Putin did it his way
Putin’s sudden announcement of partial withdrawal from Syria left us all stunned. Why would any leader withdraw his soldiers in the midst of a war? What is Putin after?
First of all, this is the only time when he could claim victory and was the exactly right time to say, “I have achieved my objectives.” The cease-fire in Syria has been going on for two weeks, though not perfectly. In other words, there has been a shift from a search for a military solution to a political solution for Syria. In addition, the third round of the Geneva talks was held last week. Therefore the claim for a victory would be out of context and irrelevant if he were to wait a little bit more.
Moreover, from now on Putin will have to give his struggle at the table in Geneva rather than on the field. This means that he will have to share the cake, the greater part of which he keeps a hold of at the moment. Hence time is up to show some heroism.
Beyond all these reasons, Putin has changed the balance of power on the ground in his favor to the best of his ability. He has strengthened Assad’s hand and provided him with a strong seat at the table in Geneva. He has also supported the PYD (Democratic Union Party) to the extent that he allowed them to open their first office abroad in Moscow. The fact that two days ago PYD declared autonomy in the three cantons in northern Syria (Rojava) is partly by means of this support.
Russia’s crowning achievement has been securing permanent military bases in Syria, namely the ones in Tartus and Latakia. Russia will also continue to dominate Syria’s airspace via the S-400 missile system it had deployed in the country right after its jet was shot down by Turkey. Besides, Putin has also used the Syria war to show the whole world Russia’s military power and capability to launch operations even in areas far from its borders.
Now by withdrawing partially from Syria, Putin is drawing the image that he is the one who calls the shots, i.e. a leader who decides the time when to enter and to withdraw without consulting, even informing others.
He also tries to create the perception that he is a global actor supporting the Geneva process, aiming for peace and acting in accordance with the U.S. In this way, he is improving Russia’s appearance as “an equal of the U.S.,” which he managed to create by intervening in Syria and joining the fight against ISIL along with Washington.
Additionally, by announcing that he has achieved his goals in such a short time, Putin is sending a message to President Obama, who has been repeatedly and insistently saying that he doesn’t want to engage in another war like the one in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thereby Putin also challenges the U.S., who has so far relied on Russia’s airstrikes against ISIL in Syria, implying “Now what are you going to do without me in this mess?”
Furthermore it would be too naive to assume that Putin has taken this step without coming to an agreement with the U.S. behind the scenes. The fact that Hezbollah, which is under Iran’s influence, has also moved a reasonable amount of its militia from Syria simultaneously, signals such a deal too. After all, Russia would not give up Syria to Iran in the absence of an agreement.
In this lot of give-and-take, Russia and Iran must have certainly secured a quid pro quo from the U.S., which must be in relevance to the protection of the current Syrian regime, i.e. to the protection of the interests of these two countries in Syria.
By partially withdrawing from Syria, Putin is also pushing Assad to negotiating table in Geneva; in other words, to conferring with the opposition groups. According to Frederic Hof who is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and was special advisor for Syria under former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Putin is trying to demonstrate that he is forcing Assad to negotiate and that at the end, the Geneva process will prove to be inconclusive. In this way he expects the U.S. to accept Assad to remain in power in the due course.
Moreover through this critical move, Putin also lets Assad know that he won’t back the Syrian president in case he won’t negotiate with the opposition. This is why Moscow warned Assad for the first time publicly last week, saying that “he had to follow Moscow’s leadership if he wants to resolve the crisis.” Meaning: “Don’t go too far, know your place!”
Another reason behind this decision is purely “emotional.” The operation in Syria used to cost about $3 million daily for Putin. The Russian economy is already in a tight spot. The sanctions imposed on Moscow after the Ukraine crisis have been the cherry on the top.
Last but not least, by declaring that he has already achieved his objectives, Putin has also revealed the fact that the fight against ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) had not been one of his aims at all since ISIL is still as steady as a rock.
In short, Putin has achieved all what he was after and made the exit at the time he set up, further to that only after screwing some compromise out of the U.S.
Yet as he plainly put yesterday, he might pitch into military might soon again if the balance of power on the ground starts to turn against him. So stay tuned.