Russian President Vladimir Putin may have not updated Israel’s leaders, or the Americans, on his decision to pull back most of his forces from Syria, but despite the sudden timing, the decision shouldn’t come as a surprise. Putin has achieved all he planned to in the operation that lasted less than six months, and he has no reason to prolong his military’s presence in the war-torn country.
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In the 24 hours since the announcement in Moscow, various theories have been circulating. The shooting down of a Syrian MiG-21 over the weekend led to the theory that the Saudis had sent a large shipment of anti-aircraft missiles to the rebels and the Russians were now fearful for their aircrew.
Another theory had the Saudis reaching a secret deal with Putin to somehow boost the price of oil, breathing life back into the Russian economy reeling from the slump in energy markets. There were also rumors of a rift between Russia and the Shi’ite coalition backing the Assad regime due to disappointment with its fighting capabilities.
None of these theories can be totally discounted, but they’re all unlikely and much less credible than the simple conclusion that having reached his goals, Putin has no further interest in spending millions he can ill afford and risk more coffins coming home.
Six months ago, before the first Sukhois landed at Latakia Airport, President Bashar Assad’s army faced a total rout. Even Hezbollah and the Iranians could no longer prevent for long the rebels from taking Damascus.
Russia’s arrival turned the tide and bought Assad and his allies time to regroup, resupply and secure the regime’s control of Damascus, the approaches to the Lebanese border and the Mediterranean coast. These strongholds also include the air and naval bases that will remain Russian strategic assets after the pullback. They will also serve for future deployments if the Assad regime is in danger once again.
Beyond the military achievements, the Syrian campaign has also secured Russia’s place at the top of the standings in any negotiations over Syria’s future. Moscow now has a veto over any government that will be formed in Damascus. Putin can decide whether Assad stays president, if and when he leaves and who will replace him.
Russia also has a degree of control over the departure, or return, of millions of refugees – a critical political issue in the European Union. Putin is already planning how to use this leverage in the coming months when the EU decides whether to renew, reduce or lift the sanctions it placed on Russia two years following Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.
Nearly six months ago, the received wisdom in Moscow and Kiev was that the Russian deployment to Syria was directly linked to the shadow war in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists continue to hold territory and disrupt Kiev’s efforts to stabilize the country and build closer ties to the West. It now seems Putin has achieved something similar in Syria.
There is a pattern here – the Putin Doctrine. He did the same thing eight years ago when he invaded Georgia. If Moscow can’t control a neighbor or vassal state through a trusted leader, it creates or perpetuates a crisis that ensures Russia’s role and limits the West’s influence. This is also the state of affairs in Moldova through Moscow’s support for the breakaway region Transnistria.
It’s no coincidence that Russia is proposing the same solution in both Ukraine and Syria – federalization. It’s much easier for Moscow to call the shots in a country divided into autonomous regions with a weakened central government.
Of course, if Putin wanted to keep his planes in Syria, they could continue bombing rebel strongholds and civilian areas outside the regime’s control, until the opposition to Assad was nearly decimated (as U.S. State Secretary John Kerry just a few weeks ago predicted would happen).
This would open the way for a revived Syrian army, together with Hezbollah and the Shi’te militias imported by Iran from Iraq and Afghanistan, to reoccupy the parts of Syria not held by the Islamic State. But despite the ostensible cooperation between Russia and Iran, it doesn’t seem Putin wants to see Iran take over Syria.
Iran may be a major client of Russia’s arms industry and a convenient ally in Putin’s designs to further weaken the Western hegemony, but the historical suspicion between the two nations lingers. Putin wants it to be clear that he has the last word in Damascus, not Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The importance of the ties between Israel and Russia in this regard cannot be ignored either. Putin aims to continue playing the role of guarantor of Israel’s interests in Syria, even if it comes at the expense of his ties with the Iranians. As far as he’s concerned, drawing Israel closer is also a strategic achievement that underlines the vacuum created by the Obama administration’s retreat from the region.