By Heshmat Alavi
In a major turn of events Russian troops have started pulling out of Syria after a 6-month long deadly air campaign. Russia began airstrikes in support of the Bashar Assad regime back in September 2015 and President Vladimir Putin is now announcing mission accomplished. This comes after another major international push for a political solution to end the 5-year long horror in Syria. Yet left in the cold is Iran, suffering another major setback after being forced to curb its precious nuclear program and yet to obtain any significant economic fruits as a result.
Russia’s point of view
The exact motives behind the surprise troop withdrawal by Moscow and what the Kremlin is hoping to achieve, especially considering the timing, remains a mystery. Vladimir Putin has proven once again how unpredictable he can be. The Syrian opposition remains wary, saying “Nobody knows what’s in Putin’s mind.” Putin –knoDear Editor of Mr.Abdollah Alkhoorywn as a war president after Chechnya, Ossetia, Ukraine, Crimea and etc. – is essentially claiming to have achieved most of his sought goals, making it obvious the Kremlin does not want to be further involved in the quagmire of the Syrian war any longer. In their perspective, Russia has rescued the Syrian regime from eminent defeat at the hands of opposition forces, a real possibility 6 months ago. Russia’s involvement, as Putin sees it, has helped bringing the warring parties to the negotiating table in Geneva. Moscow is now emphasizing on finding a diplomatic solution, knowing it was impossible to entirely destroy the opposition and not seeking to fight Assad’s war. Furthermore, the Russians sought to show they are global players once again and should be taken seriously on the international stage. Unfortunately, this has come at the cost of innocent Syrian civilian lives lost and legitimate opposition forces being targeted, while Moscow claimed to be fighting ISIS and “terrorists.”
Russia wants to see a Syria in which its own interests are preserved. That is involved in maintaining Assad in power as the long-standing ally of Kremlin in Syria. He allows Russia to enjoy strong economic and military interests in the country, while Moscow will also continue to maintain two military bases at the port of Tartous and an airbase in the coastal Latakia Province, a historic stronghold of Assad’s base. As far as Putin is concerned, Russia has been able to alter the balance of power on the ground to allow Assad sit in a better position.
Significant elements on the ground
5 years has passed since the outbreak of the war in Syria. The U.N. estimates this conflict has claimed at least 300,000 lives, while other reports place the numbers at nearly half a million. More than 11 million have been forced from their homes after it all began when Assad began crushing peaceful protests back in March 2011 demanding he step aside.
Three elements jointly pushed Putin to this new surprise decision:
– The drop of oil prices has forced a 3.6% shrinkage in the Russian economy. For the first time last week since 2000 the Russian leader decided to reduce the defense budget by 5%.
– U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to deploy permanent combat brigades to the Baltic states and Eastern Europe along the Russian border, which is very important to Moscow. This is the western front for Russia as they know they cannot maintain all these threats, preserve their huge army, and continue the Syria campaign that is costing Moscow $3 million.
– News leaks indicate a possible discussion between Syria and Iran to reach a political solution that will be substitute to the Geneva process currently led by the U.N., U.S. and Russia. Iran is desperately attempting to retrieve its lost hegemony in Syria.
A very important reminder about Iran
The fact that must not be forgotten is how Iran was forced to dispatch its notorious Qassem Suleimani, chief of its Revolutionary Guards foreign wing Quds Force, in late summer of 2015 as Syrian opposition forces were gaining grounds fast against Assad. Iran was left with no choice but to forgo its hegemony in Syria to Russia in return for Moscow to provide airstrikes. Iran has since dispatched tens of thousands of Revolutionary Guards boots, Iraqi Shiite militias and hired Afghan and Pakistani recruits as ground forces to shore the depleting army of Bashar Assad.
With Russia abruptly deciding to pull out of Syria, Iran is set to lose big as its forces will lose the strategically crucial air cover provided by Moscow. The Syrian opposition bravely endured the deadly attacks during the past months, and can now reinforce to once again pose a major threat against the Assad regime. All said and done, Iran sees all odds against it in Syria as Moscow no longer views interests paralleling those of Tehran. Russia sought foot in the door in any final say over Syria’s future, obtaining this now at Iran’s cost. Such reds lines being crossed will result deadly for Tehran, still unable to recover after the major nuclear setback. Alongside Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon, the future in the region looks bleak for the ruling brass in Tehran.
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