A deep rift with Tehran over the continuation of the Syrian war and an irreconcilable spat with Syrian ruler Bashar Assad over his future prompted Russian President Vladimir’s shock order Monday, March 14, for the “main part” of Russian military forces to quit Syria the next morning. This is reported by debkafile’s military and intelligence sources.
The final limits of the military withdrawal, five months after the Moscow embarked on its intervention, were not defined. But the Kremlin did say that Moscow would retain a military presence at the naval port of Tartous and the Hmeymim airbase outside Latakia. This left the bulk of Russian military aerial and naval presence in situ; Putin is unlikely to give up this strong foothold in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The Russian president did not fix a timeline for the military withdrawal – only its start. Neither did he promise to discontinue all military operations in Syria.
He did say only that “The task put before the defense ministry and Russian armed forces has on the whole been fulfilled” and he spoke of a “fundamental turnaround in the fight against international terrorism.”
A sign of where Moscow as heading now was disclosed by his order to the Russian foreign Minister to “Intensify our participation in a peaceful solution of the Syrian conflict”
This was a reference to the UN-brokered talks resuming in Geneva Tuesday, March 15, between the warring sides of the Syrian conflict.
debkafile’s intelligence circles noted that, after Putin’s bolt from the blue, Russian warships in the Caspian and Mediterranean Seas remain ready to interfere in the fighting from a distance, if the Assad regime’s situation deteriorates. They saw an omen of Moscow’s impending military exit in last month’s massive delivery to the Syrian army of advanced T-90 tanks and heavy self-propelled artillery.
Western sources viewed the shipments as further Russian investment in high-stakes Syrian military victories in the battles for Aleppo in the north and Deraa in the south.
But this assumption was negated by the Kremlin announcement Monday. The tanks and artillery were, in fact, provided to enable Syria and its Iranian ally to carry on fighting without Russian support.
The rift between Moscow and Tehran over the Syrian war came to a head on Feb. 19 during Iranian Defense Minister Gen. Hossein Dehghan’s visit to Moscow. The Iranian minister presented his government’s demand for Russia to back away from its deal with the US for a Syrian ceasefire.
Tehran wants the war to continue without pause. After walking hand in hand with Moscow in the Syrian arena for a time, the Iranians were aghast to find Putin turning aside and entering into collaboration with the Obama administration for an end to hostilities and a political solution to the conflict.
As for Assad, he has no intention of playing along with Putin’s plans for him to step down and hand over rule in Damascus in stages. Assad does not mean to quit at any time.
The Russian president may have acted now because he was simply fed up with the interminable bickering with his two allies, which was going nowhere except for the continuation of the calamitous five-year war. He therefore presented them with a tough fait accompli. If you want to carry on fighting, fine; but count the Russian army out of it.