Putin withdrawing Russian forces from Syria: why now and why it matters
Updated by Max Fisher on March 14, 2016, 5:00 p.m. ET
On Monday, the same day Syria peace talks resumed in Geneva, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprising announcement: He would begin immediately withdrawing the “main" Russian forces from Syria, almost six months after he first intervened in the war.
To state the obvious, we should wait and see the degree to which Putin honors his word. Russia has sent large troop deployments into eastern Ukraine, which it denies, and its Syria intervention has heavily bombed non-ISIS rebels despite claims of targeting only extremists. So cautious skepticism is merited.
Still, there is real reason to suspect that Putin could be sincere — and that his withdrawal could be a positive step toward ending the Syrian conflict that has become the worst war of the 21st century.
To be clear, even if Putin does withdraw, I would still be surprised if Syria reached a peace deal even on paper this year, and I would be downright shocked if Syria's war actually ended before 2020. But if Putin does withdraw from Syria — which he says will begin on Tuesday — the world will be a little bit closer to that goal.
What Putin wanted in Syria and how he got it
For all Putin's sweeping language about Syria as akin to the war against the Nazis, his aims always appeared quite narrow:
- To prevent Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad from collapsing
- To win Russia some political leverage on peace talks
There is an odd tendency in Washington to treat Russia as a resurgent superpower on a terrifying march toward global domination, but in Moscow, Russian power is understood to be far more limited. It is often aimed at maintaining what little remains of Russia’s global influence, and that appeared to be the case in Syria.
Russia has military bases in only one country outside of the former Soviet Union, and that country is Syria. Military and politically, Syria is its toehold for influence in the Middle East and, to a lesser degree, in the Mediterranean. So when it looked like Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad was going to fall, Moscow was desperate to prop him up.
In that, Putin succeeded. The Russian intervention, along with an even heavier Iranian intervention, helped Assad take back just enough territory to remain viable — though not nearly enough territory that Assad has any hope of actually winning the war outright.
So Russia did help to turn the tide in the war, though it's worth noting that Syria's war has, from the beginning, oscillated between rebel advances and Assad advances. Syria is a stalemate, and one with heavy outside intervention, which means the two sides are constantly escalating against one another.
Russia's intervention looked like something dramatically different, because it's Russia. But other countries — including states like Saudi Arabia and Turkey that back the rebels — have been intervening in Syria for years, pushing the momentum of the war one way or another.
That’s all to say that no one intervention (including America's) was ever enough to fix the core problem with Syria's war: It is a stalemate, which means that fighting will continue for years and to the detriment of everyone, unless there is a negotiated peace deal.
That brings us to Putin’s second objective in Syria: playing just enough of a role in the war to win Russia a seat at the negotiating table and thus ensure Moscow will have a chance to press its interests in any final peace deal.
Just before Russia intervened, there was strong indication that Russia was losing influence in the Syrian government, which was increasingly dominated by Iran's growing presence in Damascus. Indeed, some reports suggest that Assad even invited Russia's intervention to counter Iranian influence. While Russia and Iran are nominally aligned, they are also competitors for regional influence.
But now no one, not in Damascus and not in Geneva, can deny that Russia is a significant player in the Syrian proxy war. It has to be included in peace talks. Russia has its seat at the table, which it can use to guarantee that it retains its military bases in Syria and its high-level contacts in the Syrian military.
Why Russia would withdraw now
The timing speaks to this: Peace talks are just getting started again. And for the first time perhaps ever, Syria peace talks look — well, I wouldn’t call them hopeful or even particularly viable, but at least substantially less doomed.
This is because Syria has been experimenting with a recent ceasefire, and while there have certainly been violations, and the ceasefire is very fragile and could collapse at any moment, it has seen violence drop dramatically. This has saved many lives, allowed humanitarian access to areas otherwise off limits, and made peace negotiations look a little realer.
This is, for Moscow, a good time to step back. Russia has already achieved its immediate aims, so it wins little by fighting more. The status quo is okay for Putin to accept and to use as a basis of negotiations.
But much more important may be Russia’s signal here to Syria.
Russia has shown time and again that it has very limited influence over Bashar al-Assad's regime, which has proven itself to be reckless, often escalating the fighting even at moments when it was strategically unwise. If Moscow wants to freeze the status quo in Syria, it has to convince Assad to finally negotiate in good faith and not break the ceasefire outright.
Putin thus has to do more than just tell Assad to finally try for peace: He has to force him. Russia, by removing some significant chunk of its military force in Syria, makes Assad weaker, and thus makes negotiation more attractive. If you don’t believe Putin would coerce his own ally, consider that Assad was reportedly notified about Putin's decision just today.
Putin's wisest strategy, a few analysts have pointed out to me, would be to remove forces such that Assad feels pressured to negotiate for a peace deal, but to keep just enough of a Russian force in Syria so as to deter anti-Assad forces (Saudi Arabia, the US) from escalating, by implicitly threatening that Russia would just match them by re-intervening. And that indeed appears to be what Putin is doing.
If this analysis is correct, then this suggests that Russia is ready to negotiate in earnest, and also that Moscow believes it is at least possible that Bashar al-Assad is ready to do the same. That doesn't mean that peace is around the corner, that the parties can find mutually agreeable terms, or that either Putin or Assad is about to become our partners in peace. But even a possible willingness to accept a negotiated settlement is a good sign.
The costs of Russia's Syria adventure were exceeding the benefits
Vladimir Putin appears to be declaring mission accomplished in Syria, and it appears there's something to this: He has achieved his two immediate, if unstated, aims in Syria. But it’s a superficial victory, and underneath it were some real setbacks.
Putin has failed in his two stated goals in Syria: bringing Assad's military victory and leading a global coalition against Syria's extremists.
Such a global coalition, which Putin called for last year in his first United Nations General Assembly speech in a decade, would not just ensure Russia’s interests in Syria but would end Russia's isolation from the West — a problem that is far costlier to Russia, and far more important to Putin, than anything that could happen in Syria.
Assad still can't win in Syria and Russia is still isolated from the West, which never answered his implicit requests for a grand bargain, in which the West accepts his help in Syria and forgives his crimes in Ukraine. His withdrawal from Syria now (again, if it actually happens) is thus a declaration of defeat as much as a declaration of victory.
Syria was also not quite the domestic political victory that Putin may have hoped for. In 2014, he had intervened in Ukraine, which proved so popular with Russians that Putin’s approval ratings skyrocketed — something that wasn't just a feel-good moment for Putin but may have actually helped his regime survive a crippling economic downturn.
But Russian euphoria over Ukraine will inevitably fade, and the Russian economy is still a garbage fire, so if Putin wants to feel secure in his rule he needs to deliver another big political victory. Syria was never it. Public support for the war was initially low, and while it later improved, it was never as popular as Ukraine. Russian state media, often a good bellwether for Kremlin thinking, is portraying the war as a victory — but also as ending:
For all its trouble, Russia has, at best, returned to the status quo of 2014: when its ally Bashar al-Assad was neither winning nor losing the stalemate in Syria; when Russia, its economy sinking and influence declining, was isolated and sanctioned by the West; and when Putin had only one foreign war to worry about fighting. That's the baseline that Russia fought so hard to return to. But it seems to have gotten there.