Those believing Russia is withdrawing from Syria, well you’ve be duped by Russia propaganda. What you are hearing and perhaps witnessing is a reduction, not withdrawal. Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised the Obama administration and others in the media again Monday with the announcement that his warplanes and troops would begin pulling out of Syria. Underscoring that promise, on Tuesday Russian news channels broadcast video of soldiers packing up cargo planes and warplanes taking off from the airbase in Latakia for the long journey home.
The Russian involvement in the war is hardly over. Russian Senator Viktor Ozerov said perhaps as many as 800 soldiers, and likely more, will remain in Syria to guard the air base and Russian port facilities, and deputy defense minister Nikolai Pankov said Tuesday that Moscow’s warplanes would “continue carrying out strikes on terrorist facilities” in Syria.
There are a series of efforts at play by Putin. First, Russia, no longer needs the initial conventional forces necessary to establish Russia presence at the Naval Base at Tartus and Latakia Air Base. Many of those forces were combat engineers, who were needed to set-up port and basing capability to support the increased naval and air operations. Likewise, many other specialized forces were required to establish permanent Air Defense missiles sites, regionally based command posts, and larger numbers of conventional combat forces to move into key areas to clean-out insurgent strongholds and contested areas. With that complete, now, Putin will utilize more technical type forces to man and tend the ports, airfield, command centers, security forces to provide protection, pilots to continue to fly missions, and special operations forces to further conduct operations against insurgents and terrorist elements. Secondly, the move is designed to put pressure on the regime of Bashar al Assad to finally enter talks with rebel groups in Geneva this week in order to make a deal.
With the protective blanket of a larger unconditional Russian support finally being pulled, al-Assad may feel compelled to negotiate for peace on his terms, or worst case gain the concessions he (and Putin) wants. Putin knows full well he still holds the hammer. If al-Assad can get the concessions to his liking and Putin wants, he betters his survival and a continuation of his regime, and Putin maintain his presence at a lower scale. Putin has no desire to continue fighting multiple forces in an extended conflict across Syria and even northern Iraq. Putin’s desire to have his established naval base and airfield for its strategic and operational presence in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.