Russia withdraws from Syria: What’s next?

russian troops withdraw
Peace talks comes amid fragile ceasefire
02:47 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Russia abruptly announces a major withdrawal of military forces

Analysts tell CNN this is likely a bargaining position being struck by Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russians, who have bolstered Assad's position, could also force him to step down

CNN  — 

In the end, Russia’s military involvement in Syria finished as abruptly as it began.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the unexpected withdrawal of troops and a marked reduction in its air campaign in the beleaguered country.

The announcement came five years since the war started and the same day talks to broker a peaceful resolution to a Syrian conflict begin in Geneva.

With at least 300,000 lives lost and 11 million ordinary Syrians forced from their homes, it has never been more important that talks between the Assad regime and rebel groups, brokered by Russia and the West, succeed.

So what will this sudden withdrawal mean for the Geneva talks and, ultimately, Syria’s future?

Why did Russia pull out now?

The benefits of Russia staying in Syria no longer outweighed the costs, says James Gelvin, a Professor of History at the University of California Los Angeles

Putin couldn’t have expected to regain all the territory ceded to ISIS and the various rebel groups vying for primacy in Syria, says Gelvin, but he added that Russia has made headway on behalf of government forces.

“Russia went in (to Syria) at the point at which the government of Syria was losing and on the defensive. (Russia was) able to turn tide and the government now has wind at their back, where Putin wants them to be.”

But, it comes at a price, and Gelvin feels that the move is an astute bargaining ploy by Putin as the Geneva talks begin.

“He withdrew troops so Assad knew (Syria) was on its own and would have to negotiate.”

CNN Moscow correspondent Matthew Chance says that Putin is declaring victory and getting out before it turns messy.

“The Russians can say they’ve made and achieved military objectives, brought partners to the table, supported their Middle East ally Bashar Al Assad, all with minimal Russian cost,” says Chance.

Putin has ordered the withdrawal of the “main part of our military factions from the Syrian Arab Republic,” but Russia will maintain a long-term presence in the country with bases in Latakia and Tartus.

Faces of Syria: The survivors

Whose hand has been strengthened by the pullout?

CNN military analyst Rick Francona says Russia’s intervention has put Assad in a stronger bargaining position than the rebel groups with whom he is vying for control.

Ahead of the talks in Geneva “The regime in a much better shape, (along with) the Russians of course.”

However, analysts think that who is actually in power is less important to Putin than the guarantee of a Russian presence in Syria, and Putin could call on his ally Assad to accept a settlement – asylum in Iran, for example – for the greater good of the negotiations.

“They might pressure him to step down in these talks. Putin knows Assad has to go. He’s not going to fall on his sword for Assad,” says Francona.

The truth about Syria

What does this mean for the fight against ISIS?

Sergei Markov, a former member of parliament in Russia’s Duma, says that ISIS, which has refused to take part in peace talks, is now on the backfoot.

“The main military and economic infrastructure of (ISIS) has been crushed by Russian aviation strikes,” he says.

“As a result in a couple of weeks Syrian government troops will again take control of Palmyria and then probably I suppose, even without Russian aviation support Syrian government troops will crush (ISIS) in the middle of this year.”

Russian strikes have come under criticism from moderate rebel groups and their Western allies. Critics point to the bombings of civilian areas as reason to believe Russia is actually helping its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, eliminate the opposition.

However, there is hope that, once the peace process is enabled, Russia may be more focused on targeting the jihadist group.

“Russia’s reiterated that they’re willing to cooperate with the U.S. (in operations against ISIS), which is welcome, but they need to go after ISIS this time, instead of bomb rebels. If they want to be a partner they need to act like a partner,” Francona says.

On Syria’s “death road”

What is the path forward for Syria?

Should Assad be forced to step down, Syria and Russia would likely rely on Iran, another key ally, to provide the security necessary to avoid the sort of power vacuum that the U.S. experienced in neighboring Iraq, according to Francona.

However, any transition will take time.

“I don’t think we’re going to see normalization of life in Syria any time soon.”

Many Syrians, like exiled writer and activist Ayman Abdel-Nour, editor in chief of the All4Syria Bulletin, hope there will be a new constitution and free elections in the next year. Still, he says, removing the Assad regime is just the beginning.

“Syrians have no other solution but the political one, the reconciliation, and transitional justice then the big work will start to rebuild this crumbled infrastructure, these demolished cities, destroyed hospitals and schools.

Will Assad really go?

The Syrian opposition wants Assad to go, but if the West were to call for his ouster, this would cause an immediate breakdown in peace talks, says UCLA’s Gelvin.

However, both Gelvin and Francona say Assad’s Russian sponsors may be willing to push Assad to step down with his presence no longer central to Russia’s plans in the region.

For many Syrians, however, a change of leader is more than just politicking but they key to healing the country.

“The Assad family should leave power and give it back to the Syrian people to decide there own constitution through free election,” says Abdel-Nour.

“Only the officers who gave orders to kill and torture civilians should be send to ICC – which is no more than 50 personnel. Then the healing process should start. It will take a generation for sure.”