Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (left) met Russia's Vladimir Putin during a surprise visit to Moscow last October. Photo: Ria Novosti.
Just under six months after deployment to Syria, the Russians are drawing down: warplanes have taken off from their airbase in Latakia and headed home; the bulk of the small deployment of soldiers is also packing up and leaving.
But the bases will remain open and, at the very least, a residual force capable of bombing anywhere in Syria will remain in place, along with the infrastructure to facilitate any rapid re-deployment, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has indicated.
The drawdown, which came after a surprise announcement by Putin last Monday, has led to a barrage of commentary and analysis over what it signifies: Has Russia achieved all of its goals in Syria? Is the Bashar al-Assad regime now secure enough to negotiate from a position of strength?
The Kremlin’s goal from the get-go was to shore-up that regime. The injection of advanced Russian airpower into the conflict surely did turn the tables in in favor of the regime. Damascus was able to mount offensives on multiple fronts, after several months of maintaining an almost entirely defensive posture.
However, there have been conspicuous limits to how far the Russians have gone, as well as how far they had initially intended to go. It was clear they weren’t going to go full throttle and help Assad reclaim control of the entire country. But even short of that, it isn’t clear if the Russian intervention has helped secure a lasting situation on the ground in Syria.
The Russians came with a clear intention to wage an extremely decisive campaign. The flexibility of the deployment ensured it could pull out quickly if necessary and not become stuck in a quagmire, where they would end up pouring in money and men in a futile attempt to subdue their many enemies, as happened to the Soviet war in Afghanistan.
Using their air power against numerous ragtag adversaries lacking the capability to defend against such attacks, the Russians were able to bombard opposition-held areas with impunity, hitting hospitals and infrastructure in a clear attempt to dissuade local populations from supporting and hosting anti-Assad groups in their midst.
In some areas the Russians have achieved clear victories. Russian pilots gave close air support to Syrian offensives in Latakia, enabling Syrian troops to push opposition forces from that strategically important province.
Moscow also supported a Syrian offensive into Aleppo in February, crippling the opposition groups that had become deeply entrenched in that war-torn city. In the south, the Russians have also supported Syrian military offensives against US-backed rebel groups in the province of Deraa, the cradle of the original uprising which sparked this war.
But elsewhere, all the Russians have been able to do has been to relentlessly attempt to pound their enemies into submission. In the north, they have tried to sever supply lines to groups such as Jaish al-Fatah from Turkey, by bombarding their positions and the general infrastructure in the northwest. But by no means have they destroyed or completely defeated those groups.
And they are conspicuously beginning to wind down in Syria without completely helping the regime retake the province of Idlib, which fell to the Turkish-backed Jaish last May: Idlib is the only provincial capital city in Syria where the regime lost complete control, aside from ISIS-occupied Raqqa.
Bruised and battered as those forces are, they remain undefeated and in place.
If the current peace negotiations collapse -- which is certainly a possibility -- Russia could feel compelled to bolster its residual force in order to preserve the gains it has helped the regime make in the last few months.
In those circumstances a drawn down Russian military presence could well see Turkey seek to reverse Assad’s Russian-backed gains by increasing its support to those aforementioned groups. That would mean that, despite its best efforts to draw down as soon as possible, the Kremlin may find itself nevertheless soon falling victim to mission creep.
There is no reason to believe that this deployment is Russia’s Gulf War, though there is one striking parallel: During the first Gulf War the administration of then President George H.W. Bush strove to keep the war as short and as decisive as possible, repeatedly promising that it wouldn’t be “another Vietnam.” Nevertheless, leaving the Iraqi regime intact meant that Washington was felt forced to impose no-fly zones to try to contain Saddam Hussein’s murderous ambitions against Iraq's Kurds and Shiites. The zones remained in place for another 12 years before the regime was finally deposed by the second Bush administration.
Similarly, the Russians could well find themselves becoming involved much more directly in the Syrian conflict for a lot longer than they had initially planned and anticipated.
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.