Russia's withdrawal from Syria only furthers region's unpredictability


By Alex Cocanig

The Syrian civil war has made world news headlines over the last few months. The conflict itself has been ongoing since 2011 as a result of the Arab Spring movement and recently ended war in Iraq that have factionalized various ideological groups in the region, creating a violent mess that has devastated the country.

But last month, major actors such as the Syrian government, the United States and Russia agreed to a cessation of hostilities. This is a broad term though. Given the other hostile forces involved in the conflict, namely ISIS, Al Qaeda and other informal rebel groups known for violence and brutality, the ideological web of fighting doesn’t seem possible to untangle, even with the cessation agreement.

But, in a surprising and seemingly spontaneous move, Russia announced its plans to withdraw its main military forces from Syria on March 14; a serious development in the ongoing conflict. This action is significant because Russia provides most of the military support to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and the Syrian government forces, which are actively engaged in fighting the rebel groups and ISIS.

United States officials allegedly had no prior indication of Russia’s withdrawal, with White House spokesman Josh Earnest saying, “We will have to see exactly what Russia’s intentions are.”

Though this seems like a simple lack of communication, the situation symbolizes a much larger disengagement in international relations that likely contributes to the very problem we desire to fix, and is an extension of the mismatched foreign policy goals of the actors involved.

If we break down the Syrian conflict even further, we can see juxtaposed positions between the United States and Russia.

The United States strongly opposes Assad’s Syrian Government and has contributed arms and training to the rebel groups fighting against it. Assad’s authoritarian use of violence in the form of chemical weapons upon his own people has been among many reasons the United States and a coalition of other countries support his removal from power.

The United States also has an equally, if not more important, stake in the conflict, in the form of radical Islamic groups, namely ISIS. ISIS controls vast amounts of territory in the south-central region of Syria where it imposes strict Sharia law and militant enforcement of fundamental Islam, plus the occasional planned attack on the Western world that renews our interest in the region from time to time. The United States has been using airstrikes to combat ISIS without engaging in a boots-on-the-ground mission.

On the contrary, Russia has a very different set of goals in Syria. They want to empower Assad and the Syrian government so it can fight off any rebel groups that pose a threat to Assad’s authority. These are the same aforementioned rebel groups that America has supported in trying to overthrow Assad’s regime.

Upon withdrawal, Putin stated that Russia’s mission in the conflict was completed successfully and that its main military force would be returning home. A report from the BBC cited over 400 settlements overtaken by Russian-aided Syrian troops, over 3,800 square miles of retaken territory and over 209 oil production facilities from hostile rebel groups.

Looking forward, the messy Syrian conflict seems to be heading in a better direction, but that depends on from whose perspective you see it. From the United States’ perspective, less Russian support of Assad will weaken his regime and ideally result in its demise. But at the same time, if Assad’s authority crumbles, it is possible that other extremist factions like ISIS or Al Qaeda will gain even more power than they already have, creating a much larger transnational problem.

For Putin and the Russians, a stronger Assad is necessary for a stable and rebel-free Syria. The United States cannot come to terms with Assad’s regime on account of human rights violations and his authoritative government. America will likely continue funding the informal rebel groups working to remove him from power, while at the same time bombing terrorist groups for our own domestic interest.

The Syrian civil war has become an international proxy conflict. The recent withdrawal of Russian military forces only adds to the unpredictability of the course of events. It is impossible to say what will happen next, but we can only hope for some kind of peace.

Alex is a senior in LAS.

[email protected]