During Russia’s much publicized drawdown from Syria in mid-March (see Video below) Maria Dubovikova argued in Al Arabiya that Russia was “withdrawing [from Syria] in order to stay”. The apparent contradiction in that witty formulation echoes what a US officer told AP’s Peter Arnett concerning the destruction of Bến Tre, the capital city of Bến Tre Province, in the Mekong Delta area of southern Vietnam, in 1968, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it” (Ralph Keyes, “The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When“, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2006, p. 43).
From the get-go the Russians have taken clear steps not to end up embroiled in the complex conflict in Syria. Setting-up base in Syria’s west in late September 2015, they proceeded to rely heavily on air power to target and bombard Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents to enable his forces on the ground to advance on various battlefronts. In the short-term they bolstered and shored up their Syrian ally and gave him a stronger position from which to negotiate an end to that five-year-old conflict. In the long-term, however, they may well have to remain to secure and lock-in these successes.
Six weeks after the so-called “draw-down” began, it’s clear that Russia has withdrawn the bulk of its Su-25 and Su-34 strike aircraft, likely for some much needed maintenance. In their place the Russians are relying more on helicopter gunships and artillery to give close air support to the Syrian military and its allied militias. A small ground contingent of special forces also remains and helped coordinate the successful campaign against ISIS in the ancient city of Palmyra late last month.
All of this may be indicative of a much more protracted long-term Russian involvement in the Syrian conflict, especially if a political solution is not reached and the Kremlin risks seeing the tide turn against Assad once again (just as it had done up to the point of the Russian intervention when Assad was on the defensive in multiple fronts) in the near future, if they completely withdraw their forces, which could in turn see all their recent battlefield gains rendered worthless in the long-term.
So the Russians remain to ensure their recent gains are not reversed. Russian gunships are still operating in Syria and Moscow has said it will support future Syrian operations, be they in Aleppo or Raqqa.
Similarly since the Americans returned to Iraq following Islamic States’ blitz across that country’s north in the summer of 2014, they have found themselves becoming more and more directly involved. While US President Barack Obama repeatedly pledged that there would be no “boots on the ground” in neither Iraq nor Syria increasing numbers of advisors and trainers have been deployed to Iraq along with special forces. Delta Force has been deployed and is ready to carry out raids against ISIS positions in either Iraq or Syria.
Just this week Obama said another 250 special forces personnel will be deployed to Syria to advise and assist the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — America’s only real ground ally in Syria against ISIS — in addition to the other 50 special forces soldiers already there. Furthermore it was revealed last month that the US Marine Corps has established an artillery firebase manned by 200 Marines on the Makhmour front against ISIS. While that ground contingent is there solely in order to provide heavy supporting fire to Iraqi and Kurdish military forces battling ISIS the deployment is nevertheless noteworthy and indicates that the US is incrementally becoming more involved in what is an increasingly protracted war against ISIS.
Also Apache helicopter gunships are set to enter the fray to give the Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces more direct close air support in the upcoming offensive into Mosul. But even if Mosul is liberated within the next year or so the US may find itself remaining nevertheless to ensure that the area is substantially stabilised to ensure that ISIS isn’t soon replaced by yet another Sunni Islamist group.
Both these recent interventions share many characteristics: They both aim to spearhead the advances of established central authorities against armed militants by playing a supporting role, albeit supporting roles which have exponentially grown over time. Their efforts may well prove to be just a vain attempt to avoid inevitably becoming embroiled in the deep morasses that are modern day fractured states of Iraq and Syria.