With a complete victory achieved over the Islamic State group in Syria, Russia’s military operation in the country is finished, and the focus would switch to a political process. "I have taken a decision: a significant part of the Russian troop contingent located in Syria is returning home to Russia," said Russian President Vladimir Putin on Dec. 11 during his surprise visit to Russia's Khmeimim Air base, near Syria's Latakia province, on the Mediterranean coast. He also warned that should the terrorists try to “rear their heads” in Syria again, Russia will strike them as “they have never seen before.”
Putin also noted that Russia was going to retain its airbase and naval facility in Syria. The Russian president was met by his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu. He was making a Middle East trip, including visits to Egypt and Turkey.
On Dec.6, the Chief of the Russian General Staff declared “there’s no territory controlled by Islamic State,” but only “some spots of resistance” left in Syria. Last month, Syrian President Bashar Assad thanked President Putin for saving his country and for Russia's support in Syria. Russia’s operation allowed the Syrian government to defeat both rebel forces and Islamic State over large parts of the country. The government forces and their allies have taken back all of the country’s major urban areas.
Now the focus is shifting from combat actions to diplomatic efforts to promote peace settlement and nation-building. The UN-brokered Geneva talks appear to be in an impasse. Moscow has always supported the UN-led process but it has never achieved any, even minor, results so far. Under the circumstances, Russia has intensified its diplomatic efforts.
President Putin has suggested holding a Syrian congress in the Russian city of Sochi early in 2018. Kurdish groups and anti-Assad rebel factions are invited. The forum will have a much larger representation than the UN-brokered Geneva talks. The 8th round of Astana talks – an effort led by Russia, Turkey and Iran – is to be held till the end of December. The Astana process has produced the plan to set de-escalation zones in Syria – and it works.
Russia is trying to facilitate the all-inclusive dialogue of different ethnic groups in the region. It is assisting the local tribal leaders in the formation of the Committee for the Management of the Eastern Territories of the Deir ez-Zor Province so they can form a local government that would be responsible for maintaining social order and distributing humanitarian aid.
Moscow has been maintaining contacts with the US and Israel, playing the role of mediator to ease tensions and avoid incidents. The Russian military maintains contacts and coordinates with the Kurds, including those who make up the US-led Syrian democratic Forces (SDF) alliance. The Russian Aerorspace Forces have even provided air cover to the Kurds fighting the Islamic State group in eastern Syria. At Deir ez-Zor, the Russian military backed the Syrian army on the western side of the Euphrates River, and coordinated efforts with the Kurds on the eastern side of the river. Kurdish forces have also expressed readiness to ensure the safety of the Russian military specialists operating on the eastern bank of the Euphrates.
Rezan Gilo, the joint chief of defense in Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava), told Kurdistan 24 that the SDF, which is led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), would consider joining the Syrian army. “There is no problem for our forces to join the Syrian army if a new Syrian constitution is drafted on a federal basis and the rights of all the Syrian components are reserved,” he stated. The Kurds have recently been abandoned by Washington, despite the group’s indispensable support for the SDF. According to US Defense Secretary James Mattis, “The YPG is armed and as the coalition stops operations then obviously you don’t need that, you need security, you need police forces, that is local forces, that is people who make certain that ISIS doesn’t come back.”
When Russia launched the military operation in Syria upon a request of the Syrian government, many predicted that it would get bogged down in the conflict. Two years on, the Russian and Syrian forces won a victory. With very limited forces and assets used as well as negligible losses, Moscow has achieved all of its key goals. No significant numbers of troops on the ground have been deployed. The Russian Air Force group estimated at various periods at 30-50 combat aircraft and 16-40 helicopters. Almost all senior Russian military commanders have been involved in it on a rotational basis to acquire invaluable combat experience.
The military and political situation of the Assad regime, which seemed almost hopeless in the fall of 2015, has radically improved. The Syrian government is now in control of over 90 percent of the country’s territory. The Islamic State group is routed while other radical Islamist groups have been weakened, fragmented and militarily isolated to become insignificant.
The Russian president signaled its intent to shift its diplomatic efforts from the de-escalation of violence to a political settlement of the Syrian conflict. Russia has invested significant diplomatic efforts to revive dialogue among the warring factions in Syria. Now Moscow has become the key broker of a peace deal. Unlike the US, it has military and diplomatic achievements as well as growing political clout. Russia can do what nobody else can – bring peace to the war-torn nation and set an example for other countries plunged in civil wars and armed conflicts. Having returned to the global stage as a major independent geopolitical player, Russia is on the way to become the main security provider in the Middle East.