Analysis, Middle East

Russian withdrawal leaves Assad under pressure: experts

Putin support for Syrian president is firm but not unlimited, analysts tell Anadolu Agency

16.03.2016
Russian withdrawal leaves Assad under pressure: experts

By Kasim Ileri

WASHINGTON

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to withdraw partially from Syria was a surprise for many but according to Washington experts it suggests that Bashar al-Assad has not been granted a “blank check” from Moscow.

“[It] suggests that the Russian commitment to support the Syrian government, while firm, is not unlimited,” says James F. Collins, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia and now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Collins, who was ambassador to Russia from 1997 to 2001, tells Anadolu Agency that Assad will now “understand that he doesn’t have a blank check from Moscow”.

The veteran diplomat suggested the Russian move will “reduce the combat and bombing for certain,” but at the same time it might also lead the regime and the opposition “to be more serious about negotiating some kind of settlement”.

On Tuesday several Russian bombers and jets reportedly left Syria following Putin’s announcement.

 CLICK - First group of Russian warplanes withdraws from Syria

The Russian president has said that he will withdraw about half of his forces from Syria while those at Hmeimim airbase and Tartus port will remain. Russia’s S-400 fourth generation advanced air defense missiles stationed in eastern Mediterranean Sea will also stay in place.

Jeffry Mankoff, a senior expert on Russia at the Washington-based Center for Strategic International Studies also agrees that Putin wanted to demonstrate to the Assad regime that it would not supply unlimited help.

According to Mankoff, Moscow believes that Assad is “too obstinate” and makes “too many demands”, taking Russian support for granted.

However, he notes, the Russian intervention was about “pursuing its own interest more than it is about keeping Assad in power”.

The Russians never believed that Assad would be able to retake control of the war-torn country, Mankoff adds. “They have always viewed their military intervention as designed to achieve a political settlement that will be acceptable to their interests.”

According to Mankoff, Tuesday’s move is not a total pullout but it will increase the pressure on Assad in peace talks in Geneva.

Russia has been pioneering recent series of talks led by UN special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura while their jets were striking opposition groups in western parts of the country to help Assad forces grab more territory.

CLICK - Russian withdrawal 'significant' says UN envoy to Syria

Daniel Serwer, a Middle East expert and conflict management professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, also suggested that Moscow wants to push Assad to make some concessions at the negotiations in Geneva.

“I suppose Putin is signaling to Bashar al-Assad that the Russian check is not a blank one and that Bashar needs to give something at the negotiating table in order to reach a political agreement,” Serwer tells Anadolu Agency.

He also suggested that the Russians have also been concerned about “not to get bogged down in Syria,” noting that Moscow intends to keep both its port and the air base.

The Kremlin’s announcement was greeted with some sort of astonishment in Washington but President Putin said that the intervention had achieved its goal and the mission was complete.

In fact, Russia never clearly specified the main goal of intervention it launched late September, but for many it was to prop up the Assad regime and prevent it from falling amid the negotiations.

CLICK - Rebels cite weak Assad army, economic woes for Russian pullout

According to U.S. experts even this tacit mission is yet to be completed.

Mankoff said that the mission is far from complete because there is still no political solution allowing Assad to remain at power.

“The goal of intervention was political, so in that sense it is not achieved yet,” he says.

John Herbst, director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Washington-based Atlantic Council told Anadolu Agency although it is still early to assess what will come next the picture is not as clear as Putin suggested.

“If possibly the cease-fire goes into effect and stays in effect, Assad can retain his position without a Russian campaign but I believe that is not likely to turnout,” said the veteran diplomat. “It is hard to imagine that the intervention will be able to keep Assad’s gains over the course of past couple of months.”

He suggests that Putin might have based his military’s success upon the campaign against “weak secular opposition”.

“The Russians did not really attack strong jihadi groups in Syria and their tactics are not likely to succeed against those groups. So it would be smart for the Kremlin to leave right now,” he said, claiming that Moscow has left Assad to the mercy of those groups.

CLICK - Russian withdrawal leaves Assad under pressure: experts

Russia has been sanctioned by the U.S. and European Union for its support to pro-Moscow separatists in Ukraine. Combined with declining oil prices, those sanctions might have strained the Russian economy but experts suggest this may not have played a major role in Russia’s latest move.

“The Russian economy is under strain right now as a result of lower oil prices and sanctions and everything else, but honestly the cost of intervention in Syria was relatively manageable,” Mankoff says.

According to a U.K. Royal United Services Institute report in December, Russia had been spending about $4 million a day on the Syrian campaign until late November when Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian aircraft.

But after the incident in Turkey, the institute report said, the daily costs rose to $8 million per day as Russia intensified airstrikes on opposition groups backed by Turkey and U.S.-led coalition partners.

Kadir Ustun, director of the Washington branch of the Foundation for Political Economic and Social Research (SETA) said that the Russian intervention may have had an impact on the economic situation at home but it is not the main cause of the strained economy.

“If Russia feels that its strategic interests are threatened in Syria it may return, regardless of economic conditions,” Ustun says.

“Economically, Russia did not lose too much due to this intervention. Rather its intervention in Ukraine caused it to lose a lot; thus, withdrawing from Syria will not bring those loses back.”

*AA Washington Chief Correspondent Hakan Copur contributed to this report.

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