What’s so confusing? Last year when President Putin said he was going to take military action in Syria he was quite clear about his intentions – he said the engagement would “be limited in time”. He said “We will support the Syrian army exclusively in its legitimate fight against terrorist groups”: He said ‘Support will be provided from the air without taking part in ground operations,”.
There will now be some troop movement, the Russians did hit what they deem to be ‘terrorist groups’, and there was very limited ground activity. But because a partial withdrawal has begun most analysts seem to think it is a bolt out of the blue.
Back in September there was a flurry of ‘Putin’s Afghanistan’ articles as experts rushed to say he was biting off more than he could chew, some saying Russia was incapable of dealing with the Ukrainian and Syrian crises simultaneously.
Happily, there were a few more clear eyed observers around who know not to assess Putin as if he were troubled by morality, and who understood that contrary to popular wisdom he is not a mere tactician – he is a strategist.
Among them was Andrei Sushentsov, associate professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations who back in October had already worked it out. In an article in Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer argued that Putin’s intention was to pursue a limited engagement, committing minimal resources, allowing Moscow to test its new military kit, win new arms contracts, and re-establish itself as a power in the Middle East. Sound familiar? It’s exactly what has happened.
The W&Y also argued, but with less detail, that this was Putin’s intention. On numerous occasions we described the Putin plan as ‘The Ikea option’ insofar as if you looked at the amount of kit committed it could be ‘flat packed and moved out in a week’. Of course this was an exaggeration, but the point made was that this was not Putin’s Afghanistan.
So, why draw down now? And in fact is he drawing down?
Timing is everything. Putin has bombed his way to getting Assad a place at the negotiating table. And this week is the week the Syrian peace talks resume in Geneva. By signaling (again) that support is not open ended, Putin has given a hint that Assad needs to compromise (we shall discover in time the degree to which that is so), and he’s also (again) played the sober statesman. We’ve argued all along that he will tie this to trying to get the Ukraine related sanctions against Russia lifted, and this is still the case. Any deal which emerges (and that remains doubtful in the near future) will entail having a leader in Damascus who is not hostile to Russia, and who will agree they can keep their port and air facilities in the country.
Many of the Russian ground forces will leave. However, Putin is certain to leave at least several hundred troops in Syria. Some will be for ‘force protection’ – he needs them to guard the port and airport they use – and some will be Special Forces’ and intelligence officers. He will also leave several jets there, and probably position a couple of vessels in the Mediterranean and/or Caspian Sea equipped with cruise missiles.
So, Putin did not charge blindly into Syria biting off more than the Bear can chew. Nor is the Bear about to rush off home without making sure its cubs are safe.