Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprise announcement on March 14: the Russian Air Force will pull out of Syria.
For nearly six months, Russian jets have been providing air support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, helping him stabilize his government after a string of defeats in spring 2015. Now, Putin seems to be saying those days are over. But are they really?
Looking more closely at the Russian president’s statement, what was actually said and what might this mean for Syria’s future?
Monday Night in Moscow
In a now well-publicized meeting at the Kremlin on Monday, Vladimir Putin gathered Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and asked them to report on Russia’s operations in Syria. Their message was that the military operation had worked according to plan and that Russian forces had accomplished great things for the peace process. Quotes below are from a published transcript of the meeting.
Shoigu started off with a string of statistics and names:
The terrorists have been driven out of Latakia, communication has been restored with Aleppo, Palmyra is under siege and combat actions are being continued to liberate it from unlawful armed groups. We have cleared most of the provinces of Hama and Homs, unblocked the Kweires airbase, which was blocked for more than three years, established control over oil and gas fields near Palmyra: three large fields that, as of now, have begun to operate steadily.
Having heard this, the president turned to his foreign minister for a report on the political side of the conflict. Lavrov was no less bullish about his achievements:
We have consistently advocated establishing an intra-Syrian dialogue in accordance with the decisions made in 2012. Our suggestions were met with a lack of will on the part of all our partners working on this process. But since the start of the operations by our Aerospace Forces, the situation began to change.
The initial steps were gradually taken, first based on your talks with US President Barack Obama: the Russian-American group began to prepare a broader process for external support for intra-Syrian talks. An international Syria support group was created, which included all the key players without exception, including regional powers. Agreements on the parameters for the Syrian political process achieved in this group were approved by two UN Security Council resolutions, which confirmed the three-way process of ceasing hostilities, broadening access to humanitarian supplies in previously besieged areas and starting intra-Syrian talks.
Thanks to these decisions, including your latest agreement with President Obama, today intra-Syrian talks between the Government delegation and delegations of multiple opposition groups have finally been launched in Geneva.
After the two ministers, it was Putin’s turn to summarize the situation, culminating in the big announcement of the evening:
I feel that the objective set before the Defence Ministry and the Armed Forces is generally fulfilled, so I order the Defence Ministry to begin withdrawing the main part of our military group from the Syrian Arab Republic beginning tomorrow. I ask the Foreign Ministry to intensify the Russian Federation’s participation in organising the peace process to resolve Syria’s problems.
At the same time, our base points—our maritime base in Tartus and our aviation base at the Hmeymim airbase—will function as before. They must be protected securely from land, sea and air.
This part of our military group was located in Syria over the course of many previous years, and today, it must continue to fulfil the highly important function of monitoring the ceasefire and creating conditions for the peace process.
Wait, What Just Happened?
The world is now scrambling to understand what Putin meant and what this means for Syria. There are a few different ways to read the situation, and they are not mutually exclusive.
Putin may be telling the truth. The Russian intervention has achieved quite a lot. It has undercut the Syrian opposition, stabilized Assad’s government, and produced a peace process on more favorable terms for Assad than was previously possible. Perhaps Putin was always planning for an intervention of limited duration and kept Assad informed about this. With a truce in place, now is a good time to start scaling it down.
Meanwhile, other forms of support to the Syrian government are likely to continue and, if the peace process collapses, Putin could easily reverse his decision. Remember, the Hmeymim and Tartus bases will remain operational, which leaves Russia with all the infrastructure it needs to resume airstrikes on short notice.
Putin may be bluffing. The Russian government is not above a bit of wartime subterfuge and Putin saying something is not the same as Moscow actually doing it. The Kremlin has very consistently lied about its troop presence in eastern Ukraine and about what insurgent factions are being targeted in Syria. It is possible that the Russian president is simply telling his enemies what they want to hear, in order to mollify critics in the White House and gain time, without any intention of stopping the attacks.
The announcement on Monday was vaguely phrased. At no point did Putin say that he would end military operations in Syria. Parse his words and you will notice that he only commits to “begin withdrawing the main part of our military group,” while leaving some troops to guard the Russian bases, monitor the ceasefire, and engage in “creating conditions for the peace process.”
Putin may be banking on the failure of the peace talks. He knows he will be able to find plenty of excuses to delay, alter, or reverse his decision later. Even if a significant number of aircraft and pilots were to be pulled back to Russia, they can return to Hmeymim in a matter of days.
What matters here is not how many planes are on the tarmac in Latakia at any given moment, but whether or not Russia retains a capacity to continue operations, and whether or not it intends to do so.
Putin may be trying to get out of a quagmire. The first couple of months of the Russian intervention in autumn 2015 achieved almost no territorial advances. Many warned that Putin would come to regret his decision to intervene in Syria, saying it was a “quagmire.” U.S. President Barack Obama used the term within days of the first strikes.
In November, however, the Russians scaled up their efforts and by the end of the year, it was clear that the strikes were having an noticable effect on rebel defenses. In early 2016, the Syrian army was able to move forward on several fronts, most importantly in Aleppo. By that time, U.S. intelligence services had also concluded that the the Russian operations were, in fact, economically and logistically sustainable.
In other words, Putin is not losing; he actually seems to be winning. But as any good gambler can tell you, it does not matter how many games you win unless you know when to cash in your chips and walk out of the casino.
Even with Russian support, a complete nationwide military victory for Assad remains unlikely. Putin may now have concluded that a peace deal on Assad’s terms is also beyond reach. If that is his analysis, he might want to shrink his visible investment in the Syrian regime to make it easier to remove Russia from the conflict later on—if or when that seems necessary.
This may be part of an American-Russian deal. The Russian announcement might have come in response to U.S. requests or as a part of some secret arrangement underpinning the Syrian peace process. The withdrawal of foreign troops from Syria is a demand set by the opposition and Putin’s announcement may therefore facilitate the peace talks now starting in Geneva.
On the other hand, the White House does not seem to have been informed about the Russian decision in advance. Both governments agree that Obama and Putin only got in touch by telephone after Putin’s announcement and, according to the Financial Times, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had not spoken to his Russian counterparts since Thursday. In other words, while advance knowledge of the Russian declaration may have been conveyed in secret or picked up by intelligence sources, chances are this was a unilateral Russian move.
Putin may be seeking to pressure or punish Assad. Despite what may be said in public, Bashar al-Assad cannot be happy about a Russian withdrawal.
Yet, Kremlin spokesman Dimitry Peskov insisted that Assad knew of it beforehand. “Everything voiced at the meeting was told our Syrian colleagues and coordinated with president Assad,” he claimed, following Putin’s announcement. A statement from the Presidency of the Syrian Arab Republic also gives the impression that the troop withdrawal had been mutually agreed upon by Assad and Putin in a phone call before the announcement.
This is not entirely convincing. According to the Russian presidency’s website, Putin’s phone call to Assad took place immediately before making his public announcement—and it came “at Russia’s initiative.” That does not sound like a joint decision.
The Syrian response was also slow in coming. Instead of making a joint address with the Russians or releasing a simultaneous statement from Assad, Syrian state media remained uncomfortably silent after Putin’s declaration, until Minister of Information Omran al-Zoubi finally phoned in to the state television to assure viewers that all was well. Hours later, the presidency issued its own statement, which also seemed intended to dispel the idea that there could be any daylight between Putin and Assad.
But what if there is? In advance of the Geneva III talks, the Syrian government has made a great show of its own intransigence. Assad recently told a German journalist that there would be no political process except in the framework of his own tailor-made constitution. Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has added, in clear contradiction of the Geneva III ground rules, that the government will not even discuss issues related to the presidency. By contrast, the Russians have formally committed themselves to arranging a transitional process, even though they would clearly prefer for it to end with Assad staying.
If Putin is upset over Assad’s behavior, or if he needs to show Americans, Saudis, Turks, and Syrian rebels that he is on top of the situation, he has very few tools at his disposal. Reducing or threatening to reduce military aid might in fact be the only way he can force Assad to pay attention.
So, was this Putin’s way of telling Assad that if he does not accept Russia’s advice, he will not get its air support either?
Or did Putin just kick the ball over to Obama? The U.S.-led war on the self-proclaimed Islamic State, in which Russia is a bit player, is finally beginning to pay dividends. The jihadi group has lost significant territory to U.S.-backed Kurdish militias and is now under very severe pressure.
As the truce enters into effect elsewhere in Syria, Assad has used the Russian air cover to maneuver himself into the perfect position: his army stands poised to deal major damage to the Islamic State. East of Aleppo, Syrian troops are finally free to move on Deir Hafer, where they could occupy a key network of roads. They may even be able to launch a pincer movement from there and Ithriya, further south, in order to completely sever Islamic State communications with Aleppo and the Turkish border, which would be absolutely devastating for the group. East of Homs, government troops seem to have prepared for an attack against the Islamic State in Palmyra. Losing the city would be a major symbolic defeat for the jihadists and it would undermine their reach into central Syria, putting them back on the defensive.
But if Putin withdraws, can Assad accomplish all of these things on his own, or any of them? Maybe the withdrawal announcement was Putin’s way of telling Obama that if he really wants pull the rug out from under the Islamic State, he is going to have to work with Bashar al-Assad; Russia will no longer do it for him.
Keeping All Options Open
The bottom line is that we do not know. True to form, Vladimir Putin has sprung another surprise on the world and the rest of us are now trying to figure out what is going on.
Any one of the scenarios described above could be true, or none of them, or several.
Indeed, Putin might be betting on several of these options at once. Yesterday’s announcement could simply be the Russian president making a preliminary play to open up new options, allowing him to sit back and watch the reactions before he decides on the proper way forward.