Putin's Syria Move: A Riddle Wrapped in an Enigma

Few reasons are being given as to why Moscow is withdrawing its troops. Perhaps the government recognizes the limits of military force it is willing to use in the conflict.

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A Russian military jet takes off from the country's air base in Hmeymin, Syria to head back to Russia, part of a partial withdrawal ordered by President Vladimir Putin,on March 15, 2016.
A Russian jet leaving a Syrian air base on Tuesday. Moscow seems to believe it has accomplished its mission.Credit: Reuters

The dramatic announcement by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday that he was pulling most of his country's military forces out of Syria caught U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and his Israeli counterpart, Moshe Ya’alon, in the middle of a meeting in Washington.

Apparently Defense Minister Ya’alon was surprised by the announcement, but whether or not his host was will probably only become clear in the coming days. But as usual when it comes to Syria, Russia continues to astonish. It has made sharp turns without signalling its intentions in advance – and even after acting it has offered very few explanations for its moves.

The same strategy exemplified the outset of active Russian military involvement in Syria last September. Putin dispatched his air force without any advance warning, in response to a desperate plea for help from Syrian President Bashar Assad early last summer, when the rebel organizations continued to eat away at the territory remaining under the regime’s control. The Russian aerial attacks quickly succeeded in stabilizing the Assad forces' defensive lines.

In January and February this year, with the increasing intensity of those bombardments by the Russians – who did not make any special effort to distinguish between civilians and fighters, or between one rebel group and another – the coalition supporting Assad chalked up further gains. The president’s forces, supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and various Shiite militias, won control of a number of towns in southern and northwestern Syria. About the time of the announcement of the cease-fire last month, government forces also closed in on the large, blockaded city of Aleppo in the north.

For now the cease-fire, which has resulted in a new effort to jump-start a diplomatic solution to the civil war in Syria, has held up better than most Western intelligence estimates predicted.

The Russian troops have already spent twice as long in Syria as Putin allocated for the mission originally. His announcement concerning withdrawal of forces came on the five-year anniversary of the outbreak of the civil war, which has already caused the deaths of over half-a-million people, and the uprooting of more than half of the country's population from their homes.

Putin’s announcement included very few details. He noted that his country will continue to maintain a presence at its air and naval bases in the Alawite areas of northwest Syria. It is reasonable to assume that Russia's involvement will continue to demand the participation of ground forces, albeit in smaller numbers than before – perhaps just a few hundred soldiers operating various defensive systems.

Moscow is not making any great efforts to explain its motives for the decision either. Perhaps it reflects the recognition of the limits of military force Russia is willing to use in the conflict. Indeed, it can be said that in practice, the main goals set by the Russians – stabilizing the regime in Syria, guaranteeing that America will back off from its demand (which was in any case rather weak) for Assad’s immediate departure, and renewed diplomatic negotiations – were all attained.

Military trauma

To ensure that the Syrian government recovers the enormous swaths of territory it has lost to the rebel militias, Russia would need not only to escalate its aerial attacks even more, but also to put many more troops on the ground. This could very well constitute a major financial burden on the already faltering Russian economy.

In recent weeks, it should be noted, Saudi Arabia threatened to arm the Syrian rebel groups with advanced antiaircraft missiles. Every country has its own military trauma. It is possible the Russians decided to save themselves the trouble of reliving their entanglement in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when they lost helicopters, flight crews and soldiers to the Stinger antiaircraft missiles the United States had supplied the Afghan rebels.

Just as President George W. Bush did, following the first phase of the 2003 Iraq war, Putin can also now declare his mission accomplished. He has re-established himself on the global map as a key player that must be taken into consideration. On the other hand, he is not eager to sacrifice his soldiers to enable Assad to regain control over what Russia considers to be far-flung parts of Syria. If this means there will be a prolonged cease-fire and some arrangement made for a de facto division of Syria between the warring parties, with Assad in control of Damascus and Alawite areas and Russia maintaining its hold over the warm-water port of Tartus that is so critical to it – Moscow may consider that its mission has been fulfilled.

Still, Moscow is not the only player on this complex pitch, and even if Russia does wind down its presence, many open questions remain. It remains to be seen, for example, whether less extreme Sunni rebel groups will agree to an accord that brings an end to the fighting without toppling the regime. It is also unclear how Saudi Arabia and Turkey are going to react, what will become of the campaign led by the U.S. against ISIS, or if the West will acquiesce to leaving this century’s biggest mass murderer in power.

Rivlin in Moscow

For Middle Eastern countries, as for the West, Putin’s policies and considerations remain a riddle wrapped inside an enigma. By sheer coincidence, on Wednesday Israeli President Reuven Rivlin is arriving in Moscow – the first foreign leader to visit since Putin’s announcement – and will try to assess the intentions of the Russian leader.

Ever since Russian jets were dispatched to bases in northern Syria last year, Israel has proceeded with great caution with regard to the giant that plunked itself in its backyard. Throughout the civil war’s five years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has in the main pursued prudent policies with regard to Syria.

Jerusalem disliked the augmented Russian assistance to Assad, and was particularly dismayed by the successes chalked up by the Damascus-Iran-Hezbollah axis, abetted by Russian airstrikes. But Israel took care to distance itself from the areas Russia attacked, minimizing any risks of unintended confrontations in the air.

It’s likely that Israel will greet the removal of Russian jets with some relief, although what is to follow is almost impossible to predict. The cease-fire, limited as it may be, has been in force for over two weeks. In recent days there has even been a resumption of nonviolent demonstrations against the regime in some Syrian cities, and as of this writing Assad has refrained from attacking the demonstrators with barrel bombs. However, we have already learned that in this part of the world, the more pessimistic forecasts are the ones that tend to be realized.