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Russia Has 'Withdrawn' From Syria, But Actually, It Hasn’t

Russian fighter jet pilots received a heroes' welcome as they returned home today, but Moscow's most advanced air defence system and other important infrastructure remain on Syrian soil.

by Louisa Loveluck
Mar 15 2016, 6:02pm

Photo via Russian Defense Ministry/EPA

Russia's fighter jets have come home from Syria to a heroes' welcome. At an airbase near the eastern city of Voronezh on Tuesday, returning pilots were carried aloft in a ceremony replete with the pomp and circumstance befitting a victorious army.

President Vladimir Putin's Monday night announcement that Moscow was pulling troops out of Syria after its mission was "largely fulfilled," six months after a game-changing military intervention, was met with celebrations across state television.

It also caught almost everyone else on the backfoot, prompting speculation over what it meant for a conflict that has claimed the lives of almost half a million people and birthed the sort of jihadist superpowers that modern nightmares are made of.

That Moscow feels confident enough to bring an end to that mission says a lot about what it has achieved in less than half a year.

How Five Years of War Has Fractured Syria Into at Least Four States

Beginning at the end of September, Russia's air campaign turned the tide of war in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's favor, weakening rebel forces across several key fronts and forcing their Western backers to accommodate a solution to the conflict that involves the regime. It has also killed hundreds of civilians.

The mission — Russia's first overseas combat deployment since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union — has also allowed the Kremlin to claw its way back to its role as an important world player, breaking through the international isolation that followed its 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.

But while Russian media proclaimed victory on Tuesday morning, one of the best assessments of the situation could be found on the front page of online newspaper Gazeta.ru. "Russia leaves but also stays," it read.

Despite the fanfare, Russian troops will retain control of the port of Tartous and a new air base in Latakia where most of Moscow's missions have originated. Even if Russia pulls out most of its estimated 3,000 to 6,000 military personnel from Syria, it now has the infrastructure to host them again if needs be.

The Russian pilot of Su-34 bomber being welcomed with traditional bread upon arrival at airbase in Voronezh region. (Photo via Russian Defense Ministry/EPA)


On Tuesday morning, the Kremlin's chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, also made clear that Russia would be keeping its most advanced air defence system, the S400, on Syrian soil to "ensure security."

Experts said the nature of the pullout was less significant than the message it conveyed to Assad, a tricky ally who has often been difficult for Russia to contain. Last week, US Secretary of State John Kerry called on Putin to rein in Assad's army as it was accused of repeatedly violating a fragile ceasefire that Washington and Moscow had brokered in the hope of giving peace talks a chance.

Crucially, Putin's announcement should force a new phase in the five-year war, piling pressure on Assad to finally negotiate as the rebels look weaker than they have done for years.

'Putin can say what he wants, but he knows the bloodshed hasn't stopped'

"This move rather vividly conveys to Assad the limits of Russian support," said Faysal Itani, a Resident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Coming on the eve of renewed peace talks, Itani said the announcement could put the regime under pressure to drop its more expansive demands to retake all of Syria, and agree to a Russian-brokered political compromise.

Disagreements over the agenda had already cast a shadow over the negotiations. At the weekend, Western powers hit out at the regime for calling Assad's removal a "red line."

A ceremony for the first group of Russian Su-34 bombers and military personnel upon arrival at the airbase in Voronezh. (Photo via Russian Defense Ministry/EPA)

Andrew J. Tabler, a scholar on Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the announcement was just the latest twist in an ongoing row within the Kremlin. "The Russian position has always been divided between those that thought a negotiated solution was the best solution and those that thought propping up Assad militarily was the answer," Tabler said.

It may also be a result of financial pressures at home. The collapse in global oil prices has hit Russia's economy hard, and experts say Putin was wary of being drawn further into a costly military venture.

The Young Men Who Started Syria's Revolution Speak About Daraa, Where It All Began

What this means for the wider war remains to be seen. Even without extensive Russian support, the regime can still draw on thousands of Iran-backed militia fighters. Meanwhile, Jabhat al Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate in Syria that is deeply embedded in some parts of the insurgency, has said that it would begin a new offensive in 48 hours.

Also on Tuesday — the fifth anniversary of a peaceful uprising that soured into one of the most devastating conflicts of the 21st century — Syrian civilians told VICE News they were not daring to hope.

"This was is just one world power trying to dictate things after another," said Ahmed, a father of three in Aleppo province who asked to be only identified by his first name. "Putin can say what he wants, but he knows the bloodshed hasn't stopped."

Follow Louisa Loveluck on Twitter: @leloveluck