Russia’s exit from Syria a move military analysts never saw coming

Five and a half months, 9 000 fighter jet sorties, a reprieve for Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the downing of a Russian passenger jet over Egypt and the end forever of the burgeoning bromance between the Turkish and Russian presidents: thus goes the summary of Russia’s intervention in Syria, which has irrevocably changed the contours of the five-year-old conflict and its surrounding geopolitics.

“I consider the objectives that have been set for the Defence Ministry to be generally accomplished,” Vladimir Putin announced matter-of-factly on Monday evening, announcing the imminent withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria. The vaguely stated objective of “fighting terrorism”, so conducive to mission creep and unfinishable wars, has clearly not been accomplished. Isis, after all, is still very much there.

But if there is indeed now a withdrawal, it will prevent the Syria mission from turning into a long, drawn-out affair with rising Russian casualties. Already, analysts have noted an increasing number of support personnel operating in the country – special forces, tank crews and heavy artillery – that began appearing outside the Latakia base.

“There’s not really huge enthusiasm for the Syrian conflict in the military and a worry about mission creep. The more forces you’ve got there the more vulnerable you are,” said Mark Galeotti, professor of global affairs at New York University who is currently based in Moscow.

But Putin’s announcement took military analysts by surprise: if Russia’s dramatic entry into Syria was presaged by a quiet but noticeable logistical build-up, nobody saw the exit coming, including those with close links to the military hierarchy.

Of course, the repeated statements of implausible deniability over the Russian army’s Ukrainian adventures, and their claims to be “exclusively” targeting terrorist groupings in Syria, have all made it hard to swallow anything that comes out of official Moscow without a healthy dollop of cynicism. Not to mention the repeated insistence that the Syria bombing has not resulted in any civilian casualties, despite ever-mounting evidence to the contrary.

This has led many to question whether this withdrawal is for real. Putin ordered the pullout to start on Tuesday, but gave no end date. Equally, it has been made clear that the Hemeimeem airbase outside Latakia from which Russia has launched its air raids will remain in use. It is not known how small the “small contingent” that will remain behind will be, and it will almost certainly still involve advanced air defence systems. Additionally, now the infrastructure is in place, nothing is to stop Russia from redeploying even more quickly and unexpectedly than in late September.

But there is good reason to believe Putin’s announcement is to be taken seriously. For while it is true the mission of defeating Isis has not been accomplished, nobody who has taken the most cursory glance at the map of where Russian bombs landed would have believed this to be the real mission. Even the goal of propping up the Syrian state institutions to keep Bashar al-Assad in power and prevent the kind of power vacuum seen in Libya and Iraq after their leaders were deposed was secondary, according to many analysts.

“Nobody wanted to deal with Russia after Ukraine, and the goal of the Syria campaign was to force the west to deal with Russia again,” said independent military analyst Alexander Golts. “This has happened, and now they are getting out of the conflict with minimal losses. I think it’s a pretty brilliant tactical move.” – © Guardian News and Media 2016

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.


The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Advertising

‘Tenderpreneurs’ block the delivery of protective equipment to schools

Protests by local suppliers have delayed PPE delivery, which according to the DBE, is one of the reasons the reopening of schools has been pushed back until June 8

‘Soon he’ll be seen as threatening, not cute’: What it’s...

There is no separating George Floyd’s killing from the struggles black people have faced ever since the first slave ships landed on these shores

How schools could work during Covid

Ahead of their opening, the basic education department has given schools three models to consider to ensure physical distancing
Advertising

Press Releases

Mining company uses rich seam of technology to gear up for Covid-19

Itec Direct technology provides instant temperature screening of staff returniing to the workplace with no human contact

Covid-19 and Back to School Webinar

If our educators can take care of themselves, they can take care of the children they teach

5G technology is the future

Besides a healthcare problem Covid-19 is also a data issue and 5G technology, with its lightning speed, can help to curb its spread

JTI off to court for tobacco ban: Government not listening to industry or consumers

The tobacco ban places 109 000 jobs and 179 000 wholesalers and retailers at risk — including the livelihood of emerging farmers

Holistic Financial Planning for Professionals Webinar

Our lives are constantly in flux, so it makes sense that your financial planning must be reviewed frequently — preferably on an annual basis

Undeterred by Covid-19 pandemic, China and Africa hold hands, building a community of a shared future for mankind

It is clear that building a community with a shared future for all mankind has become a more pressing task than ever before

Wills, Estate Administration and Succession Planning Webinar

Capital Legacy has had no slowdown in lockdown regarding turnaround with clients, in storing or retrieving wills and in answering their questions

Call for Expression of Interest: Training supply and needs assessment to support the energy transition in South Africa

GIZ invites eligible and professional companies with local presence in South Africa to participate in this tender to support the energy transition

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday