Mystery: Russia & Hizbullah begin withdrawal from Syria

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

al-Hayat [Life], the London pan-Arab daily, reports on the announcement Monday by Russian President Vladimir Putin that he would begin withdrawing the greater part of Russian men and equipment from Syria.

Al-Hayat is careful to note that Putin says that the Russian naval base at Tartus and the new Russian air base nearby will continue to be in play, and that Putin did not announce a complete withdrawal. It appears to me that Russia will still be in a position to intervene strategically against any rebel group that makes sudden progress against regime forces. It will also continue to provision the Syrian Arab Army with powerful munitions.

At the same time, Reports emerged in Beirut that hundreds of Hizbullah fighters are also withdrawing from Syria, returning to the Dahiya district of east Beirut.

Apparently Putin feels that he has accomplished his main goal in Syria, which was to shore up the Syrian government and prevent it from falling to the rebels. The key Latakia province in the northwest has been cleared of al-Qaeda and other rebel groups, ensuring that the southern capital, Damascus, can be provisioned. The rebels have been pushed back from Hama and Homs.

Another of the Russian goals was to weaken al-Qaeda (the Support Front or Jabhat al-Nusra), which had attracted Russian Muslim fighters from the Caucasus.

To go further with intensive Russian air strikes would risk quagmire, since a guerrilla movement cannot be defeated from the air, even if it can be hurt.

You have to wonder, since Putin called Obama, whether he has not secured from the US a pledge to cease sending TOW anti-tank munitions and other deadly weapons to the rebels, in return for standing down.

The Syrian Arab Army of Bashar al-Assad was on the verge of taking west Aleppo when the UN cessation of hostilities was implemented. That move would have resulted in a horrible slaughter and reprisals by the regime against the people of those quarters. Likewise, before the Russian intervention the possibility of an al-Qaeda conquest and massacre of the Alawites of Latakia loomed large.

So, Putin seems to have frozen the current positions. This step may be intended to put pressure on al-Assad and on the rebels as well.

The great powers appear to think that a new, Federal Syria could emerge if provincial lines are redrawn in accordance with the current positions. Alarabiya reports there there could be a Sunni province in Deir al-Zor and al-Raqqa, a Kurdish one in the north, and a cosmopolitan Alawi/ Christian/ Druze/ secular Sunni one in the west running from Damascus up to Latakia. (Alarabiya doesn’t think there are enough Alawis to hold that one together).

Russia has all along had modest ambitions in Syria and has been seeking a way of preventing it from becoming a military quagmire for Moscow. Avoiding a quagmire has become even more urgent for Russia given the fall in the price of oil and the subsequent economic difficulties it faces.

The Russian intervention inflated the ego of Bashar al-Assad, who recently pledged to reestablish government control throughout Syria, much to Russia’s annoyance.

Yesterday’s announcement signals to al-Assad that he cannot act as a free rider on the Russian tab. Rather, the meeting of the sides in the war in Geneva on Monday would have to be taken more seriously by Damascus.

Russia wants al-Assad to begin the reconciliation process with a new constitution, while Syria had wanted to race to new elections as soon as April (an unrealistic step that would have excluded most rebels, according to the Alain Gresh piece linked above.

It remains to be seen whether the current ceasefire can hold. That eventuality would seem to be extremely important to Putin’s success. As President Obama found in Iraq, you can easily get drawn back in.

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Related video:

Euronews: “Objectives attained: Russia withdraws troops from Syria”

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9 Responses

  1. Great news; they took my advice. Perhaps now we shall see how many generations are needed to establish peaceful federalism after cessation of hostilities in the aftermath of US fake “liberal interventionism” in the MidEast. Unless Killary greenlights the boys with the medals again.

  2. Fascinating the way the Western media ferret ulterior motives for Putin’s decision instead of just taking it at face value. Few, aside from Juan here, seem prepared to accept that he feels what he set out to achieve has been achieved. Rather, he has to be up to something, has to have some devious motive, saving money, gaining kudos, whatever. Any action may carry ancillary benefits but that doesn’t make them motives. Thinking it does leads to false syllogisms.

    Putin has never claimed to be supporting Assad because he is Assad but rather because he heads Syria’s legitimate government and military. Now an apparently meaningful pause in the conflict has been achieved and the government is engaging with its political opponents in an international environment, that is enough. He surely knows more about the dynamics of the peace than the Western media and will no doubt keep an eye on things but, within bounds, he may feel it’s now time to leave it to them. The surprise to my mind is Hizbullah but he likely had a hand in that as well.

    • I would rather trust Hezbollah than Putin. Hezbollah has worked with non-Shiite allies in Lebanon for decades, instead of insisting on a new census that would reveal that the Shiites should already be the dominant group in the government, a move that is another red line for civil war.
      Putin is mistrusted because he’s an autocrat whose hands back home are increasingly bloody. Why did he become an official homophobe? Why does he use increasingly transparent legal angles to stay in power? As much as his country has been abused by NATO, what is he doing to create a democracy that can take its case for fair treatment to the world after he’s dead? Like his Turkish enemy Erdogan, he’s willing to throw everything good away to stay in power from crisis to crisis.

  3. Russia has specifically ruled out any partition of Syria. Turkey looks close to civil war. Russia can feed arms to Syrian and Turkish kurds (via Syria). It’s absolutely no problem for Russia to bring back its forces (unlike the US, Russian militiary doctrine does not target long term remote basing but for high readiness and fast deployment.

    Long range strategic bombing and cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea have both been used effectively in Russia’s campaign. Neither are affected by any withdrawal full or partial.

    After the Syrian adventure, the US looks like a corrupt colonial power and Russia looks like a good friend. A friend in need is a friend indeed. It doesn’t mean you want your friend to move in with you and share your house, enjoy your wife and eat your groceries.

    Why again is the US still in Japan when the Japanese want them out?

  4. In the article in the Atlantic on the Obama doctrine, Jeffry Goldberg quotes Obama on the nature of power:

    “And the notion that somehow Russia is in a stronger position now, in Syria or in Ukraine, than they were before they invaded Ukraine or before he [Putin] had to deploy military forces to Syria is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of power in foreign affairs or in the world generally. Real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence.”

    What happened is that Putin read this and took it to heart? I wish. (But seriously, this is the most profound thing that Obama had to say in that article. Now, if only we could act accordingly. . .)

    • Well, he’s correct in that America’s increasing use of violence under increasing numbers of media-friendly disguises proves that we are losing real power and we’re not getting what we want.
      Everyone is resorting to violence more because there’s no longer two overwhelming superpowers who can intimidate their satellites and most of the nonaligned into maintaining the existing boundaries. Opportunists and scared status-quo defenders are tempted to act against each other.
      However, the upside is that without major blocs, the potential for a world war is less.
      This is a historical pattern, studied by the Correlates of War Project at the University of Michigan. Eras of many small wars versus eras of a few giant wars. The Project tried to figure out if that pattern matched the number of Great Powers in the world at the given time. We appear to be headed back to a multi-polar world.

  5. I probably won’t live to see it, but when the important information comes out about this period, it will be interesting to see what, if any, quid pro quos have been negotiated. Unlike Mr. Witherby, I don’t think that Putin operates on the basis of good will, nor often good sense. I have wondered for some time if Russian and Chinese cooperation with the Iran deal, which was crucial, came with some qujid pro quo. Now we are to wonder about Russian involvement and subsequent withdrawal from Syria. Assad seems to be winning, so why withdraw now if your horse is leading the race? Perhaps Russia realizes a negotiated settlement is possible only when neither side thinks it can win. Even then, one wonders what Russia sees as its gain from all of this, or is it just a matter of avoiding being sucked into a quagmire? This is why it will be interesting to find these things out when documents come to light decades ahead.

    • I think Putin acted as a classic European monarch during the era of multipolarity. Kissinger talked about himself as though he were such a figure, a Metternich or Bismarck, but we know his record. Of course many of those monarchs were engaged in monstrous acts domestically and in their non-European colonies between bouts of inter-European crisis management. Putin is like the Czars, and stands for as little as they did. But at least he recognizes the current configuration of the international system and exploits it.

      The internet satirist War Nerd predicted that the outside powers would keep backing their proxies in Syria just enough to keep them alive in their turfs, because keeping the war going without it becoming apocalyptic was in their interests. We could be headed towards a hot peace, at best a Korea, at worst an Afghanistan.

      • Since you brought up history, I think one should also consider that sometimes leaders don’t always act rationally and also make mistakes. One of the big mysteries to me for a long time was why North Korea invaded South Korea during a time that Russia was engaged in a walkout of the UN. This allowed the US to get official UN backing for support of the South Koreans and the subsequent defending forces were officially UN forces and included troops from a a number of different nations in addition to the overwhelming US presence. Many, including myself, thought maybe the North Koreans had acted unilaterally. After the fall of the USSR and access to their archives, researchers found out that the invasion was done with Stalin’s approval and encouragement. Why it was done while the USSR wasn’t in the Security Council to block any resolution is still a mystery as far as I know. A gaffe or? It still makes no sense.

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