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.