Putin’s statement on Syria’s temporary army presence contradicts reality: experts
Enab Baladi – Baraa Khattab
Russian President Vladimir Putin said that his country’s presence in Syria is temporary and will continue as long as it is beneficial for Russia.
During a televised interview on December 14, 2023, reported by Russian media outlets, Putin stated that Russian military forces are in Syria to secure Russia’s interests in this vital region of the world, which is very close to Russia.
The Russian President indicated that his country does not currently plan to withdraw these military units from Syria, according to the Russian TASS news agency.
He also mentioned that the Russian deployment sites in Syria are called “points” rather than “bases,” emphasizing that Moscow does not establish long-term structures there.
Putin added that Russia can withdraw all its military personnel from Syria with “sufficient speed” and without any material losses if necessary.
Since mid-last year, there have been talks about Moscow’s intention to reduce its forces in Syria, estimated to be more than 60,000 troops, half of whom are officers. Such a number was estimated by The Moscow Times, which is the website of a newspaper that was published periodically every three months.
This reduction was initially justified by Russia’s focus on military operations in Ukraine in exchange for handing over some points and military centers used by Russia to Iranian forces and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia.
The partial Russian withdrawal from southern Syria has created a vacuum, allowing pro-Iranian militias to penetrate the area, with some of them actively involved in drug smuggling operations facilitated by the Syrian regime to neighboring countries.
In carrying out its military missions, Russia relies to a large extent on deception, and it also relies on it as a weapon equivalent to any physical weapon it uses in battle, Rashid Hourani, a research fellow at the Jusoor for Studies Center, told Enab Baladi.
The think tank fellow explained that Russia had previously announced more than once its military arrangements in Syria since its intervention in late 2015 until today.
Russia announced the withdrawal of its forces more than once, but without that becoming a reality on the ground.
Rachid Hourani, A research fellow at Jusoor Center for Studies
There is nothing, in the short or long term, that would force Russia to withdraw its forces from Syria, especially since the regime’s forces since the 1950s have relied for their armament on the Soviet Union, and after it the Russian Federation, the heir to the Soviet Union, according to Hourani.
No logic in a “Temporary military presence”
The expert on Russian affairs, Raed Jabr, believes that Russia plans to stay forever. “All Russian military and political circles are talking about a permanent and strong presence of Russia in Syria” unless major circumstances occur and Russia is exposed to confrontation, which the expert ruled out at the present time. It also plans to further enhance its presence during the next phase.
If a settlement is reached regarding the Syrian issue, one of Russia’s conditions will be about the nature of the regime’s future relationship with the Russian military presence, Jabr told Enab Baladi.
The expert added that the Russian military bases in Syria are no longer related to the Syrian issue alone but rather to Russia’s Middle Eastern policy with its movements in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.
Therefore, this presence must be treated as a strategic element of Russia’s foreign movements, which was clear in the Russian naval doctrine which was approved this year.
Hourani, of Jusoor Studies Center, told Enab Baladi that Putin’s statement about the “temporary” presence of Russian military bases in Syria is illogical compared to what is happening on the ground, and its adherence to the Syrian regime’s military decision in terms of making the decision to wage a battle or not.
Hourani said that although Russia has reduced its presence in Syria as a result of its war in Ukraine, it still maintains the same influence and control over the Syrian regime in terms of changes affecting the regime’s army, especially in recent times, such as summoning university officers and establishing security companies.
On December 11, the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, issued a legal amendment stipulating that officers with university degrees who were referred for retirement be summoned to reserve service.
Law No. 28 of 2023 stipulates that officers who hold a university degree, doctorate, master’s, or university degree and who are retired are summoned to reserve service, according to the need of the “Armed Forces” and the proposal of the Officers Committee, for another period, year after year, until they reach the age of 70, “without being bound by the age specified for delisting in this law.”
According to a report by Rachid Hourani published by the Jusoor Studies Center, Law No. 28 falls within a package of laws issued by the regime recently, which indicate more structural changes in the Syrian regime forces, and Russia is mostly behind them, as the decisions and laws that are announced do not show the transformations on the ground.
Hourani added that Russia wants retired university officers to benefit from their experience in missions inside and perhaps outside Syria in a way that serves the field changes taking place in the military sector, which include the mechanisms of dissolution and integration.
The category of university officers constitutes a small percentage of the total number of officers working in the regime forces, but they are important for Russia, as the largest percentage of them graduated from Russian military academies in various specializations, and these can be added to the new soldiers joining the regime forces who have undergone courses under the supervision of military police officers and specialized trainers from Russian army officers.
“To accomplish missions”
The Russian intervention in Syria has been a radical turning point in the course of field events, as the Syrian regime managed to reclaim large areas on the map since the first Russian airstrike in Syria on September 30, 2015, including through Russian-Turkish agreements and others in which Russia played a pivotal role with Jordan, Israel, and even the United States.
During the military intervention, the Russian Air Force launched more than 100,000 combat sorties in the skies of Syria, according to a statement by Yevgeny Nikiforov, the Commander of the Russian Air Forces sent to Syria, on the sidelines of a celebration for the Russian forces at the Hmeimim air base in the coastal Latakia region, on August 12. 2021, on the occasion of the 109th anniversary of Russian Combat Aviation Day.
Russia supervised direct negotiations between opposition fighters and regime forces in northern, central, and southern Syria, which ended with part of the opposition factions joining the Russian-backed Fifth Corps, others handing over their weapons, and displacing the refuseniks toward opposition-held areas in northwestern Syria.
Hourani said that the Russian presence brought Syria into bargaining between the parties involved in the Syrian arena, and its presence in Syria was used as a card to serve its interests and achieve its “geopolitical” goal, which is something that satisfies the regime as long as it achieves its survival in power.
Given his competition with the West, Putin is strengthening his presence in Syria to compete with the West from the gate of the Mediterranean.
Hourani believes that Putin’s statement may be a hint to the West that it is ready to negotiate in light of the difficulty its forces are suffering in Ukraine regarding the principle of presenting and agreeing on all files.
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