Conflicts in Middle East Understanding Putin’s withdrawal from Syria

Understanding Putin’s withdrawal from Syria

Vladimir Putin,  President of Russia

In what many have seen as a surprising announcement by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin has declared that the bulk of Russian forces will begin withdrawing from Syria in the coming days. According to Putin, Russia’s goals for intervening in the Syrian conflict on the side of the embattled dictator Bashar Al-Assad have been achieved. In essence, this is Putin’s less flamboyant version of former US President George W Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003 where he declared, somewhat prematurely, that the US had succeeded in its invasion of Iraq.

Arguably, however, Russia’s stated aims have not been met at all. When Moscow first decided to intervene in Syria last September, it was under the guise of targeting and destroying Daesh. As many may have noticed, these days, whenever a government wants to intervene in another country or even justify domestic policies, the flavour of the month as an excuse is usually Daesh. Russia is no different, and framed its intervention as an attack against terrorism. It was not long before the world saw that Russian air strikes were mainly targeting anti-Assad rebels, including those allied to the West. Now that Russia is withdrawing, it is hard for Moscow to claim that it has destroyed Daesh or any other terrorist group.

As is usually the case in politics, the aims and objectives declared to the international media are rarely the actual goals of the politicians. What is clear from the Russian intervention is that Putin’s goals were multi-faceted and not always entirely to do with Syria. His overriding objective is to make his Russia once more a force to be reckoned with on the international stage, and the Syrian conflict is one of many cogs in the much larger machine of his ambition.

Through his intervention, Putin has strengthened the hand of his ally Assad significantly, and ensured that, for now, he and his regime will not only survive, but will also be grateful for Russia’s help. Without Russia and other allies, principally Iran, it is highly likely that Assad would have been a bloody footnote in Syria’s history by now. The Syrian armed forces are and always have been an international joke, having failed in every major war in their history and been trounced decisively by all of their opponents. The only thing that the Syrian military was ever good at was destroying its own civilians, whether in Hama under Assad’s father, Hafez; against the Kurds, further inflaming ethnic racism and nationalism; or even in the Syrian conflict today. As such, there is no doubt that Russia has been instrumental in shoring up the regime and ensuring that its ally in Damascus is secure.

Putin has also raised the spectre of a Russian re-intervention in the future by investing in military infrastructure in Syria, predominantly around Tartus and Latakia. Russia’s small naval base at Tartus has been expanded to be able to service Russian naval vessels in the Mediterranean more effectively, with scope for further expansion in the future. Russia also maintains an airbase at Hmeimim in Latakia, with two other facilities reported in Homs and further east. By entrenching itself in and around what is now being seen as Alawite territory, Russia could easily maintain its bases even if Syria is partitioned. Russian troops could also redeploy rapidly should Assad’s situation become precarious again, rendering this announcement of the Russians’ withdrawal one that should be tempered with the realisation that they could be back, and fairly quickly too.

Perhaps Putin’s most important objective was to make the world fear his wrath, and to show the other powers, principally the US, that he was not afraid to act decisively and fiercely. Not only did he annex Crimea from the Ukraine and show the world that he was happy to upend Europe’s backyard if the EU continued to annoy him, but he has also made sure that his allies in the Middle East, namely Syria and Iran, have the upper hand and that his access to the Mediterranean is, for now at least, assured. Arguably, Moscow has achieved all of these objectives.

If Russia has achieved so much, though, why withdraw when there are still enemies to be destroyed? The answer to that appears to be economics. Russia has now been committed to the Syrian conflict for almost 6 months, conducting heavy air strikes and importing significant military assets, including anti-aircraft capabilities, to the country. This was particularly so after Turkey shot down Russian warplanes that had encroached upon Turkish airspace. Such military adventures are expensive, and costly both to the state’s coffers as well as to the government’s popularity, especially when Russians start getting killed. Although Putin is as popular as ever, he would not want to risk the Russian people losing faith in him due to the economic impact of sanctions applied against Russia for its illegal annexation of Crimea. The impact of sanctions plus a military adventure in Syria, in addition to an international energy market looking to diversify away from dependence on Russian gas, means that Russia simply cannot afford to maintain its invasion forces.

Economics notwithstanding, Putin has upped the ante and made it clear that the anti-Assad bloc in the international community faces significant risks if it tries to reverse Russia’s new status quo in the region. Strategic planners in the capitals of the world will be considering Russia’s economic situation in light of this withdrawal, but will also be thinking, “Is it worth upsetting that bear?” Time will tell if Russia’s newfound power and deterrent factor will continue to influence the course of the Syrian conflict.