Is Russia Really Withdrawing Forces From Syria?

Monday 9 January 2017

Is Russia Really Withdrawing Forces From Syria?

Alwaght– It was not for the first time that Russia announced withdrawal of part of its military forces and equipment from Syria nor was it supposed to give a change to the nature of Moscow’s military activities in the crisis-hit country.

Quoting an order by President Vladimir Putin for reduction of the Russian military presence in Syria, the Russian Chief of General Staff General Valery Gerasimov on Friday said in a statement that Moscow began to remove units of its military from Syria.

The announcement of partial military withdrawal came just a couple of weeks after conclusion of Aleppo battle which led to recapturing the northern city by the Syrian government’s forces and two weeks before Syria peace negotiations set to be held in Astana, the Kazakh capital. The meeting is planned to be held late in January this year in Kazakhstan’s capital. Syrian government and the opposition groups and Iran and Russia as two pro-Syria sides and Turkey as the key backer of the forces fighting against the Damascus government are supposed to participate in the negotiations.

Although some analysts began to cast doubts on the possibility of holding in time the Astana peace conference due to the problems and challenges it is facing, Russia has done its best to make sure that it will be held to guarantee a maximum rate of optimism about ending the devastating Syrian conflict. The Russian officials have said that the drive behind exit of part of the Russian forces from Syria was to offer guarantees to the dialogue as long as it is related to Moscow.

But a look at the forces and equipment that are scheduled to leave Syria can help us understand that the Russians more than seeking a withdrawal of part of their military from Syria are relocating their operational forces with a consideration of the realities on the ground in Syria.

According to General Gerasimov, the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov in the first stage will leave the Syrian coasts. The Russian flattop arrived off the Syrian coast in October last year for a temporary mission. It was set to take part in the last phase of operation to retake Aleppo from the militant groups. And now that the battle for the city has ended, it is natural that this carrier and its accompanying naval group return home. The same was true about the advisory forces sent from Iran to Syria to contribute to the anti-terror operation.

Therefore, it can be noted that the Russian withdrawal decision more than being a political measure is a military step and can be considered a relocation of combat forces. This initiative originates from the astuteness of the Kremlin’s leaders in combination of military and diplomatic options to accentuate the significance of the Russian military exit, a move earlier used in Syria in the same context.

Just a year ago, the Syrian government’s forces, backed by allies, managed to wrest back the control of the strategic towns of Nubl and Al-Zahraa in northwestern Syria from the terrorists, and so encircled the terrorist-held areas of western Aleppo.  A couple of days after the key Syrian win, President Putin to the surprise of the analysts and observers ordered part of the operating Russian forces out of Syria. At that time, the Russian leader maintained that the end behind his exit order was to motivate the Syrian opposition sides to join the peace process. He, however, warned that the Russian forces could be redeployed to Syria as fast as they were withdrawn.

But after bids for the peace in Syria failed last year, Damascus’s allies restored the military choice top on their agenda. They backed the Syrian government to reclaim eastern districts of Aleppo, dealing a working blow to the anti-Assad parties. Taking into account the battleground realities, the political discussion of the Syrian crisis is to be held in coming days in the Kazakh capital. The observers suggest if the talks fail once again, Moscow will resort to military option afresh. Fabrice Balanche, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a Syria affairs analyst, has pointed to the Putin’s order of military pullback from Syria, saying that in fact this measure possibly means that he is simply readjusting his forces and equipment to prepare for the next big assault.

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