Russian President Vladimir Putin stunned the world last week when he announced that Moscow would be withdrawing “the main part” of its military presence in Syria four months after entering the war on behalf of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Analysts have been scrambling to make sense of Putin’s curveball, particularly in light of how effective Russia’s campaign has been in bolstering Assad’s Syrian Arab Army and regaining territory from rebels on behalf of the regime.
“I find it interesting that Putin left some important military tasks unfinished,” Jeff White, a defence fellow at The Washington Institute, told Business Insider.
“The encirclement of Aleppo was not completed, rebel forces retain a toehold in Latakia, their hold on Idlib has not been seriously challenged, and the regime position in Daraa remains difficult,” he added.
Indeed, Russia’s intervention in late September was followed by a regime offensive to recapture Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, from opposition forces. Russian airstrikes across northern Syria had been steadily shifting the epicentre of the
war toward the corridor north of Aleppo from Turkey through Azaz since late November, and pro-government forces won a major victory in January when they broke a rebel siege in two villages northwest of Aleppo and cut off Turkey’s supply line to the opposition.
As White noted, however, Aleppo remains outside of the regime’s grasp. And the most serious recent challenge to rebel-held territory in Idlib has not come from the regime, but from Al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra.
Pro-regime forces have made some gains against rebels in northern Latakia but largely remain locked in a stalemate, and control over the southern province of Daraa remains divided between ISIS, Al Qaeda, and various armed opposition groups.
As Julien Barnes-Dacey, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Vox last week, while Russia allowed the regime “to consolidate its hold on core Syria … they haven’t done enough to really put outright victory on the horizon.”
It’s unclear whether Putin ever aimed for an “outright victory” in Syria, or what such a victory would even look like to a leader known more for his tactical moves than his long-term strategic thinking.
Indeed, Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security affairs and Professor of Global Affairs at New York University, said in an email that a “mythical military victory” in Syria was never part of Russia’s plan.
But the fact that Putin ordered Russia to de-escalate at a pivotal moment for Assad — seemingly without finishing what it started — may actually be part of a broader Russian strategy to maintain Moscow’s leverage at peace talks in Geneva.
‘A foreign policy operator at the top of his game’
By de-escalating Russia’s military presence in Syria, Putin has aimed to shift responsibility for ending the violence away from Moscow and onto Washington, while showing the international community — and Assad — that he is not necessarily beholden to the current regime.
“Maybe Putin got a little fed up with Bashar and decided to show him who is boss,” said White, of the Washington Institute. “Putin may believe that at least for now the emphasis should be on the diplomatic battlefield at Geneva instead of the Syrian battlefields. Russia is adept at shifting emphasis between them.”
He added: “Important though, Putin can easily shift the emphasis back to the battlefield if he does not think Geneva is going well enough.”
Many experts agree that Russia’s continued presence at Tartous and Latakia — its naval and air bases in Syria — means that the “withdrawal” is more theatre than substance. Indeed, White said, “Russia has shown that it can move air elements quickly into Syria as needed.”
But Mark Kramer, the program director for the
Project on Cold War Studies at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, contended that Putin’s decision to withdraw short of securing a decisive victory for Assad was likely the plan from the beginning.
“The rationale back in February, which undoubtedly is still relevant, was that Russian forces had accomplished what they were sent to accomplish,” Kramer told Business Insider. “Namely, stabilizing Assad’s hold on power, propping up his regime, and keeping the war from being a humiliating rout.”
He added: “The air operations had the additional benefit for Russia of giving the Russian Air Force a good propaganda outlet.”
Galeotti, of New York University, saw Putin’s announcement as nothing short of a policy masterstroke.
“In this way Putin reassures an anxious public at home, reduces Russian vulnerability to disastrous attacks, and gets to show himself as a statesman,” Galeotti told Business Insider in an email.
“After the disastrous blunder that was Donbas, and despite his neglect of domestic policy,” he added, “this shows Putin as a foreign-policy operator at the top of his game.”