Take a Guess at How Long Russian Troops Will Remain in Syria
Weeks? Months? Try years
by PAUL IDDON
On Jan. 6, 2017, the Kremlin once again announced a military drawdown from Syria, beginning with the recall of the Admiral Kuznetsov carrier group.
Russia previously announced it was withdrawing nearly a year ago but did no such thing — and it’s unlikely to do so this time, either.
“It’s unclear that there is any drawdown besides the Kuznetsov carrier group going home, which it really should given its operations have resulted in embarrassing technical failures,” Michael Kofman, a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, told War Is Boring.
Neil Hauer, a Middle East analyst for the conflict monitoring group SecDev, echoed Kofman’s assessment. “The Kuznetsov’s departure to the Black Sea is the main element of this withdrawal and was a highly-publicized event, with the Syrian chief of staff even visiting the vessel on Jan. 6,” Hauer said.
The Kuznetsov’s deployment off Syria’s Mediterranean coast, following a lengthy journey from northern Russia around Europe, was a symbolic move on Russia’s part more than anything else. The carrier transferred some of its fighter-bombers to the ground-based Russian force already on Syrian soil. Two of the carrier’s fighters — a MiG-29K and a Su-33 — crashed during the deployment.
“The current Russian withdrawal likely amounts to a reshaping of their force profile in the country,” Hauer added.
Kofman also doesn’t anticipate many serious changes. “Russian force presence on the ground in Syria is a fairly small footprint,” he said, “as such the drawdown may be once again a rotation of units, but I would expect military presence to continue largely unchanged.”
In March 2016, Russia claimed that it was withdrawing the main part of its force in Syria, only to simply rotate its forces. Even then, the Kremlin clarified it could rapidly redeploy if necessary. By the end of the month, Russia was assisting Syrian troops in recapturing Palmyra from Islamic State militants.
Palmyra fell once again to the Islamic State in mid-December 2016 as Syrian troops captured East Aleppo from opposition groups. “While Russia might reduce its airstrikes in northern Syria, it’s very unlikely they will significantly reduce their footprint in the country until Palmyra is recaptured,” Hauer reasoned.
“Leaving the city where they held their ‘victory over terrorism’ concert in May 2015 in ISIS hands would be deeply embarrassing,” he added, referring to the Mariinsky Orchestra concert in Palmyra’s ancient Roman theater, which Moscow invited the press to watch after Russian sappers cleared the ruins of explosives left behind by Islamic State fighters.
It’s unclear if Moscow will move decisively to rectify the loss of Palmyra in the near future. Damascus may be more interested in continuing to rout the remaining opposition groups in north and northwestern Syria. Particularly the Islamist groups which occupy Idlib province, which the Syrian regime lost control of in March 2015.
Incidentally, the city of Idlib was the only provincial capital Damascus lost other than Raqqa, the Islamic State’s stronghold in Syria.
Kofman wagered an educated guess into why Russia might be claiming to withdraw if that is not its actual aim or plan. “The seizure of Aleppo is another milestone in the operation, and offers a political opportunity to claim victory at home, which is signified by the drawdown announcement,” Kofman said.
“It is a means by which to claim this as a political achievement for a domestic audience, and in practice, I expect some Russian special forces along with naval units will actually withdraw home.”
Hauer also had a more general reason why Russia is likely to retain the bulk of its forces in Syria for the long term. “Russia has plans for major expansions of both the Hmeimim air base and the Tartus naval dock, transforming the latter into a true military port facility,” he added.
“These will be able to support a very large Russian presence in the country with an eye to projecting power in the region after the expansions are finished in several years’ time.”
These plans alone indicate that Russian troops are staying put.