Russia role in Syria undiminished despite latest withdrawal
BEIRUT (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to cast himself as a peacemaker in Syria, after his military proved to be the difference in the battle for Aleppo. The Russian military announced Friday it was withdrawing its flagship vessels from the Syrian coast, and Putin has sent his envoys to organize the first talks between the Syrian government and opposition in nearly a year, set for later this month in Kazakhstan.
But the Syrian government's battlefield victories have depended crucially on Russian firepower, and Moscow is likely to remain closely involved in the protracted war. Syrian President Bashar Assad has indicated he still has battles to fight around the capital, Damascus, and in rebel-held Idlib province, in the country's northwest. These are matters that Russia still needs to resolve.
A look at Russia's involvement in the Syrian civil war:
RUSSIA'S PIVOTAL ROLE
Without Russia, Assad would not be in the position he is now. He was losing ground when Moscow, a longtime ally, dispatched its air force in 2015 and changed the tide of the war.
A ferocious Russian air campaign around Aleppo cleared the way for pro-government forces to encircle opposition-held districts in the northern city and eventually take them over. It sparked at least two mass displacements — one north of the city, and one in Aleppo itself — and killed countless civilians and fighters.
That campaign was bolstered by the deployment to the Mediterranean Sea of the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier with some 30 warplanes in November. Russia was already running operations at full tilt from its air and naval bases on Syria's coast. Now, Russia is withdrawing the Kuznetsov and its largest frigate operating in support.
Russia also provided political cover for the government against accusations of obstructionism and war crimes in the U.N. and was a tough advocate for its ally in cease-fire negotiations brokered with the U.S. and Turkey.
WHAT WILL BE RUSSIA'S FURTHER INVOLVEMENT IN SYRIA?
Russia's military presence in Syria will continue to be strong for the visible future. It has a naval base in Tartus and the military airfield in Hemeimeem, from which many of the airstrikes have been launched. It has not said how many of its troops are in Syria, but media estimates suggest 4,000 or more.
Putin is maneuvering to play the part of peacemaker, as well. After brokering a broad cease-fire with Turkey, the opposition's main sponsor, Moscow along with Ankara and Tehran are now brokering peace talks between the government and opposition in Astana, Kazakhstan, set to begin Jan. 23.
The cease-fire, which began a week ago, has reduced but not altogether halted the fighting. It remains to be seen whether the main opposition forces will agree to respect the talks in Astana so long as fighting presses on.
As a guarantor of the cease-fire agreement, Russia would be unlikely to make a sizable drawdown while the peace process remains uncertain.
Alexander Golts, an independent Russian military analyst, told The Associated Press that he believed withdrawing the Kuznetsov and its flotilla was not a crucial change.
"They did not play an essential role regarding the Syrian conflict. In my view, they were most likely sent to demonstrate our military power," he said. "Every time Syria declared a cease-fire, and I note this is the third cease-fire, the Kremlin makes an attempt to declare the withdrawal of forces, of drawing down forces."
Also, Russia will keep a group of about 10 military vessels elsewhere in the Mediterranean, said Andrei Krasov, the deputy head of parliament's defense committee, speaking to the Interfax news agency.
HOW WILL THIS AFFECT THE NEXT THEATERS OF BATTLE?
Assad has made clear his intention to retake all of Syria from opposition and Islamic State control. To that end, pro-government forces have kept up their campaigns on opposition pockets around Damascus, despite last week's cease-fire. Progress has been steady but slow; Russia's intervention has not proven decisive to these battles.
The greater challenge will be to retake Idlib, a province almost entirely in opposition control. It is bordered on one side by Turkey, which has behaved as a sort of rearguard for the rebels, allowing troops and weapons across its border. The government's bid for Idlib will depend on Turkey's cooperation and also could hinge on Russian air power. Russia was the deciding factor to the government's campaign for the neighboring countryside north of Aleppo in early 2016.
Russian airstrikes have killed about 4,700 civilians and 6,000 opposition fighters and Islamic State militants, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group. They have decimated opposition supply lines and reinforced government sieges that have led to several opposition surrenders.
DOES RUSSIA HAVE OTHER DESIGNS IN THE REGION?
Syria is Russia's foothold in the Middle East, providing its only military bases outside the former Soviet Union. But although Russia is increasingly showing itself off as a military power, its long-term ambitions are unclear.
Russia has long tried to position itself as a mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In October, it conducted joint military exercises with Egypt, its first on the African continent.
Moscow-based analyst Vyacheslav Matuzov said he believes Russia ultimately will boost its presence in Syria.
"We're going to strengthen our air base in Hemeimeem, we're going to strengthen our naval base in Tartus. It's unavoidable" as Russia's global influence grows, he said.
Golts, however, said Russia's military ambitions are limited by its struggling economy, and in the region, "Russia does not have serious interests; Russia does not depend on Middle East oil."
WHAT IS THE U.S. ROLE IN SYRIA NOW?
The Obama administration has taken a hands-off approach to the conflict in the waning months of its tenure. The administration has not played the leading part in peace efforts since last fall, as the U.S. election approached. Contacts with Russia and others in Geneva — where officials had been meeting to discuss cease-fire efforts and resume peace talks — have essentially ended.
With no indication about how the incoming administration of Donald Trump intends to proceed on Syria, U.S. diplomats are wary of engaging in any new initiatives that would require a sustained American role. One indication of this is ambivalence about attending, even in an observer role, the proposed talks in Kazakhstan.
Trump and his national security advisers have said the fight against the Islamic State group is a priority. The Obama administration continues to have an undisclosed number of U.S. special operations troops, presumed to be about 250-500, in Syria in an advise-and-assist role with what the U.S. calls the Syrian Democratic Forces. Some of these are embedded with the SDF — both Syrian Kurds and Syrian Arabs — in northern Syria. The U.S. previously helped in recruiting the forces and providing equipment.