Russia drops the mic: Syria pullout comes at perfect moment

March 15, 2016
Russian Su-34 bombers, Su-27 fighters and MiG-29 fighters fly in formation above Red Square during the Victory Day parade in Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2015. Russia marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two in Europe on Saturday with a military parade, showcasing new military hardware at a time when relations with the West have hit lows not seen since the Cold War. REUTERS/Host Photo Agency/RIA Novosti ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS - RTX1C7WP

Russian Su-34 bombers, Su-27 fighters and MiG-29 fighters fly in formation above Red Square during the Victory Day parade in Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2015. REUTERS/Host Photo Agency/RIA Novosti

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Vladimir Putin has suddenly announced that “the main part” of Russia’s forces currently in Syria will begin to be withdrawn.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.

17 comments

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Chaos is typically the threat we get from our masters. They say chaos will happen if they are not there to protect us. But chaos is preferable, and more fair, than the slavery we now endure. Putin has no grand plan for Russia. He is a politician. His plan is to hold power by any means. In that respect he is no different than our leaders. He and all leaders are sophists. Even if he had a plan to improve Russia, he could not implement that because of his overriding desire to be in power.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Russia pulls out of Syria right before making Putin-babies. Then falls asleep.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Another Putin/Russia bashing article from US defense/NATO troll.

Driven by mediocrity of understanding, starting these regime changes by the war-criminals – NATO, CIA and US defense strategists to foment these senseless conflicts around the globe to kill off about a million folks, displace 12 million people, strain relations with allies – EU and other to the point of putting their heads to lose in subsequent elections and $4+ trillions of precious US tax payer dollars, time has come to hold these unruly-bodies accountable for their dysfunction. Both Turmp and Sanders should send shiver to these folks as they plan to go by line-items to bring some effectiveness to these otherwise corrupt entities bringing more harm in the global arena to US public than to protect them.

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

“.. Putin-babies..”?

Nah.. military-operations of both Israel and Russia, were considered the most effective around the globe, in bringing success in short-time frames. Both their leadership in this regard, was something to be mimicked by the rest. Effectiveness of our and NATO operations pale and wither in comparison, exemplifying the failure of their leadership.

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

Liar

Posted by ekr | Report as abusive

Putin is a master deceiver. He announces a withdrawal of forces from Syria after setting off another exodus of migrants who will likely destroy the EU. At the same time he will be seen as “reasonable” for pulling back. He’s playing a chess game. Barack only knows checkers, and not very well.

Posted by GetReel | Report as abusive

Putin is a master deceiver. He announces a withdrawal of forces from Syria after setting off another exodus of migrants who will likely destroy the EU. At the same time he will be seen as “reasonable” for pulling back. He’s playing a chess game. Barack only knows checkers, and not very well.

Posted by GetReel | Report as abusive

Since when did Putin or the Kremlin ever have any credibility?

Posted by MEOilMan | Report as abusive

What success? Have you seen the place? This is Putin’s Iraq. Mission accomplished. Haha.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

@solidar wrote:

“What success? Have you seen the place? This is Putin’s Iraq. Mission accomplished. Haha.”

Say!! maybe we could trade him Libya for Syria, you know, one of our recent successes!

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

The author just couldn’t resist his cutting remarks at the end. The fact that Putin is ten-times more the diplomat than any US politician just isn’t quite good enough for Russophobes. And by the way, Russia didn’t start the problems in the Ukraine — the neocons did when they engineered the coup against an elected government. And the Crimea voted to join Russia, so don’t resort to neocon propaganda about a “Russian invasion” there. Finally, to characterize Putin as “tending to escalation, confrontation and defiance” is just a lot of anti-Russian, cold war bunko. Given that NATO is systematically surrounding Russia, Putin deserves a Nobel Prize for restraint in the face of an aggressive US whose foreign policy of regime change is run by warmongering neocons. A Nobel Prize for Putin would certainly be better earned than the one Barak “kill list” Obama got.

Posted by cautious123 | Report as abusive

I don’t know where Reuters comes up with these ‘experts’ on Russia and Putin, but I do know they are pretty consistently wrong. They have been predicting the collapse of the Russian economy every day for the last 25 months. They have predicted blitzkrieg attacks to targets like Transnistria, popular uprisings in the streets of Moscow, mutiny in the Russian army, Tartar uprisings in Crimea, profound Russian misery in another Afghanistan type quagmire, and especially !A NEW COLD WAR! (and presumably improved employment prospects for Russia experts).

I don’t think Putin is particularly clever, intelligent, or devious, I think they are just really lousy Russia experts.

Posted by DavidHume | Report as abusive

I bet Trump supporters would love Putin as their president! :)

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

Trump and Putin are the same kind of people. Big foreign plans going nowhere. Failed economies at home.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

@Mottjr : Another US defense/NATO bashing comment from the Putinist/Russian troll.

Driven by your mediocrity of understanding, starting these regime maintenance by the war-criminals – al-Assad, Putin and hardline Iranian strategists to foment these senseless conflicts around the globe to kill off about a million folks, displace 12 million people, strain relations with allies and worsen relations with enemies like the EU to the point of putting their heads to lose in subsequent elections and trillions of precious Russian tax payer dollars, time has come to hold these war criminals accountable for their dysfunction. The upcoming Russian legislative elections should send a shiver to folks like you but unfortunately the people who can go by line-items to bring some effectiveness to the otherwise corrupt Russian entities bringing more harm than help to the Russian public in the global arena have all left Russia so Putinists like you will be driven by your mediocrity of understanding into the ash heap of history .

Posted by PersonFromEarth | Report as abusive

@cautious123: You just couldn’t resist from posting your ludicrous comments on this website. The fact that Barack (or for that matter any politician in the free world) is ten-times more the diplomat than Putin or any dark-age, Putinist-inspired politician just isn’t quite good enough for paranoid Putinphiles/anti-Americans/anti-NATOers/ anti-Westerners like yourself. And by the way, we didn’t start the problems in the Ukraine — your fascist dear leader did when he tried to engineer a policy change after, hysterically enough, his lackey Yanukovych dared to stop being a Russian vassal state. And the Crimean referendum was a sham referendum, so don’t resort to the Putinist propaganda about there being no “Russian invasion” there. Finally, to not characterize Putin as “tending to escalation, confrontation and defiance” is just a lot of Putinist navel-gazing, cold war bunko. Given that Putin is systematically threatening NATO, every single NATO leader except Obama deserves a Nobel Prize for restraint in the face of an aggressive Russia whose foreign policy of regime change is run by warmongering neocons. A Nobel Prize for Toomas Hendrik Ilves would certainly be better earned than the one that Vladimir “Eston Kohver kidnapper” Putin got.

Posted by PersonFromEarth | Report as abusive

@cautious123: You just couldn’t resist from posting your ludicrous comments on this website. The fact that Barack (or for that matter any politician in the free world) is ten-times more the diplomat than Putin or any dark-age, Putinist-inspired politician just isn’t quite good enough for paranoid Putinphiles/anti-Americans/anti-NATOers/ anti-Westerners like yourself. And by the way, we didn’t start the problems in the Ukraine — your fascist dear leader did when he tried to engineer a policy change after, hysterically enough, his lackey Yanukovych dared to stop being a Russian vassal state. And the Crimean referendum was a sham referendum, so don’t resort to the Putinist propaganda about there being no “Russian invasion” there. Finally, to not characterize Putin as “tending to escalation, confrontation and defiance” is just a lot of Putinist navel-gazing, cold war bunko. Given that Putin is systematically threatening NATO, every single NATO leader except Obama deserves a Nobel Prize for restraint in the face of an aggressive Russia whose foreign policy of regime change is run by warmongering neocons. A Nobel Prize for Toomas Hendrik Ilves would certainly be better earned than the one that Vladimir “Eston Kohver kidnapper” Putin got.

Posted by PersonFromEarth | Report as abusive