ANALYSIS | The Russian Retreat from Syria – Drawdown or Drawn Out?
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ANALYSIS | The Russian Retreat from Syria – Drawdown or Drawn Out?

By Phillip Dennis BA (Hons)

ANALYSIS | The Russian Retreat from Syria – Drawdown or Drawn Out?

The surprise announcement by the Russian Federation to withdraw its military forces from within the Syrian Arab Republic does little to change any dimension in the relationship between the Russian President (Mr Putin) and the Syrian leader (Bashar Al Assad).  The withdrawal, as suggested, is of course a partial withdrawal and not the full military drawdown the public have been led to believe. Military forces are set to remain in key strategic areas such as:  the naval base in Tartus and the air base in Khmeimim.    Perhaps more importantly was an announcement made On March 23rd 2016 by a commander of the Russian contingent in Syria (Aleksandra Dvornikov) who clarified Russian special forces were indeed operating in Syria.

On March 23rd REF/L quoted Aleksandra Dvornikov and further stated; 

“President Vladimir Putin last week ordered a pullout of some Russian warplanes from Syria, but said that strikes against the Islamic State (IS) group and the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front will continue.”   

(Source RFE/R, 2016)

So is it really a question of retreating out of Syria, or a matter of being able to stay there unseen, in a long drawn out occupation while the conditions of the Geneva communiqué and peace plan further develop?

Russian Special Forces in Syria

On the surface it would appear that the Russian Federation has changed its role as military occupier to a more subtle peacekeeping insurgent by downsizing its military hardware and claiming that the operation has made significant differences in the fight against terrorist organisations.  However, one could argue, that the inclusion of special forces and remaining strategic military hardware merely endorses the relationship between President Putin and President Assad.   A recent article published by Dmitry Gorenburg and Michael Kofma suggested there is no Russian withdrawal and Russian special forces will still play a major role in Syria,  to the extent that Russian military will continue to support the Syrian army in regaining control. Moreover, existing military equipment is being replaced by more compact and advanced equipment, e.g., Ka-52 and Mi-28N helicopters, with the capability to support the Assad forces in combat. (Gorenburg D & Kofman M, 2016)

However, Professor Mark Galiotti of New York University, a distinguished expert in the field of Russian affairs, also published an article in March 2016 which explained the role special forces are playing in Syria: in particular the Russian Spetsnaz. 

In his article, “ The Three Faces of Russian Spetsnaz in Syria”,  professor Galiotti outlines the most important factor in the sudden Russian retreat.“To minimise its exposure in this messy bloody war.” (Galiotti, M, 2016)

The article states; 

“As the Russian drawdown from Syria continues, more information continues to emerge about the forces Moscow had committed to shoring up the Assad regime. One telling aspect is how involved Russia’s Spetsnaz special forces were in the deployment. They were involved in two of their three core missions — reconnaissance and special security missions — but not the third, direct combat operations. The implication is that from the outset of the deployment, Moscow planned to minimize its exposure in this messy and bloody war.”  

(Galiotti, M, 2016)

The Hybrid Force in Syria

The Russian special force Spetsnaz is one of several forces operating in Syria.  In 2013 Spetsnaz was handed to the control of the Russian Intelligence Service the Glavnoye Razvedyvatel'noye Upravleniye (main intelligence service) or GRU.  The reformed Spetsnaz GRU operate in four key fields of expertise; special reconnaissance, direct action, assassination and sabotage.  

Combined with their counterparts; the KGB, MVD for internal affairs, and special operations command (often referred to as the KSO) they form a potent hybrid force not only in the field of combat but also in the field of intelligence, with a network of experts, computer systems, imint, sigint, mathematics and science.

On Jan 13th 2016 The Russian Defence Policy published a list of candidates to replace the late GRU Chief General-Colonel Igor Sergun. The successor, it was a announced, will be one of the military intelligence directorate’s current deputy chiefs:  Vyacheslav Kondrashov, Sergey Gizunov, Igor Lelin, or Igor Korobov.

The intelligence directorate continued to write: 

“Ten days ago an ukaz indicating President Putin’s choice was expected “soon,” but no sign of it yet........Kommersant’s Ivan Safronov made the point that the GRU has been busy because of Russia’s operation in Syria.  Its IMINT and SIGINT systems, not to mention its human agent networks, have been working overtime to support Russian military and political decision makers.” 

(Source :The Russian Policy 2016)  

Such a statement directly connects the hybrid forces to the decision making process and activities within the Syrian Arab Republic.  Forces which are, without doubt, less visible than the existing military hardware employed by Russia in an effort to tackle the Islamic State, Al Jabhat Al Nusra, and the Al Qaeda networks. 

Concerns to the Peace Process

Arguably, the existence of remaining Russian forces in Syria raises questions to the aspects of democratic transition.  The Geneva communiqué map a direction for political change in Syria by way of the Syrian population.  Any change of government must therefore come in the form of legitimate democracy. However, Russian Spetsnaz and other forces, as pointed out by professor Galiotti, have been installed in Damascus for the purpose of contingency to any government collapse. (Galiotti, M, 2016)   In this instance it is clear that the Russian Federation have a distinct intention to protect and support the existing regime. 

It is possible, therefore, that the GRU in Syria would be an established un-seen presence, and, with the KSO forces operating, it may be a concern for elements of the peace plan at the local level if they disrupt local groups who oppose Assad. Especially given its implementation is based on stability to encourage an election and formally decide the tenure of the Syrian leader.  


The motive behind the sudden announcement of the Russian Federation to withdraw from Syria is clear. It is without doubt a scale down rather than a withdrawal, with the potential to re-install full military operations at any given time.   What is also clear is the intention for some form of force to remain, including established hybrid forces with the capability to conduct less visible operations. 

The Geneva agreement does clearly state a desire for no external intervention in the Syrian crisis, and the Russian drawdown could arguably be directed at  placing them at a better stand point  for international negotiation of the transition process. The same, it could be said, applies to the Syrian president.  With the installation of special GRU forces in Damascus, self preservation is a growing but transparent mandate for Bashar Al Assad, with strong backing from his Russian supporters.
What appears to be a Russian drawdown for the benefit of the peace process, could  turn out to be a long drawn out tactic with the Assad-Putin bond over-riding issues in an effort to maintain a status quo for the existing regime.

 A situation which will require careful monitoring as events unfold.    

About The Author:

Phillip Paul Dennis (C-1610-2016) is an inspector, combining academic and office skills with practical work based skills which enabled him to attain First Article Inspector status. 
Formally educated at Portsmouth University, reading geography and geographical science, he graduated with honour, and successfully completed an independent research dissertation in geopolitics by conducting a geographical enquiry into the social contract theory and the development of nation-states.  In 2010 he achieved a UK-TEFL Cert at Cambridge UK, and was previously awarded distinction by the London City and Guilds Institute for computer aided engineering in 1992.

In 2013 he was part of the university alumni networking group, attending events & functions, and has represented geography & geographical science as a delegate for a reception evening at the House of Lords, in Westminster, London. 

Cite This Article:

Dennis, P.P. "ANALYSIS | The Russian Retreat from Syria – Drawdown or Drawn Out?" IndraStra Global 02, no. 03 (2016): 0089.| ISSN 2381-3652 |   


[1] Information supplied by Chatham House ,  Russia’s withdrawal from Syria: Five things you should know, March 17th, 2016
[2]Gorenburg D & Kofman M, War on the rocks, There is No Russian Withdrawal from Syria, March 2016
[3] Galeotti,M, The Three Faces of Russian Spetsnaz in Syria, War on the Rocks, March 2016 
[4] The Russian policy, Sttill  Awaiting  New GRU Chief, January 23rd 2016 

AIDN0020320160089 / INDRASTRA / ISSN 2381-3652