March 16, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: Putin’s Surprise Withdrawal
President Putin’s announcement on March 14 that Russian forces would begin to withdraw from Syria with immediate effect signaled that, by his calculation, Russia had achieved about as much as it could hope to from its first military intervention outside the former Soviet Union since the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Putin did not say, as Gorbachev did in 1988, that all Russian forces would withdraw, but his declaration suggested that the air campaign would wind down, and that military engagement would gradually come to a halt, while leaving a Russian presence in its long-established naval base in Tartus, and possibly in one or both of its newly-established air bases.
Putin’s ‘Mission Accomplished’ statement declared that the Ministry of Defense had achieved its objectives—reconfirming that they had had little, if anything, to do with defeating the so-called Islamic State, or even eliminating the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat-al Nusra from the Syrian battlefield. The objectives had been to stabilize the Assad regime and ensure a long-term Russian presence in the Middle East, with perhaps an additional goal of proving new weapons systems in a live-fire exercise and testing Russia’s logistic capability.
In these terms, Russia’s intervention has been successful. Assad is no longer on the defensive, even though the war is very far from over; Russia is a joint chair with the United States of the International Syria Support Group, with a key role in discussions of the future of the country; Russian arms proved effective, albeit against an enemy with few defenses; and its ability to supply an overseas campaign was proven beyond doubt, though again without any opposition to impede it.
But Putin may have had other reasons for winding down the Russian engagement in Syria. Although his support for the regime allowed Assad to survive, it was clear that Russia was no more able to defeat the Islamic State than the United States. Russia’s far more intense and less discriminate bombardment of other rebel groups had certainly knocked them back, but the Syrian Armed Forces do not appear to be consolidating these gains outside areas where they were already strong. The front line will continue to fluctuate, and the Islamic State will continue to pose a challenge to the territorial integrity of the country and the future of the region.
Russian public opinion had supported the Syrian intervention, under the influence of a constant barrage of misinformation about its conduct and goals from the Russian media. However, Putin would be right to assume that foreign wars do not remain popular at home forever. At some point, doubts would have crept in, and more credibility given to stories of hospitals bombed, civilians killed, and the Islamic State ignored. The economic costs of the war, both directly and indirectly, would also have irked the Russian domestic audience over time, let alone any rise in casualties. Rebel success in shooting down a Syrian MiG 21 last week may have sounded a small alarm.
If Russia’s objective was to ensure its long-lasting influence in Middle Eastern affairs, supporting Syria was not a good long-term strategy to achieve it. No Middle Eastern country apart from Iran supports Assad, and Iran is more likely to compete for influence in Syria than complement Russia’s role. Russia’s economic sensitivity to the price of oil makes a broad alliance with the Gulf states more important than a narrow alliance with Syria, especially as the one sin that Saudi Arabia can never forgive is promoting the interests of Iran.
There had been signs over the last few weeks that Russia was beginning to become impatient with Assad’s refusal to negotiate with the rebels and seek ways to bring the war to an end. By withdrawing to the military sidelines, Russia has made its position clear: it is prepared to help Assad if Assad is prepared to accept its advice. Otherwise, investing further in the regime becomes pointless. Prospects for the current round of UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva are not bright, but—as Putin has noted—military intervention can only achieve so much; it is now up to the diplomats to seek an end to Syria’s headlong rush towards self-destruction.
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