Russia’s military buildup near Aleppo indicates that it is too early to make conclusions about the implications of the Russian campaign in Syria.  The campaign is not over, which might be both a boon and a bane for the Kremlin, experts warn.

Children peer from a partially destroyed home in Aleppo, Syria. Photo: AP

Although the Kremlin announced its military withdrawal from Syria and cut the Syria ceasefire deal with the U.S., Russia has recently moved its heavy artillery into positions near northern Syria’s Aleppo, according to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Russia’s military buildup might put the U.S.-Russia Syrian ceasefire agreement in jeopardy, Kerry believes. He was not certain if Russian President Vladimir Putin was sincere in one of his stated goals for the buildup — combating terrorism.

“We are not going to sit there and let him do his thing supporting the regime and hammer at the opposition and say, ‘This is working,’” Kerry told The New York Times. “Obviously, we’re not stupid about it.”

U.S. diplomats remain suspicious toward the Kremlin’s declared goals in Syria. To follow their logic, Putin might have launched the military campaign in Syria to shore up the power of his essential regional ally — Syrian President Bashar Assad. And they have many reasons to question what Putin says because of their previous experience of dealing with Russia and Putin’s unexpected moves in the Middle East.

Russia’s Syrian campaign does not seem to be over. That may be the reason why some Russian experts are very hesitant about making conclusions about the Kremlin’s Syria gambit.  For example, Carnegie Moscow Center Direct Dmitri Trenin argues “it is premature to draw lessons from Russia’s involvement in Syria, which is continuing and may yet turn out to be either a brilliant success or a dismal failure.”

Recemmended: "Three lessons from the Kremlin's decision to withdraw from Syria"

“For Russia, the Syria operation is a down payment on future engagements,” he wrote in a recent column. “In the next five years, Moscow should expect more emergencies where force may have to be used.”

Trenin’s colleague Alexei Arbatov, the head of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Nonproliferation Program, is raising eyebrows at the Kremlin’s Syrian gambit. Even though the Russian President announced Russia’s withdrawal from Syria, it is not really clear what he meant, because Russia’s troops are still present in Syria, Arbatov argues.

“The only confusing thing is that the authorities don’t clearly account for their actions. What does the end of the Syrian military operation really mean for them? Does it mean that they stop bombing? No, they don’t. How could it be possible if the Syrian army keeps advancing and there is a need to bomb terrorists,” said Arbatov in an interview with Russia Direct, while paying tribute to the Kremlin’s achievements in Syria, including the liberation of the ancient city of Palmyra and the salvation of Assad's army.

“Does it mean that they withdrew a certain part of thier aviation? Yes, but the withdrawal of jets is not the end of the operation,” Arbatov goes on. “So, they are always vague in their statements, and this makes it very difficult to understand [their intentions and plans]. ”

Meanwhile, Maxim Suchkov, associate professor at Pyatigorsk State Linguistic University, argues, “The Russians are not fully withdrawing [from Syria].”

“Besides the military stationed in Syria there are capabilities that allow Moscow to increase its force dramatically within a relatively short period of time,” he told Russia Direct. “In other words, Russia will be able to continue to project its power – military and political alike. This might be a confidence booster for some and a potential deterrent for others.”

Russia’s departure from Syria: A part of publicity campaign

Meanwhile, Arbatov sees Russia’s partial departure from Syria as part of a publicity campaign to satisfy the demands of the Syrian opposition, which also suffered from the Russian airstrikes. In addition, Russia was under international pressure because its bombings — ostensibly targeting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) — killed a great number of civilians. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) monitoring group, as a result of almost six months of Russian airstrikes, 5081 were killed, with 40 percent of them civilians.

At the same time, the U.S. admitted the successes of the Russian Syrian campaign. On Mar. 29, the Pentagon’s official representatives recognized the Kremlin’s contribution to the Syrian ceasefire agreement and expressed hopes that Moscow would use its “clout” on Assad as leverage to resolve the Syrian problem.

“We would hope that they [Russia] would use that leverage on [Assad] in as constructive a fashion as possible.  And we would encourage them to do so,” Cook said. Likewise, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia and Stanford Professor Michael McFaul expressed his gratitude to Russia in response to the Russian Embassy’s Twitter announcement on the complete liberation of Palmyra from ISIS terrorists.   

“What can be seen as a success is that Moscow secured its standing as a strong-hand power-broker in the Middle East,” Suchkov said. “It also acquired some well-known military and geopolitical assets. Moreover, Russia showcased its military might, sending signals to those who might have been tempted to put it to the test.”

Nevertheless, the results of the first part of the Russian airstrikes in Syria remain controversial not only because they caused the large death toll among Syrian moderate opposition and civilians, but also because Russia itself suffered some casualties, including Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet that totally spoiled relations between Ankara and Moscow.

Moreover, the crash of the Russian passenger plane in Egypt might be a sort of collateral damage from Putin’s Syrian gambit or, as some would argue, his attempt to be a more important geopolitical stakeholder in the Middle East. After all, ISIS claimed responsibility for the plane crash over Sinai shortly after the Kremlin launched its campaign. All this might indicate that Putin’s achievements are nothing but exaggeration for the sake of publicity both within Russia and outside of it.  

Failures and achievements

Although Russia reached its goals in Syria, it also faced some problems, including the deterioration of relations with Turkey, said Alexei Fenenko, an associate professor at the Faculty of World Politics of Lomonosov Moscow State University. And it still remains to be seen what the implications from the Kremlin’s Syrian operation will be for Russia and the world.    

Likewise, Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow and director of research at Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy Department, is hesitant to make certain conclusions about the implications of Russia's Syria campaign.

“With luck, we will soon be able to negotiate an arrangement backed up by an international peacekeeping force, with autonomous zones joined by a new and fairly weak central government,” he told Russia Direct. “If that outcome is achieved, Russia's role will not have been harmful and will not be in severe conflict with my own country's. Then we can work together more against ISIS.”

“However, this strategy requires America and its partners to strengthen our own allies in the war (the moderate insurgents) just as Russia has strengthened its proxy (Assad), and so we will have to navigate that delicate phase of the conflict together without coming to direct cross-purposes with Russia in the process,” O’Hanlon added.

Meanwhile, Suchkov argues that Russia’s intervention in Syria fostered the negotiations between Russia and the U.S. The ceasefire brokered by Moscow and Washington became possible in large part due to the strikes, which seriously dismantled the infrastructure of ISIS, he told Russia Direct.  At the same time, Suchkov, like his Russian and American counterparts, argues that it is too early “to speak about long-term consequences now that we have such a busy agenda,” given the ongoing fight against ISIS and terrorism in general.

“The Russian campaign as well as Putin’s decision to stop the strikes leave the impression that other possible scenarios could have turned out a lot uglier for Syria, the Middle East and the Russians themselves,” he warns. “It’s my hope that it helps open up a new – hopefully final – chapter in Syria's five-year civil war.”