russia’s window of opportunity in Syria would remain open only until April, when the sand storm season would begin. The severity of the sand storms means that military operations become far more difficult to perform, including air operations, since the fine sand particles do pose a threat to aircraft engines. Nevertheless, if this were a problem, it would have been sufficient to place the aircraft “under wraps” or in hangars, or simply limit their flight operations. Withdrawing them from Syria altogether means that any return deployment later on would suggest the original deployment was a mistake. Therefore this is unlikely to be a temporary measure brought about by the changes in the local weather.
Syria can handle it
The SAA is in a far better shape than it was only a few months ago, and can be relied upon to finish the war on its own, particularly since Syria Express material assistance and the advisory mission that was essential to rebuilding the SAA will continue as before. One has to keep in mind that the air campaign was not intended to win the war on its own. It was intended to buy the SAA some breathing time to allow it to be re-equipped and re-trained before going over to the offensive. It has been able to do so, as shown by the steady string of battlefield victories. Therefore there is no need for the Russian air presence to continue. The counter-argument here is that the Russian air support is still very helpful, both in tangible terms and in moral, psychological terms. The Islamists clearly did not like being under the rain of Russian bombs. Now that the rain is about to dry up, the Islamists will be able to view it as a moral victory of sorts, which may lead them to redouble their efforts just when everything seemed lost.
Here, too, there are no indications that’s what is driving the decision. NATO pressure has greatly tapered off in recent weeks, Merkel is no longer calling for a no-fly zone, Erdogan is not threatening to invade, Western media are not running breathless and unsourced stories about Russian aircraft bombing hospitals. Indeed, it was apparent for several weeks already that the West has acquiesced in Russian military campaign in Syria. Which is why the “stop order” took everyone by surprise.
Displeasure with Assad
It may be the “stop order” is intended to pressure Assad’s team to be more flexible during the negotiations, and nothing can do that better than suspending Russian support. However, that could have been more easily demonstrated by suspending air operations for a week, until Syrian government intransigence disappeared. So this possible explanation also fails to address the fact this is a permanent withdrawal following a declaration of victory.
A deal with the Sunnis
The most tangible outcome of the “stop order” is that it pretty much ends the push on to Raqqa. It is doubtful the SAA can manage it on their own, and Putin actually seemed to suggest just recently that the “honor” of taking Raqqa should fall to Obama. Does it mean that the Sunnis have managed to struck some kind of a political deal with Assad and/or the US? Considering that the objective of the Russia-led campaign was never a total defeat of all adversaries but bringing them to the negotiating table, that possibility cannot be ruled out. The fact that the end of the air campaign puts the future of the besieged Deir-ez-Zor, which Syrian and Russian forces cannot possibly abandon, no matter what, in doubt, also indicates that the garrison is no longer in danger of being overrun, which would in turn suggest a political deal of some sort. However, the Sunnis are hardly in a position to decide anything on their own, without asking their major regional sponsors, specifically the Saudis, who are discussed separately below.
A deal with the US
One almost certainly exists, though probably a fairly minimalistic one limited to “Assad can stay,” which in practical terms means allowing the ceasefire and the peace process to work without external attempts to undermine it. The Obama administration appears to have given up on that point, and even the US media grudgingly acknowledges the process is working. However, the concession on Russia’s part might be conceding the “race to Raqqa” to US allies, though that remains to be seen.
A deal with Europeans
It is entirely possible the EU, which has been operating under significant Turkish pressure exerted by means of herding refugees into Europe, has offered Russia unspecified concessions in return for Russia changing its policy in Syria. What these concessions might be is still unclear, but it seems like too much of a coincidence that the EU published its “five principles” for dealing with Russia, which affirm that the sanctions are a political, not an economic, tool, and that the two sides will pursue cooperation on matters of shared concern, on the same day as Vladimir Putin declared the Russian withdrawal from Syria. It is also noteworthy that the public barrage of criticism by European politicians has vanished in the last few weeks, indicating that the debate has shifted from the public arena into the diplomatic one.
A deal with the Saudis
Russia and the Saudis have an important matter to attend to: both want to limit global oil production in order to push the oil price back to $50/barrel and higher. Therefore a compromise on Syria that would accommodate the interests of both parties seems entirely plausible and even logical, since the value of the oil deal vastly outweighs the value of even the maximum victory in Syria for either of them. The Russian-Saudi rapprochement is also suggested by the fact that the Russia-Iran relations have suddenly hit a rough patch. Iran has withdrawn the IRGC from Syria, it is against the oil freeze plan pushed by Russia and Saudi Arabia and, most recently, it has suddenly declared that it cannot afford to pay for the S-300PMU air-defense weapons it ordered from Russia. This cooling of relations suggests that the Russia-Saudi relationship is on the mend, which leaves Iran frozen out.
The bottom line is that whatever just happened in Syria was most likely influenced by factors that are not directly related to Syria, and decided in diplomatic meetings far away from Syria. For that reason, all of these relationships need to be closely watched, and anything that looks like a quid-pro-quo for the Russian “stop order” in Syria should be evaluated as possibly being part of an actual quid-pro-quo.