5 Ways to View Putin’s Syrian Surprise

What’s driving Russia’s decision to remove the bulk of its forces from Syria?

How are we to make sense of Vladimir Putin’s announcement that the bulk of the Russian expeditionary force in Syria is to be withdrawn over an as-of-yet undefined period in the coming weeks and months? Is this a Kremlin victory lap, or a way to extricate Russia from what might prove to be a dangerous and costly mistake? Here are five ways to view Putin’s surprise.


1) Mission accomplished

The most straightforward explanation, based on an assessment that the Russian expeditionary deployment, which began last September, was always intended to be a short-term operation. At the time, the Kremlin made no grandiose promises about what its active involvement in the Syrian civil war would bring—no boasting about how the Islamic State would be destroyed or statements about restoring control over all of Syria to the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Like the Russian intervention in the Donbass the year before, Putin moved to act swiftly in Syria at a time when most Western experts were confidently predicting that Assad, finally, had reached the end of his rope and that the opposition would soon be in Damascus. The Russian military presence in Syria was supposed to “assist” the Assad regime, and it has done that. Six months later, in March 2016, no one is talking about how Assad is about to fall; the Syrian government forces and their various militia allies have regained the initiative on the battlefield, taking back key villages that strengthen their ability to keep control of the parts of Syria they occupy while degrading the capabilities of the opposition.

Moreover, the political dynamic has changed. The Syrian opposition, the United States, most Western governments and our Gulf allies were all insistent that Assad’s departure was a necessary precondition before any negotiations could begin with the government about a transition. Now, despite the use of face-saving rhetoric, the various participants in the Syrian political process have come to accept that Assad has a certain degree of staying power. In pulling this off, Putin again demonstrated that the Kremlin will be loyal to its friends and partners—and that it has the capability to marry military and political objectives in a successful limited campaign.


2) Quit While You’re Ahead

Russia’s intervention dramatically changed the image of the Kremlin not only in the region but around the world. It demonstrated that the military reforms and increased spending of the last several years have indeed borne fruit. The Russian military showed that it was capable of launching and sustaining an intervention outside of the former Soviet Union, and that Moscow could change facts on the ground in Syria through the application of its power, no matter what Washington, Brussels, Riyadh or Ankara wanted. The Syria intervention showcased some new Russian capabilities and put the world on warning that the United States is not the only country that is capable of projecting hard power in different parts of the world.

But having sent that message, Moscow gains no benefit from continuing to repeat it, and indeed, as time goes on, more of the potential flaws and weaknesses in the Russian military establishment would become evident. It was disturbing when the Russian navy successfully launched cruise missiles from the Caspian flotilla to strike targets in Syria—but the shock of that achievement was marred by clear signs of technical failure. Russia has also been able to intervene so far in Syria and harvest the low-hanging fruit of pushing back the opposition’s advance at a relatively low cost and without sustaining many casualties. If Russia were to proceed to the next stage, of beginning to retake large areas that have been held by the opposition or the Islamic State for years, it might not be able to do so with the same degree of ease.

Given that the start of peace talks gives Russia the perfect hook to end its operation “with honor” and on a high note of success, it may have seem prudent to take advantage of that opportunity rather than risk humiliating setbacks in the future. It also helps, frankly, to save money, because as the operation continues, so does the drain on the Russian treasury.


3) Avoid the Afghan Trap