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memri
March 15, 2016 No.
1235

Russian President Putin: Russia Will Withdraw Most Of Its Military From Syria – But Russian Activity At Tartus Naval Base And Hmeymim Airbase Will Continue As Before

By: Jenia Frumin and Elena Voinova*

Introduction

On March 14, 2016, Russia announced that the next day, March 15, it would begin its withdrawal from Syria. In a MEMRI report published yesterday, Russian political analyst Sergey Karaganov, who is close to the Kremlin, stated that Russia must be extremely careful not to get "bogged down" in the Syrian quagmire, stressing: "[Russia] should have the courage to withdraw quickly if such a danger appears and to prepare [our] society for such a possibility."[1] Previously, on March 2, 2016, MEMRI published an interview with Karaganov in which he underlined that Russia must "be prepared to leave Syria at any moment."[2]


Source: Lenta.ru, March 15, 2016

Russian Media Reports And Analysis On The Withdrawal Decision

On March 14, the day of the announcement of its withdrawal, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu; during the meeting, he ordered the Defense Ministry to begin withdrawing the main part of Russia's military group from Syria and asked the Foreign Ministry to step up Russia's participation in organizing the peace process to resolve the Syria crisis. Putin then specified that Russia's naval base at Tartus and its strategic Hmeymin airbase will continue operating as before, saying, "They must be protected securely from land, sea and air." In a phone conversation the same day with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, Putin said that Russia will maintain an aviation support center in Syria to monitor all parties' compliance with the ceasefire.

Chairman Of Parliamentary Defense And Security Committee: Up To 1,000 Russian Troops Will Remain In Syria

In accordance with Putin's orders, the technical staff of the airbase prepared aircraft for the departure to Russia; personnel loaded equipment, logistics gear, and inventory into transport aircraft.[3] The Russian state-owned news agency Ria Novosti[4] wrote that groups of fighter bombers and various types of combat aircraft had already flown back to Russia. The pro-Kremlin news agency Pravda stressed that the military bases would not be shut down, noting, "Russia's military presence in Syria will be preserved."

Viktor Ozerov, chairman of the international committee for defense and security in Russia's upper house of parliament, said that he believes that up to 1,000 Russian troops will remain in Syria.[5] In another interview, Ozerov said that Russia will meet its obligations to the Syrian regime with regard to supplies of military hardware and equipment, commenting, "In any case, [Russia] will be able to quickly strengthen its group there, should the need arise."[6]

Russian Daily: Anti-Aircraft Systems, Helicopters, APCs, Tanks, SU-35s Will Remain At Hmeymim

The Russian independent daily Vedomosti,[7] citing unnamed Defense Ministry sources, stated that the first stage of the withdrawal is the sending of 30 of Russia's warplanes home, adding that a new airstrike on terrorist groups is still possible if necessary. However, in Ria Novosti, Deputy Defense Minister Nikolay Pankov stated that airstrikes will continue.[8] Vedomosti also said that Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov doubted that the advanced S-400 surface-to-air missile system will be redeployed to Russia any time soon. This statement was confirmed by the Defense Ministry,[9] and by Kremlin Chief of Staff head Sergey Ivanov, who specified that the S-400 will remain in Syria because it is needed to defend the airbase.

The pro-Kremlin online newspaper Lenta[10] specified that anti-aircraft units will remain in Syria, along with ground protection forces, and that some artillery and helicopter units might also remain. The Russian daily Kommersant[11] said that half of the attack planes will return to Russia, and that anti-aircraft systems, 10 helicopters, BTR-82A APCs, T-90C tanks, four Su-35s (that arrived earlier this month) and perhaps a few more Su-30CM will remain at Hmeymim airbase. Kommersant[12] added that the decision to withdraw was not hasty but had been planned and discussed in the Russian security council.

The Kremlin-funded analytical media outlet Russia-direct commented that Russia had chosen the right moment to withdraw from Syria. It said that the Kremlin's move would show the international community that Russia seeks to "maintain the peaceful process not only with words," and that it is ready to take on a role of mediator in the Middle East. In this context, it said, Russia can now present itself as a "neutral force," which "saved Syria from collapse" while at the same time "shied away" from fighting a war for the Assad regime. Russia-Direct also suggested that Russia's move is designed to be a "wake-up call" to the "over-confident" Syrian regime, reminding it that "Russian air support is not limitless."

Pro-Kremlin Newspaper: The Decision To Withdraw Comes Because Russia Doesn't Want To Be "More Syrian than Syria"

In Vedomosti,[13] the director-general of the pro-Kremlin Russian International Affairs Council, Andrey Kortunov, stated that the main reason for the withdrawal is Assad's "stubbornness"[14] that could undermine the continuation of the Geneva process and thus damage Russia's interests in the region. However, Putin spokesman Peskov denied that the withdrawal is aimed at politically pressuring the Assad regime,[15] and that it should not be interpreted as a manifestation of Russian unhappiness with Assad.

Lenta stated that the decision to withdraw is due to the fact that Russia doesn't want to win the war for Syria, since "Russia won't be more Syrian than Syria"; furthermore, for Russia, Assad's personal future is no longer a precondition. According to Lenta, even though the Islamic State (ISIS) has not been completely defeated, Russia has achieved its four goals: the stabilization of the Syrian regime, the strengthening of the Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus axis, strikes by Russian fighters against ISIS in northwestern Syria, and proving that a Russian role in the region is indispensable. It added that Russia will, however, maintain a presence in Syria as a sign of its strategic interest in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Additionally, Ria Novosti,[16] cited unnamed diplomatic sources in Brussels as suggesting that the Russian withdrawal from Syria can be seen as a move that could lead to the gradual removal of sanctions on Russia.

 

* Jenia Frumin and Elena Voinova are Research Fellows at MEMRI.

 

Endnotes:

[3] Eng.mil.ru, March 15, 2016.

[4] Ria.ru, March 15, 2016.

[5] Ria.ru, March 14, 2016.

[6] Pravda.ru, March 15, 2016.

[7] Vedomosti.ru, March 15, 2016.

[8] Tass.ru, March 15, 2016.

[9] Tass.ru, March 15, 2016.

[10] Lenta.ru, March 15, 2016.

[11] Kommersant.ru, March 15, 2016.

[12] Kommersant.ru, March 15, 2016.

[13] Vedomosti.ru, March 15, 2016

[14] In an interview on the nationalist and conservative Tsargrad.tv, Anna Glazova, deputy director of the pro-Kremlin Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, stated that Assad cannot be considered a friend of Putin: "I wouldn't say that Assad is tightly connected with Russia. He never positioned himself as a friend of Putin... Russian actions - i.e. the veto in the security council on foreign involvement in Syria and the counter-terrorism operation - are not for the defense of Assad, but for the defense of the legitimate government."  

[15] Ria.ru, March 15, 2016

[16] Ria.ru, March 15, 2016