Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announced military withdrawal, the Russian military will maintain a formidable presence in Syria.
The withdrawal of Russian aircraft has been minimal, while ground forces appear to still be present, U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, told reporters during a press briefing Wednesday. Since U.S. forces “were not expecting this announcement in the first place,” he said it remains to be seen how the withdrawal is going to develop.
“We haven’t seen a significant reduction in … their combat power,” Warren said. “Particularly their ground combat power remains static. We have seen a small handful of Russian aircraft depart, 8 to 10, somewhere around there. We’ve seen some movement of troops. No … significant numbers of troops have departed Syria yet.”
Putin announced the Russian withdrawal Monday, saying the process would begin Tuesday.
“I consider the objectives that have been set for the Defense Ministry to be generally accomplished,” Putin said. “That is why I order to start withdrawal of the main part of our military group from the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic starting from tomorrow.”
Anna Borshchevskaya, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and expert on Russia’s Middle East policy, believes that Putin has indeed achieved his goal in the region, though that goal is not what he has outwardly stated.
“Rescuing Assad from the rebellion and securing Russia’s interests – as Putin defines them – has been the real goal in Syria, and on that matter he can certainly claim success,” she wrote in an op-ed Tuesday. Though Putin claimed the intention of his intervention in Syria was to halt the Islamic State, she said it’s clear by his deliberate targeting of Syrian opposition forces that he was presenting a facade.
Republican Sen. John McCain seemed to agree that Putin has achieved his goals in the region.
“The announcement that Russia will begin withdrawing some military forces from Syria signals Vladimir Putin’s belief that he has bombed and killed enough of the opponents of the murderous Assad regime to ensure its survival,” he said in a statement Monday.
Putin has admitted that maintaining air superiority in Syria is a primary concern, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said Russia may be interested in coordinating air strikes with the U.S. against ISIS. Russia made advances in securing Syrian air space around Latakia province in November, shortly after it began its Syria intervention by installing the S-400 air defense system. The S-400 is one of Russia’s most advanced surface-to-air missile systems, capable of shooting down modern aircraft and ballistic missiles.
In addition to maintaining its crucial naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus, Russia will leave the country with an airbase in Khmeimim that did not exist prior to the Russian intervention.
Russia’s ground support for Syrian forces also does not appear to be dissipating. Warren said that while attacks against opposition have seen a “notable reduction,” Russian support units are still actively engaged in the country.
“The regime [is] in the process of attacking ISIL forces in and around Palmyra,” he said. “The Russian forces that have … provided support for that continue to provide support for that operation.”
Despite the Russian refocus on ISIS, Warren warned that Syrian opposition forces still face a real threat from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “The regime can still take some more ground if the Russians choose to support them,” he said.
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