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James Denselow

Russia's long goodbye in Syria

Russia’s commitment to Syria is deepening as it is evolving [Getty]

Date of publication: 7 April, 2016

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Comment: Far from a 'withdrawal', the Kremlin is merely slightly shifting its decades-long strategy and further entrenching Russian interests in the war-torn nation, writes James Denselow.
It is often said that history is written by the victors. In Syria's five-year conflict, the Russians have been very clear as to the narrative as they see it - a legitimate state fighting against an illegitimate "terrorist" uprising.

David Kilcullen, a former adviser to US General Petraeus, wrote recently that Russian actions in the region display a "strategic unity of thought and action". Putin's intervention in Syria would appear a complete success - from Moscow's perspective.

They set out their strategic parameters around ensuring the safety of the Assad regime, deployed the right resources - just 35 combat aircraft and a few thousand people on the ground - and, once their objectives were met, announced victory and pulled out in time for medals.

However, announcing victory is a very different thing from actually achieving it - and if you look closer through the fog of war that sits heavy over Syria, the picture is of Russian rhetoric masking the reality of a redeployment, not a withdrawal.

In fact, Russia's commitment to Syria is deepening as it is evolving. Russian bombs are still falling on Syria today despite the nominal "withdrawal" and the supposed cessation of hostilities. Reuters tracks ships supplying Russian military equipment via the Bosphorus and the Washington Post has reported a sharp rise in numerous Russian Special Forces units operating on the ground including Spetsnaz, Zaslon and KSO.

A fresh batch of Russian Ka-52 "Alligator" attack helicopters reportedly arrived at the Humaymim airbase this week, while the Russian air defence system is intact and still has its command headquarters in Latakia.
Russia has already said that its air war in Syria had proved to be great marketing for its latest fighter bomber, the Su-34


Footage from Russian television has also shown the presence of an Iskander missile system that can fire short range ballistic missiles at Humaymim.

A senior Israeli Air Force officer told Defence News that Putin had "changed the shape of the forces, but he didn't evacuate. He's brought in different assets and returned things he had less use for… Now there's more emphasis on air support by attack helicopters".

Russia has already said that its air war in Syria had proved to be great marketing for its latest fighter bomber, the Su-34. Meanwhile reports of Russian sappers arriving in Palmyra to help defuse mines and explosives were confirmed by the Russian Defence Ministry.

What is more, Putin, speaking to military leaders in the Kremlin, warned that "if there's a need, Russia literally within several hours can increase its presence in the region to the size required for the unfolding situation and use the whole arsenal of possibilities we have at our disposal".

Some withdrawal.

This is not the first time in Syria that what Russia says proves somewhat different to what Russia does. During the bulk of its bombing, Moscow denied causing any civilian casualties - despite independent monitoring groups estimating that between the start of the bombing in September until the end of 2015, between 1,098 and 1,450 Syrian civilians were killed in Russian airstrikes.

In early April the Atlantic Council released a report that suggested that Russian claims on Syria airstrikes were "inaccurate on grand scale".
Russia, while heavily involved in Syria's past, is clearly not walking away from its present


We shouldn't forget that Russia's presence in Syria goes a long way back. Since the 1950s, tens of thousands of Syrians have been educated in Russia, while Russian expertise has created much of Syria's pre-conflict infrastructure, with the Syrian ministry of economy estimating that the Russians were responsible for one-third of Syria's electrical power capability, one-third of its oil-producing facilities and a threefold expansion of land under irrigation - aided in part by assistance with building the massive Euphrates dam.

Syria's military ties with the Soviet Union were consolidated in the 1950s, during which time future president Hafez Assad travelled to Moscow in 1958 to take a night-flying course on Russian MiGs.

The Soviets would become what biographer Patrick Seale called "the principal ally of his presidency", in which arms sales were part of a "framework of trust and consultation". 

Russia, while heavily involved in Syria's past, is clearly not walking away from its present - as Carnegie's Dr Lina Khatib recently told a British parliamentary committee: "President Putin is sending the message that Russia is the one in charge in Syria now, and it calls the shots."

In terms of its future, President Assad's comments to the Russian media in March should also be noted. "There will be a very large space for all Russian companies to take part in the process of rebuilding Syria," he said.

James Denselow is an author and writer on Middle East politics and security issues. He is a former board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and a director of the New Diplomacy Platform. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesdenselow

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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