On March 14, 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu to start the withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria beginning the next day. Russia will, however, keep its military presence at the port of Tartus and at the Khmeimim airbase to supervise the observation of ceasefire agreements.
“I consider the objectives that have been set for the Defense Ministry to be generally accomplished. 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,” Putin said on Monday during a meeting with Shoigu and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
“In a short period of time Russia has created a small but very effective military group [in Syria]… the effective work of our military allowed the peace process to begin,” Putin said, adding that with the assistance of the Russian Air Force “Syrian government troops and patriotic forces have changed the situation in the fight with international terrorism and have ceased the initiative.”
This sudden decision surprised many, and various comments appeared in the press and in social media groups as well. Russia’s move was generally seen as a big military and political step, after almost 6 months of an extremely successful campaign in aid of the legitimate Syrian government and President Bashar al-Assad.
In light of ongoing peace talks in Geneva and a more or less successful ceasefire between Syrian Coalition troops and so-called “moderate rebels”, this decision by the Kremlin could be seen as a message to the rest of the world that Russia is supporting, by all means, a diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict. And indeed, Mr. Putin concluded:
“I hope that today’s decision will be a good signal for all sides of the conflict [and that] it will significantly increase the level of trust for all participants of the peace process in Syria and provide for peaceful means to solve the Syrian issue.”
Some opposition groups and “moderate rebel supporters” even went out onto the streets to celebrate Russia’s withdrawal. However, they would soon come to realize that their celebrations were groundless:
“To control the observation of ceasefire agreements in the region, Moscow will keep its Khmeimim airbase in Latakia province and a base at the port of Tartus”, Putin said.
The bases “must be effectively secured from onshore, offshore and from the air,” Putin said, adding that Russia has had this military group in Syria for many years.
So, what is the nature of Russia’s withdrawal, according to Putin’s decision? During the Russian campaign, besides continuing to operate the long-established air base at Khmeimim and naval base at Tartus, the Russian military deployed marines and some supporting ground troops in order to efficiently defend these bases, as well as a number of military personnel—instructors and special forces units—whose task was to advise the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), conduct combat exercises with the SAA, and improve the SAA’s communications, tactical skills, and operational efficiency, as well as provide new weapons and arms training, etc., conduct surveillance tasks, etc.
Those units besides protecting and securing military bases in Tartus and Khmeimim, were also spread around on the large territory under the control of SAA and coalition troops and they did extraordinary job in such a short period, under the war conditions in turning SAA army into the most efficient army in the region reversing the situation on the ground.
Since the Kremlin announced that the naval base in Tartus and airbase in Khmeimim will remain in operation as the guarantee of the ceasefire and peace talks, the withdrawal could be related to the mentioned support ground troops only.
This could have a sense since, with a Russian help, SAA has been improved and transformed in a very successful, operational and well trained army which could keep its initiative on the ground, clearing remaining pockets of rebels, Al-Qaida affiliated terrorist groups and further suppressing of ISIS.
Withdrawal of the ground troops by the Kremlin could be considered as the political step of a good will to achieve peaceful solution, the strong signal to the peace talks, and the nice cover for eventual secret agreement with US about final solution to the Syrian war and crisis, offering generously a good cover for US to make some more constructive steps in that direction.
Yet, there is a small “but”, which is sitting right in the nexus, leading to some uncomfortable feelings… By the time of writing this article, news appeared that the first combat group of Russian jets took off heading back to Russia. So, the “main part of the military group” also include a number of fighter and bomber jets. Why now? Are “the objectives that have been set for the Defense Ministry” generally accomplished?
Moderate rebels, who are pretending to be Syrian opposition keep changing the flag according to the current needs and objectives. ISIL is far from being ultimately destroyed, final battles for Palmyra and race for Raqqa are still on the table for SAA and Syrian coalition. Supply roads to Aleppo are still vulnerable for the SAA without the strong air support. The border corridor between the Turkey and ISIL controlled territories are still open.
Russian campaign along the SAA and coalition forces successfully cut the “path of oil” which ISIL used to sell Syrian oil to Turkey, and the main convoys of supply for ISIL terrorists. Thousands of air strikes destroyed the most of ISIL infrastructure, ammo stocks, heavy weapons, and transportation systems leaving ISIL pretty weaken and vulnerable. Yet, that was not enough to defeat ISIL without the ground offensive which is the absolute must in such a war. But ground offensive must be supported by air forces?
Does the winning side step back, achieving just limited goals, and while is winning – put a stop on the campaign, hold peace talks and in the same time withdraws part of its troops?
Questions and question arising without proper answers which make my nexus to tremble and has a bad feeling.
Despite the ceasefire (which is still holding) and the peace talks in Geneva, reports of Turkish activities are disturbing the public.
During the Russian operation, Turkey, along with Saudi Arabia, was exposed as the main destabilizing factor in the region, waging a dirty war against Syria—supporting, arming, financing, recruiting and refitting ISIL terrorists and other so-called “moderate rebels”—in the fight against the Syrian government. And while the ceasefire more or less holds, Turkey has intensified its presence on the Syrian border, daily shelling Kurdish and even SAA positions along the border, using the ridiculous excuse of it being Turkey’s sovereign right to create a secure zone—in foreign territory, no less!—to protect itself.
The most disturbing reports appeared recently, stating that Turkish troops had crossed the Syrian border and occupied a narrow strip of Syrian land, preventing Kurdish and Coalition troops from completely locking down the border and cutting off the connection path between ISIL and Turkey.
In the past few weeks there have been a lot of rumors that a Turkish/Saudi-led coalition is preparing and advocating for its engagement in a war against terrorism, practically announcing that they will cross the Syrian border in their fight against ISIL—?
What is really behind this coalition? By now it is obvious to everyone that Turkey and Saudi Arabia are the main supporters of ISIL, to say nothing of the USA, of course, which is indeed the grand master designer of this entire crisis including the actual creation of ISIL.
The uninvited and unapproved actions of a Turkish/Saudi coalition would amount to an actual invasion of a large part of Syria, establishing direct control over northern and northeastern Syrian territory. By this action, a Turkey/GCC coalition would perform illegal occupation extracting the part of Syrian territory needed to control the prospective Qatar-Turkey gas pipeline.
From a look at the map below, it will be obvious where the Syrian territory to be controlled in such a scenario is located and how ISIL territory was expanded to achieve this goal.
The Russian campaign in Syria disrupted all the Turkish/Saudi plan at its roots, despite billions of dollars invested so far in the war against Syria.
Let’s take a look Turkey’s current status: Russian actions against terrorists in Syria, as well as extremely well-documented evidence of Turkish involvement in a dirty war against Syria, its support for ISIL and its theft of Syrian oil through ISIL rat channels, have put Turkish President Erdogan in a very unpleasant situation. And following Turkey’s criminal act of shooting down a Russian fighter jet on a mission against ISIL, the killing of one of the pilots as well as a Russian marine sent to rescue them, support for Erdogan from NATO allies, and from the USA in particular (as Turkey’s main supporter), started to fade—nobody was willing to risk widespread conflict against Russia and its allies because of a mad decision by an unstable politician.
At the same time, Kurdish forces fighting ISIL in Syria got support both from Russia and from Turkey’s closest ally—the USA.
Putting himself between a rock and a hard place, Erdogan launched an offensive against areas of Turkey with a majority Kurdish population, unleashing a real civil war with clashes and battles on an enormous scale.
The total destruction of Cizre
Kurdish troops, together with the SAA and alliance forces, supported by the Russian air force and some special ground troops helping the SAA, are closing the remaining gaps through which ISIL has been supplied and Syrian oil has been stolen, stolen oil that has brought Turkey and Erdogan enormous profits in the last few years.
The last thing that Erdogan would need at the moment is – a cease fire. Effective ceasefire and eventual success on peace talks would finally and ultimately close the narrow doors through Syrian territory for Turkey. The flame of civil war in Turkey is spreading into a blaze that is endangering even Turkey’s capital city, Ankara.
In the last 2 months, 2 deadly bombings hit Ankara, taking a terrible toll in human lives. No one is safe anymore. Reports from Ankara say that people are leaving their homes, out of fear, and that fear is everywhere.
Erdogan has tightened what is already a firm grip around his people, closing Facebook, Twitter and other social network sites. Journalists and lay people who speak against the regime are prosecuted and imprisoned. Dictator Erdogan has grabbed the role of Great Dictator. How long will the Turkish people be silent and obedient to the new sultan? Will the Turkish military continue to obey his orders, and for how long? Will millions of Turks head to the streets demanding his resignation? How will he keep waging his domestic war against the Kurds?
Erdogan needs a war in Syria to continue. He will not survive politically in the peace appearing on the Middle East horizon. Ultimate defeat of ISIL and Al-Qaeda-affiliated rebel groups in Syria is a death sentence for Erdogan’s regime. He requires a resumption of the Syrian conflict, and indeed, Turkey is very active in sabotaging the peace talks:
The most recent reports from the ground warn that Turkish troops have crossed the Syrian border and are occupying a narrow strip of Syrian land, preventing Kurdish and SAA coalition troops from sealing the gap between ISIL-controlled territory and Turkey.
The clock is ticking on Erdogan’s head. Ticking loudly. His days are numbered, and he knows it. He is cornered, and there is no way out.
Stranded and clearly to be abandoned by NATO in any conflict with Russia, Erdogan has one option—an alliance and military coalition with the Saudi/GCC countries. They are the only group of actors willing to participate with him on a path of evil leading to a direct war in Syria and against Russia. (http://en.abna24.com/cultural/archive/2016/03/14/740860/story.html)
So what will Erdogan do? Is the clock ticking on his head a war clock? Does Putin’s diplomatic decision of withdrawal of the “main part of the military group” have some deeper meaning? Perhaps not just a diplomatic move, but a military one? Was this decision the brilliant tactical maneuver of the great strategists in the dawn of imminent unfolding of the greater war?
Russia has shown exceptional mobility and efficiency in her blistering campaign in Syria against ISIL. The entire west, including the USA and other NATO countries, have been captivated by Russia’s masterful actions, prepared for and performed in an unimaginably short period of time and with tremendous competence. But we have to keep in mind that brilliant Russian strategy and achieved results was done with a really moderate size of forces deployed in the ground. While this is the one more factor showing the outstanding capabilities of the Russian military forces, we must not neglect the fact that such relatively small, remotely deployed group is vulnerable and in the war in Syria unfolds with the Turkish/Saudi/GCC coalition against Syria and Russian troops in Syria, combat group would not be able to successfully wage combat operations and significant losses could be expected. So what could Russia do?
There are just a few solutions to this scenario: to push for diplomatic solution / peace talks (which are already on the table), to tactically regroup/withdraw the most vulnerable parts of the combat group, or to use tactical nuclear missiles against the large Turkish/Saudi coalition in order to protect their forces deployed in Syria.
What would a great strategist do, in the case of an eventual clash with a Turkish/ Saudi/ GCC coalition?
One thing for sure, he would order a tactical regrouping, a withdrawal of remote and dispersed units and/or a replacement of them with different types of combat units, the types necessary to wage successful war in changed conditions. Is this what Mr. Putin just did? Is it a tactical move to regroup and concentrate ground troops in the controlled region, where they could instantly be regrouped, relocated or withdrawn?
Two Russian bases—one naval base and one air base are ideal places for such maneuvers.
It is clear that any capable military commander would undertake this: Withdrawal of the main troops from being dispersed on the ground and relocation of same to secured positions or even out of the imminent conflict zones would save such troops, and would provide the necessary time to regroup them for refit or to increase their number and prepare them for blitzkrieg actions. Troops would remain intact upon the first enemy strike, while the naval base and air base would obtain necessary support, and the S-400 system would keep the skies over Syria and most of Turkey closed to any but Russian jets.
So aside from the diplomatic aspect of Putin’s decision to withdraw Russia’s main forces from Syria, there could also be, even more importantly, a military aspect, taken in the dawn of what could be an unfolding greater war in the Middle East.
We could learn the answer soon, sooner than anyone could have imagined.
Erdogan’s clock of war is ticking