Reasons for Russia’s withdrawal from Syria

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Tahir Mustafa

Jumada' al-Akhirah 23, 1437 2016-04-01

News & Analysis

by Tahir Mustafa (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 45, No. 2, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1437)

By announcing withdrawal of the bulk of its forces from Syria, Russia has signaled that it is genuinely interested in seeking a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Syria. It is now for Nato countries to show whether they want peace.

The battle to control information in the proxy war against Islamic Iran in Syria is one of the most recognizable features of the situation in the war-torn country. Oversimplification, tabloid journalism, and outright lies are the primary media strategies of NATO regimes and their surrogates in Syria. This methodology was adopted, not surprisingly, when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on March 14 the reduction of direct Russian military assistance to the Syrian government.

Putin’s announcement to reduce Russia’s military participation in Syria was immediately projected by the Western corporate media as Moscow’s withdrawal and partial “defeat” in the conflict. This was expected, as NATO almost completely lost the military and political war on the ground because it failed to achieve its key objectives. These can be summed up as reducing Iran’s influence in Syria (in fact the opposite happened), and overthrow of the government of President Bashar al-Asad. The only arena where NATO still maintains some “battlefield” balance is the media side of the conflict, so it took advantage of that and began oversimplifying Moscow’s decision.

A review of dozens of corporate news reports portray only a tiny reality behind Moscow’s decision. Let us consider what are some of the key reasons behind Putin’s March 14 announcement. This is what Putin said following his meeting with Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu at which Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was also present. “I consider the objectives that have been set for the Defense Ministry to be generally accomplished. That is why I order to start withdrawal of the main part of our military group from the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic starting from tomorrow [Tuesday March 15].”

Russian forces and planes, however, will continue their presence at al-Khmeimim Air Base as well as maintain their presence at the Tartus Naval Base in Latakia province. These forces will observe the ceasefire that went into effect on February 27 and seems to be generally holding well.

First, the Russian decision is a major diplomatic and political blow to NATO. Moscow has proved that it is genuinely seeking a peaceful political solution to the conflict in Syria. The ball is now in NATO’s court to do the same. In fact this is the second diplomatic/political humiliation of NATO in Syria. The first one occurred when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov outmaneuvered John Kerry over the Ghouta chemical attacks in August 2013.

President Barack Obama had declared the use of chemical weapons by Syrian government forces (but not by the terrorists!) as a “red line” that if crossed would trigger a US aerial assault on Syria. While the Pentagon generals had their itchy fingers ready on the trigger, two developments stayed Obama’s hand. First, a British lab analysis found that the chemical ingredients did not match those in Syria’s possession. Second, and more importantly, Lavrov’s announcement that Damascus would relinquish its chemical arsenal took all the reasons away from Washington to attack Syria.

The Russian military drawdown in Syria is a major public relations victory for Moscow and this was most probably one of the main reasons why Putin decided to reduce Russia’s direct military participation in Syria. Further, by reducing its military presence and making sure that the temporary ceasefire holds, Moscow put immense psychological pressure on NATO’s proxy forces in Syria. Armed factions that have waged a bloody five-year war are highly unlikely to start another wave of intense battles once its exhausted militants taste some calm. This is especially so if restarting hostilities does not guarantee any gains whatsoever, since on March 18 Putin announced that Russia would redeploy its forces to Syria within hours if needed.

Additionally, it may well be that Moscow realizes if it wipes out NATO’s proxies in Syria completely, the main beneficiary would be Islamic Iran. Given that the pro-Zionist lobby is still powerful in Moscow, this would create unnecessary problems for the ruling elite. While Moscow cooperates with Tehran on many issues, albeit on an ad hoc basis, it does not see Islamic Iran as a strategic partner. Russia is cautious, almost to the point of being paranoid, about Iran’s soft and hard influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

It is also important to bear in mind that the Russian ruling elite see themselves as part of the Western dominated global order and are more dedicated to the Westphalian sovereignty model than are members of NATO. This is partly because Russia is a federal state with very diverse ethnic groups, some prone to separatism. Muslims should not expect that Russia will turn into some kind of a strategic partner of the global Islamic movement, as on many issues Moscow’s vision is strategically in line with Washington and Tel Aviv. For now Russia’s policies have to be evaluated on an ad hoc basis and supported only when they are in line with the Islamic vision of justice, peace, non-aggression, and anti-imperialism.

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