Russian Withdrawal Could Set Stage for Assad’s Exit

Putin’s troops helped Damascus beat back Syria’s rebels. Now that Russia is on its way out, will Assad follow?

A general view shows Russian fighter jets on the tarmac at the Russian Hmeimim military base in Latakia province, in the northwest of Syria, on February 16, 2016.                           
Russia launched air strikes in support of Syria's government in September 2015.  / AFP / STRINGER        (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view shows Russian fighter jets on the tarmac at the Russian Hmeimim military base in Latakia province, in the northwest of Syria, on February 16, 2016. Russia launched air strikes in support of Syria's government in September 2015. / AFP / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia has spent months using its warplanes, artillery pieces, and ground troops to bolster the fragile government of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. Moscow’s decision to begin a major military withdrawal shows that it may be looking for a way out of the conflict — and that it may be open to a Syrian government led by someone other than Assad.

U.S. officials cautioned that Moscow hadn’t yet begun moving military equipment out of Syria and said it was too soon to gauge how many of his forces Russian President Vladimir Putin would ultimately be prepared to bring home. Still, Putin’s surprise announcement Monday that “the main part of our military groups will begin their withdrawal” from Syria could mean an end to Russia’s unconditional support for Assad and offer a rare reason for optimism that there could be a diplomatic solution to the country’s unrelenting carnage.

Months of heavy bombardment by Russian warplanes have allowed the regime to consolidate gains in the country’s west while knocking rebel groups — some of which are backed by the United States — off balance. Russian support has also allowed Syrian forces to regroup and resupply after years of intense fighting. The regime has taken the gains to the negotiating table in Geneva, where U.N.-brokered negotiations to end the civil war in Syria have just resumed after collapsing a month earlier.

The current discussions also seemed perilously close to going off the rails in the days before Putin’s announcement. On Saturday, the Syrian government drew a fresh set of red lines about the substance of the negotiations. The U.N.’s special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, had said he expected the negotiations to address the formation of a transitional government, a new constitution, and fresh elections. But on Saturday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem rejected that proposal, saying de Mistura had no right to talk about presidential elections or Assad’s future. “This is an exclusive right of the Syrian people,” Moallem said.

Those disagreements over the scope of the negotiations led many analysts to doubt that anything could be achieved at the international summit. But Russia’s potential severing of its lifeline for Assad could change the regime’s calculus.

“It appears that Russia may be recalibrating its support for Assad in order to pressure him to make concessions at the negotiating table,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “So far there’s been no indication that Assad’s willing to cave on much of anything.”

That’s because Assad, at least for the moment, has no real reason to consider giving up power. The Russian military push has shored up his defenses and allowed Syrian forces to move closer to the key rebel-held city of Aleppo. U.S. President Barack Obama and other Western leaders have quietly acknowledged that they could accept Assad keeping his current post temporarily while the fight against the Islamic State continues to rage. That has infuriated Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other countries with close ties to the rebel groups working to unseat Assad.

But some analysts say the Assad regime’s swaggering confidence is beginning to gradually diminish.

Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said that until the past week, he had been in touch with officials close to the Assad regime in Damascus who expressed “a constant drumbeat of confidence that they’re going to take back every inch of Syrian soil, and Russia is their partner.” But those communications abruptly fell off earlier this month. “No one was answering the phones in Damascus. That leads me to believe they were thrown for a loop.”

Landis said that Putin’s planned withdrawal from Syria means he’s not going to back Assad “all the way.” But he said the move was also likely aimed at Washington, which has frustrated Moscow by refusing to work with Putin to fight the Islamic State. “This is a shot across America’s bow as well,” Landis said, “with Russia saying, ‘We’ll leave, and you’ll be stuck holding the bag in Syria.’”

The withdrawal announcement, reported by Russian state media, appears to have caught the White House off guard. A senior administration official said Monday that they had seen reports of the Russian move and that “we expect to learn more about this in the coming hours.” A spokesman for the Defense Department declined to comment.

Obama and Putin spoke on the phone after the Russian announcement, according to a statement from the White House. The two leaders spoke about the partial withdrawal and the “next steps required to fully implement the cessation of hostilities.”

Part of Putin’s calculus is likely to solidify his own gains in Syria while curtailing the appetite of Syrian negotiators in Geneva. “Putin likely feels in a position to extract maximum benefit out of the current negotiations at minimal cost,” said Christopher Kozak, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “A hard-line stance from Assad that fuels a return to conflict will jeopardize these gains over the long term.” As long as the regime in Damascus stands, Russia retains its port facility in the eastern Mediterranean, as well as its S-400 surface-to-air missile systems near Turkey.

Russian diplomats already have been out explaining the decision to the international community. Moscow’s ambassador to the U.N., Vitaly Churkin, briefed the world body’s Security Council behind closed doors Monday afternoon on Russia’s plan to withdraw the bulk of its military forces.

Speaking to reporters before the meeting, Churkin said that Russia would continue to maintain a military presence in Syria, including drones, in order to ensure that any cease-fire or cessation of hostilities is maintained. Russia’s diplomatic energies, he added, would be squarely focused on achieving a political settlement to end the Syrian conflict.

“We are in the political mode now, in the cessation of hostilities mode,” he said.

It remained unclear what sort of role Russia may continue to play in Syria. Churkin said the “fight against terrorists” in Syria would continue, and he urged the warring parties to join forces in combating Syria’s terrorist organizations.

Top military officials in Washington have emphasized the effect that the Russian airstrikes have had in shoring up the Assad regime. In January, Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the regime “is in a better place now” than it was before Russia’s intervention. He added that Assad has “regained some small amounts of ground” in the western parts of the country while consolidating gains in other areas that had been pressured by rebel groups.

The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has estimated that Russian airstrikes since last September have killed approximately 1,100 Islamic State fighters — but also have killed more than 1,700 civilians. The 50 Russian warplanes and helicopters injected much-needed life into Assad’s military campaign, with Russian officials estimating their planes have flown more than 9,000 sorties over the past five months.

Russia has also dispatched tanks and artillery pieces to help protect its air base and port facilities in the Syrian city of Latakia. The artillery has also shelled rebel positions in support of government offensives.

Rather than praising Moscow’s withdrawal, Sen. John McCain, a longtime critic of the Obama administration, said Putin’s actions demonstrated the Kremlin’s satisfaction with the results of its intervention.

The announcement “signals Vladimir Putin’s belief that he has bombed and killed enough of the opponents of the murderous Assad regime to ensure its survival,” McCain said in a statement, warning that the war will likely grind on without conclusion.

FP‘s U.N. correspondent Colum Lynch contributed to this story.

Photo credit: Getty Images/AFP/Stringer