Russia drops the mic: Syria pullout comes at perfect moment

After five years of brutal fighting and two weeks of a scrappy ceasefire, President Vladimir Putin has suddenly announced that “the main part” of Russia’s forces currently in Syria will begin to be withdrawn. Assuming this is not some public relations stunt (and if it is, it will very quickly become clear, seriously damaging Moscow’s credibility), then it represents a shrewd and pragmatic move.

They will not go quickly, and it is still unclear quite who will be leaving and who will stay. The Tartus naval resupply station will remain in Moscow’s hands — presumably with some security forces — and so will the Hmeymime (Latakia) air base, implying that there will still be some Russian bombers along with their flight and technical crews, guards and commanders.

However, the creeping expansion of the ground forces contingent within the expeditionary force — first some Spetsnaz special forces for spotting, next some extra tanks, then heavy artillery — is presumably going to be reversed. This way, not only does Russia make itself less vulnerable to attacks from insurgents, it also sets aside the temptation to get more deeply involved in the fighting.

Speaking to officers in Moscow in an off-the-record session, one of their greatest concerns was of being swept up in a cycle of escalation if a serious attack was carried out against Russian forces by any of the many rebel groups. As one put it, “if the president sees this as a challenge, he’ll be tempted to send a brigade of paratroopers, and before you know it, we’re there for 10 years.”

This was not a casually chosen timeframe: 10 years is how long Soviet troops were mired in Afghanistan, another intervention that was expected to be short-lived and uncomplicated and turned out to be anything but.

Politicians tend to find it easier to start wars than to end them, to escalate rather than to withdraw. For a leader who clearly relishes his macho image and who has been articulating a very aggressive foreign policy in recent years to opt for such a stand-down is a striking act of statesmanship.

That said, Putin’s announcement that “the objectives given to the Defense Ministry and the Armed Forces as a whole have largely been accomplished” is probably accurate.

This intervention was, after all, never about “winning” the war in Syria: even the most starry-eyed optimist would not expect a relative handful of aircraft and ground forces to end this bloody and complex conflict. Nor was it primarily to save Bashar al-Assad’s skin and position.

Rather, it had three main objectives. Firstly, to assert Russia’s role in the region and its claim to a say in the future of Syria. Secondly, to protect Moscow’s last client in the Middle East, ideally by preserving Assad, but if need be by replacing him with some other suitable client. Thirdly, to force the West, and primarily Washington, to stop efforts diplomatically to isolate Moscow. For the moment, at least, all three have indeed been accomplished.

Now, Russia is a more significant player in Syria’s future than the United States. Influence is bought by blood and treasure; by being willing to put its bombers, guns and men into play, Moscow not only helped Assad but reshaped the narrative of the war. The Kurds and even some of the so-called “moderate rebels” are beginning to show willing to talk to the Russians.

At the time of the intervention, Assad’s forces were in retreat, momentum was favoring the rebels, and Moscow was terrified that the regime’s elite might begin to fragment. The client state the Soviets left behind when they withdrew from Afghanistan was actually surprisingly stable and effective. But when Defense Minister Shahnawaz Tani broke with President Najibullah, it began to break apart and was doomed; this was something Moscow feared could happen in Damascus.

However, the unexpected injection of Russian airpower on Sept. 30 not only changed the arithmetic on the battlefield, it also re-energized the regime. The scale of the bombing assault, with more than 9,000 sorties flown according Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, allowed government forces to turn back the tide. Not only were they able to retake Aleppo and some 400 other settlements by Shoigu’s count, but the Syrian Arab Army’s morale recovered considerably too, and with it Assad’s personal authority.

Finally, on the diplomatic front there is no question that Putin’s intervention did indeed end any hope of ignoring and isolating him. Russia and the United States are joint guarantors of the ceasefire in Syria now, and even in Ukraine the two countries have renewed conversations about a settlement in the Donbas, though it was Moscow that began the conflict.

In short, for once there is more truth than rhetoric in claims of a “mission accomplished.” By beginning to withdraw his forces, Putin also addresses three important concerns.

He will reassure a domestic audience that enjoyed the daily doses of gun-camera footage and upbeat military assessments, but remained worried that what started as a relatively bloodless — for the Russians — campaign could become something much more serious. Indeed, the military will also be happy, conscious as they are that the longer forces are in-country, the greater the risk of something going badly wrong. That’s not least because many of Russia’s senior officers served in Afghanistan.

He can present himself as a peacemaker; it is hardly a coincidence that this announcement was made on the first day of real negotiations in peace talks being held in Geneva. This will strengthen Russia’s claim to a role in those negotiations and the shaping of Syria’s future: a spokesman for the rebel High Negotiations Committee said that “if there is seriousness in implementing the withdrawal, it will give the talks a positive push.” It may also offset some of the ground lost internationally after a recent escalation of fighting in the Donbas and the show trial of kidnapped Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko.

Finally, Putin can retain the initiative, something he clearly savors. He has once again caught the West off guard (and probably also Assad for that matter: he seems to have been informed by Putin only earlier in the day).

He has reduced his exposure to reverses on the ground, but not abandoned Syria. Rather, he has the best of both worlds. He will retain not just some troops there but the ports and airfields which will allow him to surge forces back into Syria if need be — or simply just threaten to do so. He can also, as he has in the past, use long-range bomber strikes or cruise missiles fired from naval units to deliver devastating reminders of Russia’s military capabilities.

In short, this is at once classic, and yet also unusual Putin. It is a characteristic move in its decisiveness and its unexpectedness (even Russians within the defense and foreign affairs apparatuses appear to have been taken by surprise).

But Putin, especially in this presidential term, has up until now tended to default to escalation, confrontation and defiance. Even though it is for entirely pragmatic reasons, this is the first time he has stepped back from an adventure. It may prove to be a propaganda move, or short-lived. It may be precisely that he wants to concentrate on his vicious war in the Donbas. Or it may be that, his economy suffering, his elite worried and his people increasingly discontent, that this is the first sign of the emergence of a more pragmatic Putin, who has come to realize that his grand vision for a re-empowered Russia is actually driving it towards penury and chaos. Time will tell.

A specialist on Russian security affairs, Mark Galeotti is professor of global affairs at New York University and a visiting fellow with the ECFR.

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