The sudden partial Russian withdrawal of forces from Syria came as a surprise. Whatever caused Pres. Putin to decide to do this, it was not predicted by any other player. The best guess, as suggested by my favorite expert Jonathan Spyer of the Rubin Center, IDC, in an interview on IBA News, is that Putin decided that his client Pres. Assad of Syria was no longer in imminent danger of being defeated by the coalition of opposing forces, including the democratic opposition, the Kurds and the Islamists. Having rescued Assad, and since Russia is in financial straits, the cost of the aerial campaign probably means a good saving for Putin. He has established his credibility as a player on the international stage, despite opposition from the US. And the withdrawal takes off the pressure of international and US opprobrium for his intervention.
Spyer also pointed out that Iran has withdrawn significant elements of its Revolutionary Guard (IRG) that had units in Syria advising Hizbollah and the Syrian Army. Perhaps the reasons for Iran’s partial withdrawal are similar to those of Putin. But, these withdrawals also hint at another aspect of the conflict. It may be that they are withdrawing partial support for Assad. They are in effect saying, we helped you buddy, but that’s it. We stopped you from being defeated, but we can’t do any more for you. You’re on you own now. Which means in real terms that they may be withdrawing their support from Assad as the continuing dictator of Syria.
This is the main point of contention between the regime and the insurgency, namely the role of Assad in the future of Syria. The opposition is adamant that Assad can play no role and must go and they are supported in this by the US and the western allies. Perhaps a behind-the-scenes deal has been made, namely that the US will not oppose the future presence of Russia in its base in Latakia, if Russia does not stand in the way of the removal of Assad. This is a long shot, but could be the case. The ceasefire in Syria is continuing (excluding the Islamists) and the talks are still going on in Geneva, but there will be no progress towards a future for Syria until Assad can be replaced. As the war in Syria enters its fifth year this may be a small modicum of hope.