Written By: CENSA Editorial Board
On March 15, 2016, Vladimir Putin announced a troop withdrawal from Syria just as peace talks were initiated in Geneva to discuss the tumultuous state’s political future. The news of the withdrawal arrived almost six months after Russia began providing military support to Bashar al-Assad and after Moscow had initiated airstrikes in support of his regime. Strategically and tactically, Russia’s armed support and augmentation to the Syrian military has resulted in an increase in Assad’s grasp on the security situation and has allowed his government to maintain its authoritative position in the country. It has also produced additional important gains for the Damascus-based government, resulting in the return of territory previously seized by pro-opposition and local terrorist organizations. Meanwhile, in the two weeks immediately following the withdrawal announcement, social media emerged as a central component of and a potent political force. The Web has been saturated with a wide array of reactions, ranging from a general disbelief about the withdrawal communication itself, to joy from pro-opposition groups commenting on Russia’s apparent failure to execute a successful intervention, to cynicism of Putin’s sincerity in truly making such a claim. Amidst the wide variety of this online content and additional commentary in print, the formation of a consensus nevertheless remains elusive, save for the persistent speculation about Russia’s true motives.
The most prevalent theme voiced via social media and through other online forums is the belief that Putin has no intention of withdrawing completely and instead suspects him of encouraging the internal instability of Syria for strategic advantage. Proponents of this view refer to the significant Russian military presence that remains, despite the immediate reduction of equipment following Putin’s announcement (a reduction that may have amounted to half of what was in the country previously). A significant number of strike aircraft, bombers and attack helicopters were indeed removed. However, a subsequent influx of tactical vehicles, some more advanced than their predecessors, also occurred. This additional in-flow has complicated conditions on the battlefield as well as any effort to establish a realistic inventory of Russian resources and capability.
“Advisors and artillery, the decisive factors on the ground, are still there watching over the Syrian battlefield prepared for what comes next,” one observer has noted. “The remaining Russian contingent is not only capable of sustaining the war, but [also of] reconstituting its campaign upon presidential order.” Moreover, the recent recapture of Palmyra by Syrian forces, orchestrated in part with the aid of Russian airstrikes, underscores the residual potency of Russian military might.,
Attempts to glorify Putin and promote him as an effective strategic opponent of President Obama can also be found online. Obama’s reluctance to intervene with a significant military force is characterized as indecisive, and Washington’s “long-standing intention” to overthrow the Assad regime ridiculed as both ineffective and soft. By contrast, pro-Assad supporters have applauded Russia’s manner of participation in the conflict and have not only characterized it as appropriate but have highlighted its lack of “paternalistic neo-colonial” behavior historically attributed to Western power involvement in the region.
Twitter has become an important means of communication for all sides, specifically for the issuance of propaganda. When Russia first announced its troop withdrawal, the Syrian government noted its appreciation of Russian contributions via Twitter, praising the Damascus-Moscow alliance. Opposition groups, too, have used this medium and have sent tweets of joy, of ridicule (directed at Putin), and of cautious optimism – this last group specifically noting the potential for a ceasefire brokered by Moscow that might lead to a cessation of hostilities. Tweets have revealed an air of hope as well as skepticism and distrust among both pro- and anti-government forces.
Social media has also hosted debates about potential political endgames, specifically the prospect of a form of federalism in Syria should the ceasefire and peace talks fail. Fashioned along the lines of a Bosnian Solution, a Syrian federation might involve the division of Syria along sectarian lines and thus implement a form of balkanization. Such an outcome would effectively decentralize power in the country, lessen the impact of the nation-state construct imposed after World War I, and reestablish the concept of self-rule along traditional and tribal lands. Incidentally, the Syrian Kurdish group PYD has already attempted to promote this idea with its declaration of autonomy in the North.
Voices in opposition to federalism can also be found on social media sites. Fears about a power vacuum in Syria causing chaos and uncertainty similar to that found in Libya and Yemen, are widely seen and heard. Additionally, misgivings about the creation of any new boundary lines, especially those advocated by outside powers, are present: such lines might serve as an additional source of tension. One online source includes the following: “‘Federalism’ in the context of this region is another word for division and partition. It is a curse word and a curse concept for countries in this region where sectarian and ethnic communities have been planted for centuries in the bodies of states, like raisins in a Christmas fruitcake.”
In the end, social media has served as host to a wide-ranging debate on Syria, with many participants focused on both the intentions of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the viability of various political end-state solutions. Yet, many questions abound. For example: is Putin motivated to eradicate the scourge of terrorist activity in the area? Or is he more interested in shoring up President Assad’s authority, in return for promises to enable and facilitate Russian regional influence and power-projection goals through additional leasing rights at the Tartus naval port and the Latakia air base? Is the Russian military troop reduction a meaningful retreat or just simply a strategic pause before a new offensive is directed as local conditions change? Was Putin’s abrupt withdrawal intended to compel Assad’s departure and replacement by a form of government more acceptable to all stakeholders? If so, then the intransigent Syrian leader surprised him by doubling down on his unwillingness to step down. Given present circumstances, would Moscow now support a post-Assad political outcome in Syria involving some form of partition, partial autonomy, or perhaps federalism? And perhaps most important, what type of political solution might tribal leaders and the warring factions accept?
The questions are many, the answers are elusive, and the online debate is a swirl of Web-enabled warring opinions. It remains only to wait and see what will emerge from this “social storm.”
 Worland, A. (2015, September 30). Russia Begins Airstrikes In Syria [Online News]. Retrieved from http://time.com/4055405/russia-airstrikes-syria/
 ARA News. (2015, October 20). Backed by Russia, Iran, battle-weary regime forces strive to regain territory from Syrian revels [Online News]. Retrieved from http://aranews.net/2015/10/backed-by-russia-iran-battle-weary-regime-forces-strive-to-regain-territory-from-syrian-rebels/
 ARK. (2016, March 18). Conflicting Voices: 9-17 March 2016. Retrieved from http://arkgroupdmcc.com/conflicting-voices-9-17-march-2016/
 Gorenburg, D. & Kofman M. (2016, March 18). There is No Russian Withdrawal from Syria. Retrieved from http://warontherocks.com/2016/03/there-is-no-russian-withdrawal-from-syria/
 Campbell, G. (2016, March 27). The Ulterior motive behind Russia’s partial Syria Withdrawal. Retrieved from http://en.delfi.lt/central-eastern-europe/the-ulterior-motive-behind-russias-partial-syria-withdrawal.d?id=70817346
 Bacon, J. & Solis, S. (2016, March 28). Syrian Forces drive Islamic State from ancient Palmyra. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2016/03/27/syria-troops-seize-palmyra/82316874/
 NewsJS (n.d.). Top Stories – ISIS driven from Palmyra Headlines. Retrieved from http://www.newsjs.com/us/syrian-military-source-dismisses-media-reports-russia-struck-palmyra/
 Thetruthdamit. (2015, September 27). Vladimir Putin B**ch Slaps Barack Obama On Syria [YouTube Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Yrn2E7a_kM
 Zonca, R. (2016, March 16). The Russian withdrawal: a message for Syria and the multipolar word. Retrieved from http://www.therussophile.org/the-russian-withdrawal-a-message-for-syria-and-the-multipolar-world.html/
 Baroud, R. (2016, March 22). Federalism is a Pandora’s Box; if Syria Succumbs to It, Others Will Follow. Retrieved from http://www.ramzybaroud.net/federalism-is-a-pandoras-box-if-syria-succumbs-to-it-others-will-follow/
 Jansen, M. (2016, March 23). Another word for division and partition. Retrieved from http://www.jordantimes.com/opinion/michael-jansen/another-word-division-and-partition