2016-03-15

Calculating Ankara’s possible response to Moscow’s limited withdrawal

According to TASS state news agency, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Defense Minister Serhey Shoygu to start withdrawal of Russian troops from Syrian air base Khmeimim on March 15. Meanwhile Putin tasked Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov to stir up Russia's efforts in political resolution process in Syria[1]. Decision to withdraw troop was made in coordination with Damascus, say Russian officials. Main reason behind the move - all tasks set back in September 2015 are accomplished.

Seeing more and more people saying that Russia decides to pull back its troops, I want these people to look carefully at exact wording of withdrawal announcement. Can we find answer onto when and what troops are being called back? Such a vague statement is clear in one thing: it should be seen both as a message to main stake holders in the Syrian conflict and a tool in the Kremlin's maneuvering.

Some part pf opposition and foreign supporters thereof can interpret it as a sign that it is time to fight the regime further. Another parts of opposition, satisfied that political process is more or less working (contributing to violence reduction), will doubt the need to renew clashes with government troops. And there we have further divide in opposition camp.

There are assumptions that Kremlin's move was caused by its need to press on Assad to make him more cooperative during highly important talks in Geneva[2]. I doubt Putin's announcement was in any way a message to Assad. Primary military role of Russia is to secure survival of the political regime. And if you do send such signals to a person, who is a cornerstone of this regime, you basically undermine your own 5-months efforts.

It seems, moreover, that regime was aware of forthcoming announcement. Syrian army officials commenting on Putin's statement underlined Syrian army is going to "defeat terrorist organizations in cooperation with our allies and friends in order to restore security and stability," suggesting that Assad allies will be present in Syria further on[3].

Assumption that Russia will not risk pulling all its forces from Syria is confirmed by Deputy Defense Minister Nikolay Pankov, who said that "Russian Air Forces will continue to operate in Syria to conduct further air airstrikes against terrorist organizations."[4]

On the other hand, we should bear in mind that Russian decision-makers are obsessed with the idea of informational wars. Decision to announce partial withdrawal was unexpected for the Western powers[5]. By making such a move Russia wants both to attract attention of the world to itself so as to make it harder to ignore opinion of the Kremlin. This is very important for Moscow, who is struggling to get out of international isolation.

As we know, Moscow's strategy was based on efforts to bring all warring parties to the negotiation table. Russia, realizing its limited resources and lack of any capacity to save the Syrian regime through military terms, has been betting on the political dialogue. Putin's words about withdrawal being "a positive signal for all parties to the conflict" which should have mutual trust in the aftermath suggest that withdrawal of some auxiliary forces should stimulate positive negotiations in Geneva[6].

Technically speaking, one may talk about usual rotational change of deployed troops, its relatively easy to deploy air forces and then after a while to pull them back. Troops that are vital for infrastructure in Khmeimim air base and Tartus naval facilities' protection are not being withdrawn so far.

When talking about technical aspects of Russian military campaign in Syria we also should look at capabilities of the Syrian opposition as well. One crucial detail may shed a light on why Russia decided to reduce its presence in Syria. This week Russian Defense Ministry officials stated that Syrian Air Forces MiG-21 jet was possible shot down by Stinger Manpad in Hama province on March 12[7].

Despite the claims of the Free Syrian Army officials that MiG-21 was shot down by air defense systems not manpad, intelligence analysts after examining the footage released by the rebels confirm that the nature of impact indicate that sophisticated manpad systems were deployed to hit the plane.

The fact that opposition forces may have managed to obtain a weapon that could pose a great danger to the Russian warplanes operation in the area may be indicative to the recent Russian move to reduce air activities in the Syrian skies.

Legally speaking back in September 2015 Council Federation of Russia (upper chamber of Parliament) gave a green light to deployment of Russian troops to "support Syrian authorities in their fight against ISIS."[8] Don't forget ISIS is still there as well as Nusra, whose positions are intermixed with those of moderate opposition. That in turn means that Russia is still legally and politically in position to continue its sorties against anti-Assad opposition.

It is too early to say how Turkey will eventually react on Moscow's decision. For now Ankara is preoccupied with investigation of terror attack the Turkish capital and suppressing Kurdish separatists in the eastern provinces of the country.

For sure, having achieved political agreement with the US Moscow over Syrian conflict successfully sidelined Turkey and Saudi Arabia as main supporters of opposition. To be more precise, Turkey is now limited in its action in Syria both by the increasing instability at home and existing cease-fire in neighboring Syria.

Turkish government seems to want to portray recent terrorist attacks to be connected with Syrian Kurdish PYD. On multiple occasions Turkey urged its western partners to establishing a safe zone in the northern Syria, a move that would eventually prevent PYD from gaining further territories on the Syrian-Turkish border.

So far Turkey was restrained by Washington's reluctance to be more engaged in the conflict, including deployment of troops. Without US support Turkey will not risk intervening in Syria. Seeing that major powers agree to support the ongoing political dialogue between the regime and opposition Turkey has no wide choice of action.

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