March 3-17, 2016 – by Hugo Spaulding, Franklin Holcomb, (ISW)

President Vladimir Putin presented Russia’s active military campaign in Syria as complete with the announced withdrawal of the “main part” of the Russian air group beginning March 15. The reported withdrawal of roughly 15 Russian bombers and close-support aircraft, however, represents a drawdown rather than Russia’s extrication from the Syrian Civil War, the intended message behind Putin’s announcement. The withdrawal of idle strike aircraft from Syria does not inhibit the continuation of Russia’s air campaign, which had already been reduced following the February start of the U.S. and Russian-backed cessation of hostilities. As Putin himself later admitted, the withdrawal also does not preclude the rapid redeployment of aircraft and the escalation of airstrikes.

Russia’s Latakia Province airbase remains operational, retaining a fleet of around 20 bombers, close-support aircraft, and fighter jets, including advanced Su-35s, in addition to the S-400 long-range surface-to-air missile system. Accordingly, Russia has preserved its capability to defend its strategic foothold on the Eastern Mediterranean, project force against NATO’s southern flank, and target the Syrian armed opposition. Putin declared that Russia had achieved its primary objectives in Syria by ‘reversing’ the fight against terrorism and setting the conditions for peace talks, likely in order to message the West that the drawdown marked a phase change in the Russian intervention. Putin claimed that the remaining Russian military contingent in Syria would only act to enforce the cessation of hostilities in order to obfuscate Russia’s continued role as the guarantor of its client regime’s security and add a new veneer of legitimacy to Russian claims of targeting only terrorist groups. Russian officials have subsequently confirmed that Russia’s remaining bombers in Syria will continue striking ‘terrorists,’ a label they have frequently applied to the Syrian armed opposition. While resumed airstrikes on the opposition would erode Russia’s narrative, Putin has already asserted Russia as a rival great power security broker to the U.S. in the Middle East.

Russia has also repostured in order to redirect Western attention towards Turkey as a destabilizing force in Syria. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused Turkish troops of “digging in” inside the Syrian border and pursuing a “creeping expansion” in Syria. Lavrov called on the international community on March 16 to take a strong response to Turkish shelling of Kurdish positions in northern Syria, which he said was undermining the cessation of hostilities, the delivery of humanitarian aid, and the start of the Syrian political settlement process. Much as it deflects Western criticism for its continued military actions in eastern Ukraine onto Kyiv, Russia seeks to present Turkey as an obstacle to a peaceful settlement of the Syrian Civil War. Russia’s persistent antagonization of Turkey is nested within its grand strategic objective of straining ties within NATO and its theater objective of isolating the Syrian armed opposition from its foreign backers. Russian hostility towards Turkey has driven Ankara to pursue a strategic partnership with Kyiv that may seek to counterbalance Russia’s expanding capabilities in the Black Sea. Turkey’s growing security cooperation with Ukraine runs in parallel with Russian efforts to build cross-border ties with Kurdish groups as a means to pressure Ankara.