Andrew J. Tabler, the Martin J. Gross fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a foremost authority on Syrian affairs, briefed the Middle East Forum on a conference call March 29, 2016.
It is not yet clear whether and to what extent the partial drawdown of Russian forces from Syria will affect the course of the Syrian civil war.
Having degraded both the U.S.-backed opposition forces and the main Islamist groups – ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the Russian intervention enabled the Assad regime to regroup and regain some lost territory (most recently the historic town of Palmyra). Yet it failed to propel it toward the political track despite its acceptance (on February 27, 2016) of a U.S.-Russian brokered ceasefire.
By underscoring the transient nature of its military presence in Syria, Moscow thus not only shifts the military onus to Damascus but also seems to indicate the need for political progress. This, however, may prove easier said than done.
For one thing, the gap between Obama’s insistence on Assad’s removal and Putin’s apparent perception of the Damascus regime as the most effective barrier to a jihadist takeover of Syria seems as unbridgeable as ever. For another, the regime’s heightened sense of vulnerability attending the Russian drawdown will likely enhance the influence of Tehran and its Hezbollah proxy, to the evident alarm of Syria’s immediate neighbors – particularly Israel and Jordan. To its north, Turkey faces additional instability, with a rising tide of Kurdish separatism and terror attacks by ISIS – and PKK-affiliated groups.
With ISIS still holding nearly half of Syria’s territory, putting the country back on track will require far more than the timid measures stipulated by the Security Council’s “road map for peace process in Syria” (December 2015). But freezing the conflict to get negotiations going is a tentative first step in the right direction.
Summary account by Marilyn Stern, member Middle East Forum Board of Governors