Russia continues support in Syria despite announcing a withdrawal
After Putin ordered the withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria in March, speculation began over a rupture in relations between Damascus and Moscow. But Russia has maintained presence in the country and continues to help Assad make gains against rebels.
The Syrian Civil War has been ongoing since 2011, and is being fought between multiple opposition groups, the government, and both sides’ local and foreign support. Since 2014, a significant part of Syria’s territory had been claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Russia has politically supported Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his government since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, and also in the form of direct military involvement since 30 September 2015.
According to Russian and Syrian officials, in July 2015, Assad made a formal request to Russia for airstrikes and military help against rebel and jihadist groups. After the request, a political agreement was reached between both countries to intensify Russian involvement in the conflict.
In August 2015, Russia began to send warplanes, T-90 tanks and artillery, as well as combat troops to an airbase near the port city of Latakia in Syria. In the same month, an agreement was signed between Russia and Syria that stipulated terms and conditions regarding Russia’s use of Syria’s Hmeimim airport, free of charge and with no time limit.
In September 2015, the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament authorized the Russian president to use armed forces in Syria. Russian intervention in Syria has so far consisted of air strikes primarily in north-western Syria, targeting military groups opposed to the Syrian government – including ISIL, al-Nusra Front, and the Army of Conquest.
Russian officials have said their objective is to help the Syrian government retake territory from various opposition groups, including groups backed and armed by the United States, whose interests lie in the removal of Bashar al-Assad and his government.
In a televised interview, broadcast on 11 October 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin defined Russia’s goal in Syria as “stabilising the legitimate power in Syria and creating the conditions for political compromise”.
The Russian military intervention has proven highly effective in producing significant gains for the Syrian Army, especially in regard to the recapture of Palmyra in March 2016 – that had been previously captured by the Islamic State.
However, according to human rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Doctors Without Borders, war crimes committed by the Russian military during the conflict have included the targeting of civilians.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has claimed that between September 2015 and February 2016, Russian air strikes have killed 1,000 civilians, including 200 children. But the Russian government denies it has hit civilian areas and insists it is dropping bombs only on terrorist targets.
On 14 March 2016, President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia was to begin withdrawing the “main part” of its forces from Syria. Yet, in spite of this, the announcement has not marked an end to Russian military operations in Syria.
The Russian strike mission has instead continued, it has now been bolstered by the arrival of some of the Russian military’s latest attack helicopters, and Russia’s support for President Assad remains firm.