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30.03.2016 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Russian Withdrawal Means Different Things to Different Actors

60315061450725Recent days have witnessed some serious developments taking place with regard to international efforts at peacefully ending the war in Syria. While Russia’s decision to withdraw bulk of its fighting force from Syria does indicate a strong resolve on its part to clear the way for a negotiated end of the crisis, this decision and the implications thereof have been understood variously by different actors involved in the crisis in one way or the other. For some, it is a step towards final resolution of the war; for others, it might lead to proliferation of the fighting groups as they might see in it a chance to revive their weak position. Notwithstanding what different actors see in this decision, it was quite clear from the beginning that this decision was going to lead to some significant developments immediately that could leave crucial impact on the possible outcome of the crisis out of the on-going peace talks.

One of the most important developments that have taken place in this context is Kurdish ‘federal declaration.’ Given the fact that Kurds have been excluded from the peace-talks, the declaration can very well be understood as an expression of the objectives they are aiming at achieving by taking an ‘independent position.’ Despite the fact that both Syrian Government and Syria’s main ‘opposition’ group have rejected the move, even a hypothetical existence of a semi-independent Kurdish area in northern Syria could lead Arab states to push for an identical semi-independent Sunni region in eastern Syria.

Such a step would only put the peace-process under cloud once again. This is important due to the fact that the U.S. President is fast losing his influence over his Arab allies as the time for presidential elections approaches in the U.S. As such, Kurdish declaration might tempt both Turkey and Saudi Arabia to kick start the so-called plan B to invade Syria and carve out a zone for the passage of Qatar-Turkey-Saudi Arabia gas pipe project— a project that is said to have triggered the conflict in Syria in the first place.

While Kurds have made this declaration and Turkey and Saudi Arabia are trying to understand Russia’s ‘true intentions’ behind this withdrawal, what is critical for Syria’s safe future is the way Russia and Iran negotiate their own conduct. While Syria is already on-board, Iran has also maintained its ‘cool’ over the withdrawal.

The secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, said in an interview with state television that Tehran and Moscow have not halted their military advisory roles in Syria. “Russia’s decision to withdraw some of its forces from Syria was coordinated and preplanned. It didn’t come as a surprise at all,” Shamkhani said.

Similarly, Iranian foreign minister’s response was, unlike Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Western media, least rooted in trying to read a “political meaning” into it. On the whole, for Iran as well as for Russia, this withdrawal does not mean an end of military and diplomatic support to Syria. Apart from the fact Russian would still be maintaining some military presence in Syria, Tehran also did well to use the visit of Syria’s deputy foreign minister Faisal al-Mekdad to voice its continued strong support for Assad. This was also articulated by the speaker of the Majlis Ali Larijani and the supreme leader’s advisor on foreign affairs Ali Akbar Velayati while receiving Mekdad.

Velayati hailed the united front involving Iran, Syria, Iraq and the Hezbollah and added that Russian operations “transformed the conditions to the benefit of the resistance front.” Velayati added, the “Syrian government survived unscathed from a small world war which sought to destroy the backbone of resistance in the region.”

For Iran, this withdrawal certainly does not mean an end of the war. Notwithstanding the on-going talks in Geneva, Iran is still preparing to deploy its snipers in Iraq and Syria in “advisory capacity.” However, regardless of the apparent Iranian cool on the Russian decision, it is apparent to Tehran that Russia does want to settle the crisis in Syria ahead of the up-coming elections in the U.S. and that it wants to settle the crisis in a way that could put it on an advantageous position vis-à-vis the U.S. and its European allies—a position that Russia could use to remove Western sanctions.

While Russia may be trying to diplomatically out-manoeuvre its Western peers, Iran may find itself forced into increasing its military presence in Syria if Turkey and Saudi Arabia try to implement, or even play with words to implement the so-called plan B. This is where Iran-Russia relations become somewhat complex as far as their position and the outcome they want to achieve are concerned. Were Russia and the U.S. to reach an agreement on Syria, leading to the arrival of the U.N. peacekeeping missions in Syria, Iran may find it difficult to withdraw its forces which it is, at the moment, trying to increase as mentioned above.

On the other hand, an increased Iranian military presence in Syria would certainly run counter to a number of regional countries, especially Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel. While Turkey is trying to revamp its relations with Iran, both Saudi Arabia and Israel have, during the course of the crisis in Syria and in the wake of Russian military campaign, maintained somewhat balanced position as far as their bi-lateral relations with Russia are concerned. It is not to suggest that Russia would accommodate their interests at the expense of its relations with Iran. We cannot disregard that Saudi Arabia and Israel’s manouvers would most certainly shape Iran’s own position, leading to possible fraction between Iran and Russia at some point. Russia, therefore, has to tread the path carefully to maintain its own balance.

The situation is, therefore, tricky and is likely to become clear for all the concerned actors as talks in Geneva progress. However, what is reasonably evident here is that Russia’s decision to withdraw from Syria has certainly forced all the concerned actors into re-evaluating their erstwhile positions on Syria—hence, differing positions on this withdrawal. Will be this be remembered as a great diplomatic success of Russia? We shall know soon enough. However, it is interestingly evident that this withdrawal has certainly once again stamped Russia’s own resurgence as a global actor, capable of playing decisive roles in conflict and conflict-resolution.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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