Russian President Vladimir Putin this week announced the withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria. While the timing of that move surprised virtually all observers, a Russian withdrawal was inevitable. Putin has accomplished most of his objectives in the intervention, and the costs of the Russian presence were rising. The question now is where the Russian leader will next focus his attention.
Russia sent forces to Syria last August in response to a Syrian government request for aid. Until that time, Russia had backed its longtime (and only) Middle East client with arms but Syrian forces proved unable to defeat separatist rebels, in particular those of the Islamic State extremist group, which were seizing a considerable amount of Syrian territory. Damascus’ pleas for a more forceful presence moved Moscow to send Russian-operated warplanes, tanks, artillery and combat troops.
Ostensibly, those forces were to join the fight against international terrorism, a mission that would suggest, to the rest of the world at least, a readiness to take on the Islamic State and its barbarism. Instead, however, the newly beefed-up Syrian military targeted moderate forces — and enjoyed considerable success. Russian planes flew 9,000 sorties during their six-month deployment, and were instrumental in turning the tide of the civil war and re-establishing Syrian President Bashar Assad as head of a real, although somewhat diminished, state.
A key Russian objective was the survival of Assad. Yet for all the bluster and confidence, Moscow’s ability to ensure that outcome was always limited. It made more sense for Russia to intervene in ways that obliged the West to back Assad as well. That produced a strategy to target the moderates. Putin bet that the West would judge Assad the lesser of the two evils, when compared to the Islamic State radicals, and forget its determination to remove him from office. That gamble has paid off. The West is now prepared to deal with Assad, rather than demand his removal as a condition of any peace agreement.
Ensuring Assad’s survival, however, was the means to a larger end: demonstrating Russia’s continuing global relevance and securing its place as an international power broker. Putin is obsessed with Russia’s status as a great power, a position that he feels his country is being denied in a U.S.-led world order. Intervening in Syria was a way of reminding the West, and Washington, that Moscow is a vital player in international politics and its concerns must be respected. That objective has also been achieved: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry now reportedly speaks almost daily to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Intervention in Syria did not come cheap. Russia is estimated to have spent $700-800 million on the campaign. Officially, just four servicemen lost their live, but most experts believe that number is low. In retaliation for the intervention, the Islamic State claimed that it put a bomb on a Russian passenger plane that exploded over Egypt in October, claiming 224 lives.
And while Putin can claim that he restored Russia’s international status, damage has been done to its image as well. Despite forging a close relationship with Turkey in recent years, relations with Ankara have plummeted during the conflict as Russian warplanes repeatedly violated Turkish airspace; in November, the Turkish Air Force downed a Russian fighter that allegedly crossed into Turkish territory.
Human rights groups have charged Russia with war crimes for targeting hospitals, medical personnel and rescue workers. Cluster munitions, which are banned, have been used since Russia entered the conflict: Either Russia used them or passed them on to Syria to use. Russia is also alleged to have used white phosphorous against targets, including civilians. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that Russian air strikes have claimed the lives of more than 1,000 civilians, including 200 children. Finally, there are charges that Russia has “weaponized” refugees, using them to force Western governments to step up negotiations for a peace agreement on Moscow’s terms — the retention of Assad.
Putin and his supporters will call this “mission accomplished.” But Putin initially anticipated a “decisive three-month offensive producing major territorial gains for the Syrian regime.” In fact, Russian forces were in place for twice as long and there is little change in the amount of territory that Assad controls when compared to before the Russian intervention.
It is only a slight exaggeration to say that Putin is cutting his losses. He has bought Assad some time, but there is no indication that the Syrian leader is prepared to make the concessions needed to forge a unity government that will allow his government to defeat the Islamic State forces. Infighting will continue and the Islamic State extremists will remain a force in the region. If any government is likely to be strengthened, it is the Iranian government, which is also betting on Assad and is now seen as a more reputable interlocutor in the aftermath of the nuclear agreement.
Putin is now likely to refocus attention on Europe and resume his efforts to erode the European consensus against his aggression. Expect more instability in Ukraine and pressure elsewhere on the continent. His great-power ambitions demand nothing less.