By Heshmat Alavi
The sudden turn-a-corner announcement by Russian President Vladimir Putin the bulk of his forces departing Syria remains a subject of various analysis and reviews. There are two main interpretations in this regard. One explanation is based on Putin’s move catching the entire international community off guard, while another says the whole scenario was completely predictable. Interesting is how both reviews spell the end of the Assad regime in Syria.
Two Sides of One Coin
Both sides of the story are to some extent correct. On one hand, it is fundamentally comprehensible that Russia had no intention to remain in Syria for a long period considering the heavy political, military and economic costs. Iran, an ally of Russia in Syria having major stakes at risk, sees it as Moscow’s departure being based on a pre-planned road map after cementing Assad’s hold on more parts of the country.
Nearly all political analysts believe Russia entered the scene in Syria to gain concessions from the West over other matters on the table. Therefore, this withdrawal was predictable.
On the other hand, this sudden departure came unexpectedly, announced on the doorsteps of the latest round of the Geneva peace talks. Russia could have gained further concessions due to its military presence in Syria, but the Kremlin decided to suddenly evacuate.
Stab In The Back For Iran
While hailed as a “positive step” by the United Nations Security Council for the fraught of peace talks, signs indicate Russia made a very calculated move and reached its objectives in the deal Moscow had in mind. The state-run ‘Iranian Diplomacy’ website wrote on March 16th, “This decision can be result of a deal with the United States, or Saudi Arabia.” Or both.
Therefore, if Iran and its proxies are now very bitter about this latest move by Russia, and have felt stabbed in the back, it would be completely logical for them to cloak any such emotions. However, certain remarks are interesting. “The army of the tsars is packed up to say goodbye to the Levant,” wrote Iran’s state-run ‘Ghanoon’ daily on March 16th.
The Harsh Reality
It is not difficult to understand why various media outlets in Moscow and Tehran alike emphasize Russia is not pulling out all its forces, and will continue to back Assad. The diplomacy pursued in such circumstances is aimed at downgrading various measures or decreasing certain pressures, and are only meant for propaganda purposes. Important, however, are the developments taking place on the ground: the departure of 3,000 to 6,000 Russian troops from Russia, as reported by the Associated Press, is an undeniable reality.
“Russia’s decision is not aimed at pleasing any certain party,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in recent remarks.” Although he also added, “We must prepare the circumstances to resolve the political crisis (!)” Through these remarks he made it clear Moscow is no longer seeking a military agenda in Syria. Various analysts are heard saying from day one of its Syria campaign Russia has in fact been seeking an adequate window of opportunity to depart.
A Determined Nation
To those who believe Russia is receiving concessions for departing Syria, one must ask why did Putin turn down significant concessions proposed by senior Saudi officials during their visit to Moscow? Why did Putin continue his highly scrutinized airstrikes for so long?
The answer is the main and fundamental element that forced Russia to withdraw its forces were heroic perseverance of Syrian opposition fighters against all military odds, and the Syrian opposition negotiating team refusing to back down politically and diplomatically. This steadfast position of the Syrian opposition came at a time when even voices in the West demanded they succumb to Iran’s conditions, most importantly, allowing Bashar Assad to remain in power. However, as a senior Syrian opposition official said in an interview with Al Jazeera TV on March 13th, “The transition period in Syria will begin with the overthrow or death of Bashar Assad.”
Of course, one must not forget the important roles played by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other regional countries forming a front against Iran and its support for Assad.
Russia’s withdrawal will have a significant impact on the Geneva negotiations, the position inevitably adopted by Iran and Assad, and the road beyond. Prior to these developments Assad’s top diplomat boasted his presidency being a red line. With the tides changing, however, there are no signs of such remarks. Instead, German Foreign Franker Walter-Steinmeier underscored, “This will place pressure on Bashar Assad and render serious talks over a transition period in Geneva.”
The final question is can we reach a concrete conclusion about the future of Syria after these developments?
If we spare the details, the path forward can be predicted to a large extent. Maybe Iran’s state TV put it best by saying, “As the talks continue, the U.S. has once again emphasized Assad must go.”
Heshmat Alavi is a political activist and supporter for regime change in Iran. He writes on Iran and the Middle East. He tweets at @HeshmatAlavi