MOSCOW: Russia’s role in helping Syrian forces recapture the ancient city of Palmyra has left the West scrambling to figure out President Vladimir Putin’s game plan, following hopes he was edging away from supporting President Bashar Assad. The seizure of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Sunday by forces fighting for Assad delivered the biggest blow so far to Daesh (ISIS) militants in Syria and is a major coup both for Damascus and Moscow.
The military action comes after Putin announced he was withdrawing most of his forces from Syria, brokered with the United States a cessation of hostilities in the country and raised Western hopes that Russia is edging away from its strong support for Assad.
“Russia is playing a decisive role in the [Palmyra] advance,” said analyst Alexander Khramchikhin of the Institute of Political and Military Analysis in Moscow.
Russia’s state media has highly publicized the return of planes from Syria after Putin’s surprise withdrawal order on March 14, and Monday showed soldiers loading three combat helicopters onto a Russia-bound cargo plane. But analysts told AFP that the withdrawal has been very limited, with estimates ranging between 10 and 25 percent of Russia’s forces in Syria.
Rather than spelling an end to Moscow’s role in the conflict, the weeks since the military drawdown started have seen the Kremlin admit an even deeper involvement in the fighting. In the run-up to the taking of Palmyra, Moscow openly admitted for the first time since it launched its operations in Syria last September that it has special forces on the ground as part of the offensive.
A special forces officer who was directing airstrikes was earlier killed near Palmyra, the Russian military said Thursday, adding that he had been working there for just a week.
Armed forces chief Valery Gerasimov Monday said Palmyra was “liberated thanks to the support of Russia’s air force and special operations forces.”
An AFP correspondent saw Russian soldiers on the ground in Palmyra operating artillery, and a Syrian military source there said that the Russians are “widely involved in the battle for Palmyra, whether in fighting directly on the ground, with their planes, or by intercepting communications.”
Moscow would be sending more soldiers in the coming days to help demine Palmyra, the Russian Defense Ministry said Monday.
Russian military analyst Vladimir Yevseyev said that the month-old cessation of hostilities hammered out by Putin and President Barack Obama has allowed Moscow and Assad to refocus their attacks from moderate opposition groups to the militants.
The cessation deal “lets both the Russian air force and Syrian army concentrate their power,” Yevseyev told AFP.
“By concentrating their efforts in specific directions there can be a breakthrough, like in Palmyra,” Yevseyev said.
The commander of Russian forces in Syria, Alexander Dvornikov, said last week that the capture of Palmyra would “open up the road to [Daesh strongholds] Raqqa and Deir al-Zor and create conditions for reaching and taking control of the border with Iraq.”
Syria’s military Sunday confirmed that a battle for Raqqa – the de facto capital of Daesh – is the plan.
And some analysts said that rather than hoping for Moscow to back away from Assad, the West should get used to the idea that Moscow is going to back him for the long run.
“All the talk in the West that Russia was going to ditch Assad was nonsense,” Pavel Felgengauer, a Russian military analyst who writes for opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, said.
“We are not planning to abandon him now. Russia wants Assad to stay in power and the goal is to give him a chance to win the civil war,” Felgengauer added.