Russia withdrawing from Syria. What is going on? Part 1

by omouggos

Putin has pulled a fast one on everyone by withdrawing from Syria (

The big and surprising news on Monday was Russia announcing the withdrawal of its military forces from Syria, five months after commencing its military intervention in support of Bashar al-Assad.[1] The withdrawal has already started with Russian Su-25, Su-34 and Tu-154 aircraft, along with their crews, flying home.[2]

Just as many were surprised by Russia’s initial foray into Syria, almost everyone is even more surprised that they are, rather abruptly, leaving. However, in all honesty there were signs that tension were emerging between Russia and their allies Assad and Iran, which were causing Putin to possible rethink his role in Syria.[3]

Regardless, what makes the situation all the more unexpected is that the Syrian Civil War appears far from settled and that Assad has much work to do to ensure his survival. Ostensibly with Russia’s Middle Eastern foreign policy dependent on Assad’s survival, why would Russia decide to pull their military out of Syria with such unfinished business remaining?

First of all it should be realized that what has been announced is not a complete withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria, just the “main part” of it.[4] There will still be Russian forces at the port of Tartus and the airbase of Hmeymim. Apparently the troops that remain will be used to observe the ceasefire agreement, but one wonders if Russia will still be conducting airstrikes in a limited manner.

The formidable S-400 surface-to-air missile system will also remain in Syria, to act as deterrent of foreign aircraft entering Syrian airspace in support of the rebels. According to DEBKAfile the Russians will withdraw the S-400 system from Syria if Saudi Arabia withdraws their warplanes from the Turkish Incirlik airbase.[5]

Also Russian could forces return to Syria if needed. Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to Assad, has stated that the withdrawal of Russian forces “does not mean they cannot return.[6] While Putin has said, “If necessary, literally within a few hours, Russia can build up its contingent in the region to a size proportionate to the situation developing there and use the entire arsenal of capabilities at our disposal.[7] As such if Assad is once again in a precarious situation, Russian forces could easily return to Syria to provide backup.

With all this in mind here is what the President of Russia Vladimir Putin had to say about the withdrawal:[4]

“I consider the objectives that have been set for the Defense Ministry to be generally accomplished. That is why I order to start withdrawal of the main part of our military group from the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic starting from tomorrow. …

In a short period of time Russia has created a small but very effective military group [in Syria]… the effective work of our military allowed the peace process to begin. …

Syrian government troops and patriotic forces have changed the situation in the fight with international terrorism and have ceased [sic? maybe should be seized] the initiative. …

I hope that today’s decision will be a good signal for all sides of the conflict [and that] it will significantly increase the level of trust for all participants of the peace process in Syria and provide for peaceful means to solve the Syrian issue.”

So if we are to believe Putin, his Syrian intervention has been resounding success and by pulling out of Syria at this moment the stage can be set for the signing of a peace agreement that will once and for all bring the bloody and internecine Syrian Civil War to an end. All this sounds very nice, but is this the real reason for Putin’s pullout?

    What are Russia’s objectives in Syria and have they been achieved?

If Putin has concluded that his objectives have been achieved in Syria, one could ask what in fact are those objectives? I have previously written on why Russia is in Syria and here are eight possible reasons or objectives for Russian intervention in Syria:[8]

  • Stabilization of the region.
  • Protecting Christian minorities.
  • Opposing the West and preventing the rise of a regime friendly to the West.
  • Fighting terrorism (i.e. degrading ISIL and other Sunni Islamist groups).
  • The Russian port at Tarsus.
  • Weapon sales to Syria.
  • Testing of weapons and military capabilities.
  • Future gas/oil pipe that may traverse Syria.

Beyond these eight possible motivations, there are three more based on the analysis of Sergei Karagonov that I think are important to consider:[9]

  • Balance of power in the Middle East.
  • To show Russia’s stature as a world power.
  • To provide a distraction from the Ukraine situation.

So lets run through this list of Russia’s possible objectives pertaining to Syria and see if they have been achieved. With regards to stabilizing the region, to a certain extent this has been achieved as Assad is now in a  much more secure political and military position than he was prior to Russia’s intervention.[10] However, it cannot be said that Syria has been stabilized as war is still waging in many parts of the country, notwithstanding the recent ceasefire agreement, which could at any moment fall apart.

It can be argued that the Christians of Syria are better off now, not because all threats to them have been eliminated in Syria (they haven’t as ISIL is still in control of a large portion of the country), but because Assad is not under immediate threat of defeat. With Assad still around this provides a safe haven for Christians living under his control as he has been tolerant and protective of Christians and other minorities.

In terms of opposing the West and preventing the rise of a regime friendly to the West, Russia’s intervention in Syria has been a resounding success. In many ways Putin has run circles around Obama and Kerry, and his intervention seems to have caused the latter duo to realize and grudgingly accept that Russia is in control in Syria and Assad cannot be easily dislodged. Russia’s intervention in Syria has undoubtedly undermined the unipolar model of global geopolitics and furthered the competing multipolar model, which Russia espouses.

Russia’s intervention has significantly degraded both ISIL and Jabat al-Nusra, two of the most prominent ‘terrorist’ groups fighting in Syria. It has been reported that Russian airstrikes in Syria have “eliminated” 2,000 terrorist fighters who were from Russia.[11] However, the extremist groups are not anywhere near to being defeated, and they still, especially ISIL, pose a threat to Russia. For instance ISIL has recently made a threat “to raid” Moscow.[12] So for this objective Russia, while making progress, has not achieved complete success.

The port of Tartus is still in Russian hands, as is the Hmeymim airbase. Significant amounts of weapons have been sent and sold to Assad, thereby enriching the Russian military industrial complex. So these two objectives have been achieved.

The Syrian Civil War has provided Russia with an excellent proving ground for the testing of an assortment of weapons, from various aircraft such as the Su-34 and Tu-160, precision guided munitions and advanced cruise missiles (Kh-101). Furthermore, the Russia military was also able to test and demonstrate their logistical and command and control capabilities gaining valuable real-world experience.

According to a report based on a confidential NATO analysis Russian airstrikes were “accurate and efficient.[13] In a five month period over 9,000 Russian sorties were conducted in Syria.[11] Obviously Russia’s military acquitted itself in Syria and has increased its international prestige.

As for the securing of a future gas/oil pipeline traversing Syria from Iran, it is difficult to say whether this objective has been achieved, if in fact this is an important objective at all. Syria is still unstable enough that the building of pipelines will not be endeavored anytime soon, although at least the competing Qatari pipeline will not be building anytime soon as well.

The balancing of power in the Middle East is probably the most interesting objective, as the Russians not only want to limit the power of America, Saudi Arabia and Turkey (their obvious adversaries) but also that of Iran (ostensibly their ally). By pulling out now, Russia has strengthened Assad enough that he should be able to at least persist in power for the short term, but he is not powerful enough to completely retake the country. This will prevent strengthening of the Shiite Crescent (i.e. Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran), stopping it from becoming the predominant power in the Middle East. At this moment neither the Sunnis or the Shiites are powerful enough to predominant in the region, which, if we are to accept Sergei Karagonov’s analysis, appears to be to Russia’s benefit and liking.

Putin’s decisive action, both in entering into the Syrian conflict and exiting it, along with the already mentioned performance of his military has undoubtedly increased the prestige of Russia and has re-cemented Russia’s status as a world power on par with the US. In fact I suspect that based on Obama’s behavior and performance with regards to Syria and ISIL, that Putin is now seen as the world’s preeminent leader and statesmen.

The final objective is that of providing a distraction from the ongoing civil war in the Ukraine. Obviously when Putin intervened in Syria this diverted attention away from his ‘intervention’ in the Ukraine. The only problem is that by now pulling out of Syria, the attention will once again fall on the Ukrainian situation.

Based on my analysis, Russia has by and large achieved its objectives in intervening in Syria. It has propped up Assad, who is now secure in power for at least the short term, and thereby has thwarted America, and her Sunni allies, aims in the region. While Assad has been stabilized he is still not strong enough to outright dominate the region, which ensures that there is a balance of power in the region, between Sunni and Shiite. The main objective that has not been achieved is the complete elimination of the terrorist threat in Syria emanating from groups such as ISIL and Jabat al-Nusra.

Amazingly Putin has accomplished much in Syria after only five months of aerial bombings. So when Putin states that his objectives have been “generally accomplished” he is not exaggerating or lying.

However, there is a single danger to Putin’s success. His main objectives are predicated on the maintenance of Assad, or an Assad-like regime, in Syria. While, Assad is currently safe in power, if Russia air power is taken out of the equation, will he be able to fend off the rebel groups with only direct assistance from Iran and Hezbollah?

Assad’s future survival is further endangered by the possibility of foreign intervention by Syria and Turkey, a possibility which is made more likely by Russia’s withdrawal. So if Assad is eventually overthrown, will this not undo all of Putin’s accomplishments in Syria?

Obviously Putin is an intelligent person, who is aware of such hazards. This is why he has left the S-400 system in Syria, and will only remove it if Saudi Arabian warplanes pull out of Turkey. It is also why the Syrian army has been supplied by Russia with advanced T-90 tanks and self-propelled artillery so Assad will be better able to deal with the rebels.[14] But is such military equipment sufficient to prevent foreign intervention against Assad or to stop the rebels from regaining the initiative?

It appears that Putin is banking on the current ceasefire agreement and the new peace talks now occurring in Geneva to bring stability to Syria, maintain Assad in power, and therefore secure his long term objectives. It is likely that by strengthening Assad, Putin has placed his ally in a favorable position in the coming negotiations and that he will use his international influence and clout to secure a deal favorable to him.

But the problem with this strategy, and I suspect Putin is aware of this problem, is that regardless of whether a favorable agreement is reached, there is no guarantee that the rebel groups, especially ISIL and Jabat al-Nusra (which I believe are not even included in the negotiations) will abide by any such agreement. Neither is their no guarantee that Turkey or Saudi Arabia will abide by it. I am sure Putin is well acquainted with the perfidiousness of Turkish President Erdoğan.

It appears to me that to put trust in any peace agreement pertaining to the Syrian Conflict is taking a rather large risk. If the situation backfires against Putin, then he will either be forced to once again come to the rescue of Assad, or he could very well lose an important ally and undo all of his achievements gained by his intervention in Syria.

As I highly doubt that Putin is this naive or geopolitically amateurish, I am led to believe that there are other reasons which compelled him to pull out of Syria as abruptly as he did.

Read Part 2 here.

O Mouggos


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[8] See my previous post Why is Russia in Syria?