Behind the Russian Withdrawal

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that he would begin a withdrawal of military assets from Syria caught nearly every observer of the conflict by surprise—even close military advisers in the Kremlin. After six months of bombing, over 9,000 strike sorties, and the deployment of approximately 4,000 Russian personnel, Putin’s declaration of “mission accomplished” is a sign that he believes that Moscow’s objectives have been met and that a pullout is in order.

Based on all projections, Putin is making good on his pledge. Less than forty-eight hours since Putin’s announcement, roughly half of Russia’s air wing has flown out of Syria, including the very same fighter aircraft that proved to be so devastating to moderate factions in Aleppo city and its suburbs.

However, if Putin’s decision to withdraw was a quick and painless order, it is difficult to see how Bashar al-Assad supports it, propaganda releases from the Syrian presidency notwithstanding. It was Russian air power that stalled rebel advances in Latakia and Aleppo provinces and assisted a rag-tag and tired group of pro-government forces who months ago were withdrawing from their positions and ceding more ground. There is one reason why the Assad regime managed to encircle the eastern sectors of Aleppo after trying and failing repeatedly over the previous three years: indiscriminate carpet-bombing from Russian aircraft hovering over the area on a nearly continuous basis.

Putin’s ‘mission accomplished’ is in fact indicative of his broader strategy and goals for Syria. Putin is avoiding the ‘quagmire’ many politicians and analysts predicted, most prominent among them being President Barak Obama. Putin, Obama states in a press conference, was intervening militarily “not out of strength, but out of weakness because his client, Assad, was crumbling, and it was insufficient for him to send simply arms and money.” Putin’s current strategy has been effective in re-asserting Assad into a position of power from a place of weakness without incurring significant losses to Russian personnel or aircrafts.

The level of involvement up until now—4,000 personnel and mainly support—is easily maintained and easily scaled down. The quagmire that analysts referred to is stabilization and state building which requires long term involvement, similar to the United States’ efforts in Iraq. Putin has made the calculation that rebuilding Syria’s governing institutions and training a new Syrian army is a time-inducing and highly expensive project that Moscow cannot do during a time of active hostilities. Pulling out now indicates that Putin has achieved his main goal of stabilizing the Assad the regime before it collapsed and putting it in a better negotiating position. It also has achieved a number of secondary goals, such as showing once Russia’s interests no longer align with the Syrian regime, Russia can and will remove itself. Putin has showcased his military strength, reinforcing Russia as a major stakeholder in the international system and a critical player in any peaceful resolution of the war.

Stabilization and state building efforts would turn into a quagmire for Russia. The more time that Russian personnel spend in Syria, the greater likelihood that a Russian will be killed—a development that might force Putin to escalate in retaliation. Reconstruction would require more funding, a move unlikely to be popular in Russia, without guaranteeing positive results, as the United States’ experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan illustrates. In a strategically wise choice, Russia kept its objectives—boosting the position of Assad at the negotiating table—manageable, allowing the country to avoid the quagmire that Obama was talking about.

Russia has achieved his goals within Syria, and internationally it is now in a stronger position to negotiate with the opposition’s backers. Putin and Assad have different international goals. While Russia was agreeing on a ceasefire agreement, the Syrian regime declared their intentions of retaking every inch of Syrian land by force. Russia’s UN Ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, criticized these remarks as contrary to the diplomatic process that Moscow was attempting to establish. Churkin stated, the Syrian regime’s comments “do not chime with the diplomatic efforts that Russia is undertaking.” Further putting Assad at odds with his Russian supports is Assad’s future. Russia has indicated it may be willing to negotiate on Assad’s future, but Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem’s has said that discussions on Assad’s status is a redline.

Russian does not want to retake all of Syria by force. Rather, it simply wants a pliable client—not necessarily Assad—and an international community that is willing to not topple that client. In order to keep its client in power, Russia has to remain involved in any international negotiations. Therefore, pulling out is a sign of goodwill to the international community and those who criticized its military involvement.

Russia has also satisfied Iran’s needs. In the July 2015 meeting between Putin and Qassem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC Quds Force, an agreement was reached on the need to support the Assad regime. The Iranians organized thousands of Shia militia fighters and flew IRGC into Syria to assist with operations. Moscow decided to provide air support to the Assad regime after the string of losses in 2015. The Russians conducted over 9,000 strikes in areas where the regime was most vulnerable. Russia pulling out indicates that it has put Iran and the Syrian regime back on the offensive.

Russia pulling out indicates it does not see the benefit to staying longer in Syria.  It shows that it is not willing to go so far as state building operations, which would be costly and not guaranteed success. It has ensured the survival of the regime and guaranteed Russia will be involved in the international negotiation process and supported by Iran. As long as these goals are met, Russia may be willing to negotiate on certain issues such as Assad’s fate.

Daniel R. DePetris is a Middle East analyst for Wikistrat Inc., and a researcher for the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts at the University of Arizona.

Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during an award ceremony for soldiers returning from Syria, at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, March 17, 2016. (Reuters)