Is Putin’s Syria campaign really over?
An active phase of hostilities in Syria is reaching completion. The Islamic State has been defeated. While some hotspots of combat action are still observed across Syria, they are of a sporadic nature. For example, recently some fighting was reported in the northern part of Aleppo. But the existing security zone agreements are generally implemented.
Therefore, we can claim that the active phase of Syria fighting is over.
Does this mean that the war ended? In a general sense, it does. But the key issues today are sustainable peace and future. And this is where problems arise for both the opposition who did not win this war and Bashar Assad who can’t be considered an ultimate winner, either.
The key question for everyone regards the fate of Bashar al-Assad - whether he retains power or quits
There are two platforms where talks are held on Syria settlement: the Geneva platform and the one in Astana, Kazakhstan. There are also negotiations of three leading players - Turks, Iranians, and Russians - which are held in Sochi and aimed at agreeing on an algorithm for the post-war existence of the Syrian state. The key issue for everyone regards the fate of Bashar al-Assad - whether he retains power or quits. And even at the level of these three participants, some serious disagreements remain. For example, Turkey doesn’t really welcome the idea of Assad holding on to his seat in the future. Although, it is clear that Ankara listens to the part of the Syrian opposition, which is one way or another affiliated with Turkey.
In parallel lines, negotiations are being held in Saudi Arabia aimed at aligning positions. After all, part of the Syrian opposition also listens to the Saudi opinion, while preparing for the Geneva talks.
As for Russia ... By declaring that Russia has won in Syria, Putin fulfills the promise he gave before the start of the active Russian campaign on Syrian soil. He had vowed that would withdraw from Syria immediately after their victory. Such statements simply mean that Putin needs some kind of a victory, a success story ahead of the upcoming presidential election in Russia, to make him better perceived. Therefore, these words primarily target the Russian population, or better say, voters.
Russia can actually withdraw some units from Syria. Part. That is, it does not mean that Russia will pull back all its forces. Part of its units Russia will have to replace with others. Besides, we shouldn't forget about "private armies" that will remain in Syria.
As for Russia ... By declaring that Russia has won in Syria, Putin fulfills the promise he gave before the start of theactive Russian campaign on Syrian soil. He had vowed that would withdraw from Syria immediately after their victory
Generally speaking, Bashar al-Assad’s positions are not that strong today. It is clear that without Russia and Iran, he will not retain the situation under control.
As for Putin's words about the completion of the military campaign, we can say that it was simply a "figure of speech", a sort of presidential campaign rhetoric by the Russian leader. As we know, there is a famous formula: you can win the war and lose peace. And, in fact, all these actions and statements are aimed at not losing peace.
So it is too early to talk about the end of Russia's military campaign in Syria, it's too early to talk about the end of this war. A very complicated challenge the sides are facing is to agree on the future.
And so far, there are no risks for Ukraine that after withdrawing from Syria, Russia will start amassing forces along the Ukrainian border. Of course, Russians have thoroughly practiced waging war while in Syria. In particular, Russian air force gained considerable experience in conducting air raids. That is why it is important for Ukraine to pay much attention to the strengthening of its air defense system. But in general, Russia's actions in Syria have no direct impact on the situation in Ukraine.
Ihor Semyvolos is a Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Relations