Russia Set to Pull Out…Maybe Not
Recently, the Russian government announced it will begin pulling out its’ troops from Syria. According to Russian Air Force Commander Viktor Bondarev in an interview conducted with Pravda, the primary contingent of Russian military forces will leave Syria in the next 2 days, which places their departure around the 19th or 20th of March 2016. However, the degree which the Russian Air Force will no longer be involved in the war is up for debate.
Over the last few days a number of media sources have released reports claiming that Russia would be pulling out of Syria; however, this is not exactly true. Russia has said that it will begin withdrawing forces, but has not said that it will do so completely. To completely withdraw air power from Syria would be counterproductive in protecting its ally, the Assad government.
During the 1990-1991 Gulf War, the America and British led UN coalition pulled out all of its ground forces from Iraq and for all intents and purposes, this was seen as the end of the conflict; however, American-British, and initially French, air operations continued over Iraq establishing the Northern and Southern No-Fly Zones. This effort lasted over a decade without the welcome of the host nation. The Syrian Arab Republican Government under Bashar al Assad not only welcomes Russian forces, but is fairly dependent upon them for quality air support as they conduct operations against the Syrian opposition and to a lesser degree, against ISIS and al Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra.
As a consequence of the overall effort, the Russians were able to give the Syrian Arab Republican Government the advantage it needs for the time being. The high volume of sorties per day allowed Russia to physically level a number of opposition held urban centers. Without advantageous terrain like heavy foliage, severe elevation or topographical changes, or a dense urban setting, guerrilla forces like the Syrian opposition may temporarily stand at a disadvantage against regular military units, especially armored units with artillery and air support. From the initial arrival of Russian air support until the recent ceasefire, human rights groups have reported numerous cases of mass destruction across many major Syrian cities, which correspondingly led to the mass exodus of Syrian civilians as was seen in Aleppo and Idlib. According to the Christian Science Monitor, SARG forces with Russian air support retook 3,860 square miles of territory and 400 population centers. Although, no exact figures are present at this time, it is estimated that Russia helped pushed over 100,000 civilians to flee Syria in the north alone over the last few months.
Russia’s draw down of its military forces from Syria may be more based on self-interest than diplomats allude to. Since September 2015, Russian operations in Syria primarily allowed it to 1) protect a client-state, and 2) provide a show of force to the international community. At the same time, large powers supporting smaller allied states will always worry about “mission creep” taking affect and pulling them into a larger war. This is especially true when other large adversarial powers have military units in the same area of operation. A draw down of Russian forces relieves Russia of some of the risks of having troops in Syria. Even with a small presence, Russian air power can continue to support pro-SARG forces. Unnamed Russian sources estimate the number of advisers staying in Syria at 1000, with over half of those being military. As Vladimir Putin said today, “If necessary, literally within a few hours, Russia can build up its contingent in the region to a size proportionate to the situation developing there and use the entire arsenal of capabilities at our disposal.” With Russian advisers remaining in place, a Russian re-escalation of military efforts will not be difficult. Moreover, given Russia’s loose definition of terrorism, Russian sorties may lessen per day due to less assets in country, but their bases in Latakia will likely stay very active.