These are amazing times indeed. Only two weeks ago I outlined the likelihood of a dramatic escalation of the war in Syria, and this week Vladimir Putin announced the withdrawal of what I would call the “tactical air strike” component of the Russian task force in Syria. How is that possible? How could the Russian warn about Turkish troops poised to invade Syria and then suddenly pull out a major chunk of their Syrian-based firepower.
The dumbest explanation of them all was offered almost as soon as the Putin made his announcement: “the Russians are afraid and they are running away abandoning Syria”. This explanation was immediately picked up by a motley collection of very different folks: Americans whose delusion of US military might were shattered in the humiliating comparison between US and Russian military performance, Russian “hurrah-patriots” who will always accuse Putin of betraying something or somebody, armchair strategists who always cheer for more military action regardless of anything, etc.
As I have mentioned in a previous article, the fact is that the Russians have simply met all their objectives and those who now accuse Russia of “running away” are either deliberately ignoring the crystal clear set of objectives the Russian mission had (“stabilize the legitimate authority and create conditions for a political compromise”) or never bothered to find out in the first place. The logical impossibility of “running away” after having achieved all goals seems to elude these folks.
For those interested in this topic, I would like to recommend the absolutely superb analysis of Alexander Mercouris in his article “Russia’s Syrian Withdrawal – Why It Happened and Why Regime Change Remains Off the Agenda” which I consider to be the best and most thorough discussion of this topic.
Still, none of that answers the question – why did the Russian pull forces out right when the Turks and the Saudis were poised to go in?
As with most logical dead-ends, this question makes two very false assumption:
That the only/best way to keep the Turks out is to deter them by military force.
That should the Turks decided to invade, the only/best way to deny them their objective is by using Syrian-based Russian military capabilities.
Let’s take these one by one. But before I do that, I will have to, yet again, repeat my 22-week long mantra: the Russian military force in Syria is a small one. It was never designed to repel a Turkish invasion (never mind protect Syria from the US or NATO), much less so fight a regional war against Turkey, Saudi Arabia and God only knows how many smaller states. This was never the Russian objective and, therefore, the forces sent to Syria never had that kind of capability. Not 22 weeks ago, not today. Secondly, if Erdogan and the House of Saud have relatively little to lose in a crazy invasion of Syria, Russia has plenty to lose and the very last thing Putin or Russia wants is any kind of military confrontation with Turkey (even if NATO stays out) or the KSA. If we consider this then it becomes self-evidently obvious that using a small and vulnerably military force to deter Turkey+KSA is the worst possible strategy, especially if this might escalate into a regional war.
What the Russians did is yet, again, a typical Putin-style judo move on the Turks. Instead of escalating, they pretended to leave (yes, pretended, more about that later). For the Turks, it would be extremely hard to suddenly invade Syria when even the USA and Europe are tagging along, however reluctantly, with the Russian peace initiative. Not that I expect any sense of timing or, for that matter, decency, from Erdogan. But I think that his advisors are smart enough to realize that if Turkey goes in right after the Russian went out this would make the Turks look awfully bad (yet again). More importantly, it would make those reacting to a Turkish invasion look as the “aggression repelling” party.
Now let’s look at the second proposition: if the Turks invade, would it make military sense to use the Russian forces in Khmeimim to counter a Turkish invasion? First, keep in mind that the pure air-to-air fighters (SU-30SMs and SU-35) have not been withdrawn. In fact, I expect that contingent to be slowly and covertly increased. Second, the SU-34s are long-range strike aircraft and they can attack objectives in Syria by taking off from southern Russia (or Iran). As for the SU-24Ms and SU-25SMs, they would be very helpful in engaging the Turks, but they would also be vulnerable, especially to a direct attack on Khmeimim. Finally, the long range Tu-22M3 and Tu-160 were never based in Syria to begin with. As for the Russian cruise missiles, they have a range of 1,500km (Kalibr) and 4,500km (X-101) and can be delivered from the Caspian, Mediterranean or from the air. So yes, while the current redeployment of forces did reduce the strike-capabilities of the Russian forces in Syria, it in no way reduced the overall Russian strike capability against targets in Syria. As for Khmeimim, the base will remain fully manned, it will retain its formidable air-defense capability (S-400s and Pantsir-F) and an unknown number of advanced Russian air superiority fighters.
Putin himself has clearly said today that Russia will remain in control of the Syrian airspace:
All the components of the deployed air defence system, including close range Pantsir-F and long-range S-400 Triumph units will be on regular duty. I would like to note that we have significantly restored the potential of the Syrian air defence forces as well. All the parties concerned have been made aware of this. We proceed from fundamental international norms – nobody has the right to violate the airspace of a sovereign country, Syria in this case. We have created together with the American side an efficient mechanism to prevent air incidents, but all our partners have been warned that our air defence systems will be used against any target that we deem to be threatening Russian service personnel. I want to stress – any target.
Pretty clear, no?
During the same speech he also sent a very clear message to any wannabe invader:
If necessary, of course, Russia will be able to enhance its group in the region in a matter of hours to a size required for a specific situation and to use all the options available.
Again, I would say that the message is crystal-clear: what Putin has announced this week is a new strategy, and not a withdrawal, much less so a retreat.
The final scorecard of this first phase is rather impressive, especially when compared to the lame results of the US-lead coalition whose operations coincided with a massive increase in Daesh controlled terrorists. See for yourself:
All in all during 5.5 months of air strikes the Russian Aerospace Forces carried out more than 9000 flights, 26000 terrorist insfrustructure objects were hit. Among them: 2584 communication and command units, 401 training camps, 181 munition plants, 2043 munition and fuel depots, 9318 fortifications of all types, 287 oil infrustructure objests, 2912 oil tank trucks. 400 towns and over 10,000 square kilometres of territory liberated by the SAA. Province of Latakia completely freed, communications with Aleppo restored. Palmyra is under siege, control over its oil and gas fields reestablished. Most of the provinces of Hama and Homs cleared, Kweires airbase unblocked. Total number of the Russian personnel casualties during the operation: 3. (source)
But these (superb) military results were still only a means to a very specific end, to “ stabilize the legitimate authority and create conditions for a political compromise”. Now, however, it will be the task of the Russian diplomats to capitalize on the work of their military colleagues. However, from now on these diplomats will work in the “shadow” of the Russian armed forces and every person they will be speaking to will, if needed, be reminded of the fact that the Russians can be back in a matter of hours and that they can strike anywhere in, or around, Syria in a matter of minutes. This new reality might be a much more sophisticated form of deterrence than keeping a small Aerospace contingent in Khmeimin, would it not?
If we now zoom out from the topic of a possible Turkish-Saudi invasion, we can begin to discern the outline of what the Russian strategy might really be: instead of defeating Daesh first and then attempting to reform Syria by means of a political dialog, the Russians might be trying to reverse that sequence by first reforming Syria by means of a political dialog and only then helping a “reformatted” and united Syria to truly defeat Daesh. If that is indeed the Russian plan, it is an ambitious and daring one, and one which will demand an enormous effort from the Russian diplomats who will have to painstakingly “win over” the Syrian opposition faction by faction while, at the same time, countering the efforts of all the parties who will want to sabotage that peace process and deny both Russia and the Syria people a much deserved victory.
If the toxic US led alliance of the Ottomans, the Wahabis and the Zionists succeed in derailing this peace initiative the Russians might have to use their military power again. With the S-400s in place and backed by (an unknown number of) air superiority fighters, the Syrians skies should remain under Russian control for the foreseeable future. The conditions for a resolution of the conflict are here, but whether that will be enough to secure a lasting peace is impossible to predict.