Putin’s Syrian Withdrawal Announcement: Neither A Full Russian Withdrawal Nor Victory In Syria

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Written by Alexander Mercouris; Originally appeared at The Duran

Putin’s withdrawal announcement does not spell the end of Russian involvement in Syria or signal the end of the war in Syria

President Putin’s brief stop-over visit to Russia’s Khmeimim air base in Syria is in danger of being over-analysed.

At a time when President Putin is undertaking a tour of the Middle East it would have been politically speaking extremely unwise for him not to have made a stop-over to meet the Russian troops at the Khmeimim air base whom Putin himself sent to Syria.

Putin’s Syrian Withdrawal Announcement: Neither A Full Russian Withdrawal Nor Victory In Syria

A failure to do so might have conveyed the impression that Putin takes these troops for granted, an impression which Putin is far too good a politician to want to give.

No Soviet leader – not Brezhnev or Gorbachev – ever visited the Soviet troops sent by the USSR to Afghanistan in the 1980s.

That however was at a time when the USSR did not have competitive elections.  With Russia due to hold Presidential elections in March Putin cannot afford to appear as indifferent to the Russian troops in Syria as the Soviet leaders were towards the Soviet troops they had sent to Afghanistan.

Doing so would make a very bad impression, not just amongst the troops themselves but also across the whole Russian military and with the troops’ families.

With Russia’s military – including Russia’s military families – constituting one of Putin’s strongest electoral constituencies, needlessly annoying them is not a mistake Putin is going to make just three months before he stands for re-election as Russia’s President.

That this was the reason for Putin’s visit to Khmeimim air base and for his making his withdrawal announcement is shown by what he said to the troops when he was there.

In order to show this I will reproduce these comments here in full as the Kremlin’s website reports them

The most important thing for a military person – and we are very much aware of this – is the defence of our Fatherland, our people. This is not just the purpose of military service, but also the purpose of life for those who have devoted themselves to serving their people.

At the same time, a soldier is truly tested for loyalty to the Fatherland in a military operation fraught with huge risks to life and health. Here, in Syria, far from home, you are doing exactly that – you are protecting our country.

By helping the people of Syria to maintain their statehood, to fight off attacks by terrorists, you have inflicted a devastating blow to those who have directly, brazenly and openly threatened our country.

We will never forget the sacrifices and losses incurred in the struggle against terrorism both here in Syria and in Russia. However, it will not make us fold our hands and retreat. This is not in our peoples’ nature.

On the contrary, this memory will continue to motivate us to eradicate this absolute evil – terrorism – whatever face it hides behind.

Yes, the threat of terrorism around the world is still very high. However, the task of combating the armed groups here in Syria, the goal that needed to be addressed with the help of the large-scale use of the armed forces, has been largely resolved – and brilliantly resolved. Congratulations!

Our Armed Forces and our defence contractors have shown the growing power of the Russian Army and Navy, and the high combat capability of the various military units.

Pilots, sailors, members of special forces, reconnaissance, troop-control and logistic support units, military police, medical personnel, field engineers and advisers working in the battle units of the Syrian Army have displayed the best qualities of Russian soldiers, such as courage, heroism, combat cohesion, determination, as well as excellent training and professionalism.

The Homeland is proud of you. I am convinced that you will always faithfully serve the Fatherland, defend and uphold our national interests, our country and its people.

Syria has been preserved as a sovereign and independent state. Refugees are returning to their homes. Favourable conditions have been created for a political settlement under the UN. The Russian Centre for the reconciliation of opposing sides in Syria continues to operate in line with international agreements.

The two bases, in Tartous and Khmeimim, will continue to operate on a permanent basis. If the terrorists raise their heads again, we will deal unprecedented strikes unlike anything they have seen.

In just over two years, the Russian Armed Forces and the Syrian Army have defeated the most combat-ready group of international terrorists. In this connection, I have decided to redeploy most of the Russian military contingent from the Syrian Arab Republic to Russia.

You are returning victorious to your homes, your families, parents, wives, children and friends.

I hereby order the Defence Minister and the General Chief of Staff to start redeploying units of the Russian army group to their permanent bases.

The Homeland is waiting for you, friends. Godspeed! Thank you for your service.

The key point is that Russia’s deployment to Syria was a controversial step in Russia, including amongst Russia’s military.

As The Saker for one has repeatedly and correctly pointed out the Russian military unlike the US military is not structured to intervene constantly abroad but is overwhelmingly focused on a single mission, which is the defence of the Russian homeland ie. of Russia itself.

The Saker summed it up perfectly with these words written in an article which can be found here

The legal purpose of the Russian Armed Forces.

The Federal Law N61-F3 “On Defense”, Section IV, Article 10, Para 2 clearly states that the mission of the Russian Armed Forces is to

repel aggression against the Russian Federation, the armed defence of the integrity and inviolability of the territory of the Russian Federation, and to carry out tasks in accordance with international treaties of the Russian Federation“. 

That’s it.  Defend the territory of Russia or to carry out tasks in accordance to ratified treaties.  These are the sole functions of the Russian Armed Forces.

The Russian Constitution, Chapter IV, Article 80, Para 2 clearly states that

The President of the Russian Federation shall be guarantor of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, of the rights and freedoms of man and citizen. According to the rules fixed by the Constitution of the Russian Federation, he shall adopt measures to protect the sovereignty of the Russian Federation, its independence and state integrity, ensure coordinated functioning and interaction of all the bodies of state power“.

Now, for an American used to having, on average, about one new war every year, this might seem mind boggling, but the Russian Federation has absolutely no desire to become an “anti-USA” and get involved in constant military operations abroad.  Not only that, but the laws of the Russian Federation specifically forbid this.

Russia is not the world’s policeman, she does not have a network of 700-1000 bases worldwide (depending on your definition of ‘base’) but an army specifically designed to operate within 1000km or less from the Russian border and the President does not have the legal mandate to use the Russian armed forces to solve foreign crises.

Deployment of Russian troops relatively far from the Russian homeland to a place like Syria is for the Russian military a considerable departure from its normal role, and is something which has to be explained carefully if it is to attract support.

Putin has succeeded in doing this because he has explained carefully to the Russian military and to the Russian people that this deployment is actually in defence of Russia itself, since the Jihadist terrorist groups Russia is fighting in Syria are a threat to Russia.

The Russians have had to fight a bitter war against Jihadism on their own territory in the northern Caucasus during the 1990s and the 2000s, and have also suffered sustained Jihadi terrorist attacks on their main cities on a scale that no Western country – not even the US – has experienced.

No Russian wants to go through that again, so it was not difficult to persuade most Russians that preventing the establishment of a Jihadi enclave in Syria which might become a springboard for a Jihadist terrorist offensive against Russia was for Russia an urgent security interest.

Maybe the intervention in Syria also serves other purposes, though I personally doubt it.  However it is important to stress that this was the reason Putin gave to justify the intervention to the Russian military and to the Russian people, and why they agreed to support it.

However though most Russians – including critically the great majority of Russians serving in the military – have understood and accepted the need for the Syrian intervention and have supported it, it most definitely is not a war which the Russian people have enthusiastically embraced, and which they wish to see perpetuated indefinitely.

A comparison of Russian attitudes towards the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria illustrates the point.

Whilst there is no shortage of men in Russia who are willing to go and fight as volunteers to protect the Russian speaking people of the Donbass – regarded by all Russians as their kith and kin – there has been no similar flood of volunteers signing up to fight the Jihadis in Syria.

On the contrary most Russians – including those who serve in the military – want to see the war in Syria ended as soon as possible, and the troops once their mission is successfully accomplished quickly brought home.

Putin understands this completely, and this explains many of the things he said in his address to the troops at Khmeimim air base.

Thus the address begins with an acknowledgement that for Russian soldiers

…..the most important thing….is the defence of our fatherland, our people.

(bold italics added)

Compare those words with The Saker’s words quoted above.

The address then went on to repeat that this is a war carried out in defence of Russia

By helping the people of Syria to maintain their statehood, to fight off attacks by terrorists, you have inflicted a devastating blow to those who have directly, brazenly and openly threatened our country.

(bold italics added)

Note that flowery language of the sort beloved by US or Western leaders about defending things such as ‘values’ and ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ appear nowhere in Putin’s address.  Not only does Putin have no time for such language but the Russian troops he was addressing have no time for it either.

Having then congratulated the troops on their victory Putin then went on to fulfil what the troops and their families consider to be the explicit promise which was made to them when they were sent to Syria: that at the earliest possible opportunity they would be brought home

You are returning victorious to your homes, your families, parents, wives, children and friends.

I hereby order the Defence Minister and the General Chief of Staff to start redeploying units of the Russian army group to their permanent bases.

The Homeland is waiting for you, friends. Godspeed! Thank you for your service.

(bold italics added)

Given that the war in Syria is now visibly winding down, politically speaking it would have been risky for Putin on the eve of an election to have done otherwise.

If all this explains the reasons for Putin’s visit to Khmeimim air base and his withdrawal announcement, it is nonetheless in no sense the end of the affair.

The war in Syria is not over and it is not won.  Though ISIS’s back has been broken, it is still a force under arms in rural Deir Ezzor where it has recently taken the offensive against the US’s Kurdish allies.

In addition hundreds of ISIS fighters are still roaming free in the desert regions of central Syria even if they no longer control any important towns there.  These bands of fighters still pose a significant security threat, and will continue to do so for some time.

Further west Syria’s Idlib province remains under Jihadi control.

Worse still, there is now growing evidence that ISIS is trying to redeploy as many of its fighters as it can from central and eastern Syria to Idlib province.

With the Syrian military as always heavily over-stretched and still not in full control of much of the countryside it seems that this apparently planned redeployment of ISIS fighters from central and eastern Syria to Idlib province is not only taking place, but that it is actually meeting with some success.

Recently there have been reports of bitter fighting in Idlib province between Al-Qaeda – previously in undisputed control of the province – and the ISIS fighters who are being redeployed there from central and eastern Syria.  Moreover it seems that with Al-Qaeda severely weakened because of the massive losses it suffered last year in the Great Battle of Aleppo, it is ISIS which is gaining the upper hand in this fighting.

Whilst it is probably still alarmist to say that ISIS’s caliphate which has been driven out of Raqqa, central Syria and Deir Ezzor is now in the process of reconstituting itself in Idlib, the possibility that something like that might happen is certainly there, and the Russians cannot be unaware of it.

Elsewhere there are still significant pockets of Jihadi resistance in south western Syria, especially in the Golan Heights and near Damascus, whilst the Syrian government still faces a serious problem with the US-backed Kurds who currently control around a fifth of Syria’s territory in the north.

Last but not least there are still thousands of US troops in Syria, uninvited and potentially dangerous, with no one outside the Pentagon and CENTCOM knowing exactly how many of them there are.

Though victory in Syria is therefore now in sight, it is premature to declare it, as Putin did in his comments to the troops in Khmeimim air base.

As it happens Putin’s comments show that he knows this perfectly well.  How else to explain comments like this?

We will never forget the sacrifices and losses incurred in the struggle against terrorism both here in Syria and in Russia. However, it will not make us fold our hands and retreat. This is not in our peoples’ nature.

On the contrary, this memory will continue to motivate us to eradicate this absolute evil – terrorism – whatever face it hides behind…..

The two bases, in Tartous and Khmeimim, will continue to operate on a permanent basis. If the terrorists raise their heads again, we will deal unprecedented strikes unlike anything they have seen.

(bold italics added

Those familiar with the history of the Syrian war know that we have been here before.

In March 2016, shortly after the Russians negotiated a cessation of hostilities agreement in Syria with the US, Putin announced a very similar draw down of Russian troops from Syria.

In the event within weeks it had become clear that the cessation of hostilities agreement with the US was a dead letter.  After a short break Jihadi attacks on Syrian military positions resumed, and the Russians were obliged to reverse their drawn down and escalate again their air campaign.  The Great Battle of Aleppo and the struggle against ISIS in Palmyra, central Syria and Deir Ezzor followed.

With both Al-Qaeda and ISIS routed conditions for a drawn down are more favourable this time.  However Putin’s comments show that the Russians stand ready to reverse the drawn down if the need arises, just as they did before.

As for peace in Syria, that will only be achieved when fighting in Syria finally stops, with all the Jihadis there having been either killed or forced to lay down their arms, and with all of Syria’s territory which was previously under Jihadi or Kurdish control once more returned to the control of the Syrian government in Damascus.

Only then will it be possible to declare victory in Syria.

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  • Atle Rørdam

    He could have added that the efforts in Syria from Russian troops was also very welcome among “non psychopaths” in every NATO country and also the rest of the world.

    No need to be shy…

  • Brad Isherwood

    Putin knows the US/CIA and the Saudi Wahhabist kook world Madrasas did the 2 Chechnya wars.
    For Putin/Lavrov to call US, Turks,Saudi – Partners** in Syria conflict is disingenuous!

    Putin talks about fighting Terror */Terrorists in Syria,
    When Putin infact Knows **….who the True Fucking Terrorists Are!
    And that includes the F’ng Jews in Israhell!

    Sorry Folks….Putin is simply playing the Old Masonic game. ..He has to,…is forced to.
    He however doesn’t have to play that like Vietnam war .
    Wish he would….US pilots would be experiencing Martin Baker moment daily : )

    Nope…..Syria is partitioned abd set up to become future game moves as US screws
    Syria politically,..including Iraq, ….parks it’s Flag in both and just taunts .
    Eventually Iran gonna have to fight Uncle Shlomo. ..
    No guarantees Putin will even kick in like he did for Masonic game turn Syria.
    https://www.henrymakow.com/upload_images/masonickiss.jpg http://www.middleeasteye.net/sites/default/files/styles/main_image_article_page/public/column-image/putin.jpg
    https://images.csmonitor.com/csmarchives/2009/03/article_photo1_57.jpg?alias=standard_600x400

    • RichardD

      The Russians didn’t have to get involved, they did and prevented regime change in Damascus. How does that support your hypothesis? I don’t think that it does.

      • Brad Isherwood

        Do you think my forwards on the Masonic History / MIC since the 1700s is make believe?
        Putin won’t shoot at Uncle Shlomo or Bibi’s F’ng Vultures when they violate Lebanons
        Airspace and fire standoff into Syria. ..For Years!
        I’ve read posters coments that Putin is fighting against the NWO and Rothschild.
        Lol…..Sorry….He isn’t. …all the Oligarchs which surround him trade with US even though sanctions continue….trade/deal with Israel,
        Even Saudi and Turks.
        Syria is a cripple with huge debt,reduced resources, ….worn out military.
        Oh….and it’s partitioned and occupied!…
        ISUS still around.

        Libya Iraq, Syria….all got the living shit kicked out of them by US/Nato and Israel.
        With flunky partners like Turks, Saudi and UAE kicking in aswell.

        • RichardD

          What does any of that have to do with Russia stopping the Jew’s regime change operation in Syria? The Syrian government foot print grows every day while the regime change foot print shrinks.

    • Tudor Miron

      Brad… you try to dig deep but you don’t see the large picture. I know you will disagree but time will tell. My prediction is: USA is being removed from the role of “world policeman” and Israel is going to be used as sucrifical lumb (as it happened to Jews over and over during history) – just watch it unfolding in a few years.

      • John Whitehot

        the world doesn’t need a mint like that.

  • Solomon Krupacek

    for russia half victory = lost war.

    no country willl trust russia. i remember the big words of putin, that russia can help also iraq. hm. iraq is in better condition with yankee help :(

    russia is past. never will be big. that is the bittert truth, and this pill should russians swallow asap. maybe after the awaking they understand, that only the civil industry can help to the country.

    • Alex

      Iraq is in “better condition” because they don’t have to fight multiple terror groups aka opposition supported by many western govmnts, they are not under sanctions like Syria is, no international pressure, etc etc, as for the half war, Russia is giving the Syrian army an overhaul first in training and later equipment, most of the work is done now, Syrians have to become capable in order to defend their country. The game is still on, HTS, Rebel groups, Isis, almost finished, now they can focus on kurds and US. You are just an impuslive bafoon that doesn’t think much before he starts to shout from the top of his lungs.

      • Solomon Krupacek

        pffff, this is argue… but they had more isis in their territory, and has only usa as halp. assad had russia (the bestestest, according to jesus), iran, hezbollah and also 10 000 iraqi volunteers.
        finally, you did not affect what i told: russia is not able to guarantee the integrity of its allies.

        • Atle Rørdam

          Please… You piss all over this website nigga…

          • Jens Holm

            I hope you were born yesterday.

          • Jens Holm

            Hallo born yesterday.

        • Alex

          Lol you forget the PMU’s , the kurds, Iran, western mercenaries from europe, also polaks, here the full list https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iraqi_Civil_War_(2014%E2%80%93present)

          About integrity, fight still continues and you want to tell me that US can ? Nato are a bunch of wolves that eat their own, Turkey’s failed coup is a prime example of that, you are all nothing but pawns :)

          • Solomon Krupacek

            pmu, kurds = citizens. like in syria.

          • Alex

            kurds aren’t on the side of saa in Syria, minus 1, plus the pmu is only on the border and something like 10 km in Syria.

          • Solomon Krupacek

            also not on the side of iraqi army. dont try to lie.

          • Alex

            Kurds are de facto are on the side of us coalition, you wrote that iraqis had help from usa only, funny how you fail to mention PMu and others, thus your comment about that iraqis were helped by usa ONLY is WRONG, somebody is lying here and that’s not me:)

          • Solomon Krupacek

            please, grow first up, and after that comment me.

          • John Whitehot

            “grow first up”

            lololololololololol

          • Alex

            Typical troll comment :)

          • Solomon Krupacek

            yours

          • Alex

            not conviced, lol.

          • Jens Holm

            Thats right. It is more complicated, then he writes, but You bias yourself as well.

          • Alex

            Ow ….

    • Tudor Miron

      You really hope to see “and this pill should russians swallow asap.” – what you hope to see is Russia being in the same knee position as you are. You can’t take that you are willing to be a slave and someone don’t. You mind doesn’t accept that you should rise but rather you prefer that others should sink to your miserable level.

      • Solomon Krupacek

        first, i am standing.
        second, russia is on knee
        thord, i would be glad, if russia were not on knee

        boy, russian sportsmen go to olympic games ;)
        AGAIN i was right :))

        • John Whitehot

          “AGAIN i was right”

          in solomonia, solomon is always right.

          update: the rest of the universe is uninterested.

          • goingbrokes

            Lol!

        • PZIVJ

          But your eyes have become opaque with BS visions in your head.
          So even if you stand up straight, you have become blind.

          • Solomon Krupacek

            hahaha :DDDDDDDDDDDDDDD

        • Alex

          Olympics is a completly different story, first most of the financial and other important and related to the olympics institutions are in the hands of the west, they also put insane ammount of pressure on those and i have a feeling russian govmnt. is not doing much against it in order to rile own people up against the west, i mean who needs a propaganda when you can just translate western articles into russian, in the past years nobody has done more to unite the russians than the west, imho, before ukranian coup there was 50 % chane that i would get “attacked”by fellow russians if i would to comment something negative about the west or it’s culture on the net, now the chance is about 10 or 5 % and mostly by ukranians or other schmuck countries like that of yours.

          • Solomon Krupacek

            olimpic games is debate only beween miron and me.

          • Alex

            If you don’t want that someone to reacts to your comments than you shouldn’t do that also to others.

          • Solomon Krupacek

            from now for word idiot i will use word alex.

          • Alex

            Is this the best you could come up with, Salamander ?

        • Tudor Miron

          Regarding sportsman – just wait and see. Rest of your post doesn’t deserve mentioning.

          • Solomon Krupacek

            you say, putin will renew stalinism?

          • Tudor Miron

            That’s what you say. What I’m saying is wait and see.

  • palebluedot

    Great article. Thank you.

    Would just add that the more jihadi-on-jihadi attacks in Idlib, the better. The jihadis directly backed by the West, Turkey, and Gulf states are no better than ISIS, in the long run.

  • Neil

    I agree, Alexander. Putin shows the Russian people he wants to start bringing the troops home. Of course they won’t all leave straight away.

    Also, this withdrawal will have been reported everywhere at a time when US are refusing to withdraw their troops from anywhere, and Putin is meeting with Sisi and Er-dogwang regarding Palestine. Putin and Russia are looking very good right now!

    • Jens Holm

      Denmark and Sweden has bought Scud missiles, because Russians deploy Missiles in Kaliningrad.

      You forget small details like that and there are so many of them.

      • Neil

        ‘Denmark and Sweden has bought Scud missiles’. No, they’ve bought US-made missiles. Scuds are old Soviet missiles.

        ‘Russians deploy Missiles in Kaliningrad.’ Kaliningrad is Russia. US is deploying missiles all around Russia and China. Obviously it’s US who are being aggressive.

  • FlorianGeyer

    In my opinion President Putin wanted to show his appreciation and that of the Russian people to all the men and women of the Russian military in Syria and also all those who went before.

  • RamboDave

    The Russian election is in March. Putin is getting ready for the big victory parade in Red Square to showcase these heroic Syrian forces. But, after Putin wins the election, he will send the same Russian forces back to Syria. That’s all this is about. Just giving a well deserved break for these guys. It’s all politics. Nothing to worry about.

    • John Whitehot

      So Putin is a candidate? did not read anything on SF about that..

      • PZIVJ

        On Dec 6 Putin announced he will run for office as an Independent (United Russia) again. It does not appear that he has any serious contenders for the job.

        • John Whitehot

          yes i knew it.
          i was just pointing out that the news did not find its way here, when for example, news on the olympics did.

          the reduction is good news, because it means that there is no more need of maintaining large forces in Syria to defeat jihadism.

          it’s also good with christmas approaching that some troops can return home.

    • Solomon Krupacek

      Putin is getting ready for the big victory parade in Red Square

      be aware, the bstest tanks, armata do not conk out :)

      • batavian01

        Nothing broke down during the parade.

        • Solomon Krupacek

          you know nothig, as i see.

          • batavian01

            You are obviously referring to a T-14 Armata tank having a shifting problem during PRACTICE for the parade. There was no breakdown during the actual parade. Apparently it is you that has a “knowledge” problem.

  • John Whitehot

    it’s over, deal with it.
    to not be, there should be a total turnaround of Turkey, which won’t happen, as Erdogan just called Israel a terror state that kills children – and even if it happened, it would be the perfect excuse to completely liberate Idlib.

    propaganda is in full swing to undermine the role of Russian intervention in the defeat of the regime changing terrorists, the truth is that without it, now we’d have ISIS spanning from Lybia to Irak (with of course an undisturbed Israel in the middle).

    30.000+ militants killed, captured or put out will not be easily replaced. ISIS occupies only deserted areas and can’t recover.

    And this is not 2016: there are no more ways for militants to steadily enter Syria.

    deal with it once and for all and move on with your lives.

  • christianblood

    Great analysis! Thanks to Alex!