Putin’s surprise withdrawal is not only to leverage Assad into constructive peace talks. It is also about creating more options for Russia to influence the direction of the military conflict and political transition as things change both in Russia and on the ground.
Russia’s announced withdrawal from Syria marks another surprise tactical manoeuvre that has been viewed by many as another foreign policy win for Russia. It is showing itself as a committed party to a peaceful and non-military solution in Syria at a time of renewed peace talks and a shaky ceasefire. Russia is using its military leverage to persuade Assad to be constructive in finding a political solution. The West must be wary. Unsurprisingly, the reality is not exactly as Russia first stated, given that the withdrawal of Russian fighter jets from the Khmeimim airbase has occurred as Russia continues airstrikes with the Syrian government over Palmyra. Russia is not only trying to help broker a genuine peace process to assist a partial exit, but it is also simultaneously hedging to create further options to ensure it remains influential in the conflict’s direction.
Although it has not achieved its stated objective of fighting ISIS in Syria, Russia has indeed achieved many of the real foreign policy goals in Syria. It has phrased its fight in the region as one against terrorism to gain support at home. It has undermined the West’s credibility in the Middle East, showing it up as indecisive and narrow-minded in its objectives. Russia has successfully maintained Assad’s position, not only to defend ‘legitimate’ leaders facing regime change, but also to leverage him to cooperate in peace talks and a political transition process when the time is right. Russia has strengthened its military foothold. It will maintain the reinforced Tartus naval base and the newly-established Khmeimim airbase and will no doubt seek to secure them long-term through the political transition process. Russia is not yet finished in Syria, but it is adapting to new challenges in order to maintain maximum influence.
The genuine part of the withdrawal, which has lately seen the return of SU-25 combat aircraft and IL-76 transport planes from Khmeimim, allows Russia some financial relief. It was estimated in December that the conflict in Syria cost Russia $8m a day. Funding this will become more challenging given discussions of 5% cuts to the RUB 3.14 trillion (approximately $45 billion) defence budget. Not only is the legacy of the Soviet intervention into Afghanistan fresh in many Russian minds, but Putin knows that as the economic situation at home deteriorates, it will be harder to justify to the Russian population defence spending on a military intervention abroad.
The announcement also comes at a time where Russia has visibly become irritated with an increasingly challenging partner. Assad has recently exuded over-confidence as a result of the gains granted by Russian airstrikes, much to the annoyance of Russia. As February ceasefire talks failed, an empowered Assad suddenly announced that instead of committing to political transition he would fight for the full control of the country’s territory. Russia, in an unusually direct response, warned Assad that there would be ‘dire consequences if he did not comply with Moscow over the peace process’. A report last year cited Assad’s alleged refusal of Moscow’s request to step down. This frustration with Assad is not necessarily new, but Russia is aware of the liability risks Assad poses to Russia’s credibility in supporting him.
Russia’s reputation has also been damaged internationally given its assistance to him in bombing Syrian civilians. In January, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Russian airstrikes had killed over 1,000 civilians, and schools and hospitals appeared to be targeted in the Aleppo offensive in February. Given Assad’s notoriety for committing such acts of violence, it has been harder for Russia to distance itself from this with the usual denials and dismissals. The Russian government itself may not find this of particular concern, but it still undermines its role as ultimate peacemaker within the conflict.
Russia also needs to demonstrate its credibility in the peace process to other regional players. Russia has earned respect from other key regional players, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar based on Russia’s willingness to engage diplomatically whilst also fighting with a regime most in the region want to see gone. Russia has been very aware of the anxiety its alliance with Iran and Hezbollah cause to the region, particularly to its Israeli allies. Russia has handled this well, but as the Syrian side and its allies are emboldened, this balancing act could become more challenging. There have already been rumours in the Israeli press that Russia had halted supplies of the S-300 missile defence system to Iran amidst allegations that Iran is supplying Hezbollah with Russian weapons.
Russia, once again, is acting to maximise its influence and relevance to the conflict based on a rapidly changing military and political arena. This tactical partial withdrawal allows Russia to adapt to challenges at both home and those that it is facing in its tricky alliance in Syria. Russia is by no means withdrawing completely, but the symbolism of the announcement and partial withdrawal is significant to reinforcing Russia’s central role in the conflict.