What Putin doesn't say about Russia's withdrawal from Syria

What Putin doesn't say about Russia's withdrawal from Syria
Analysis: Russia's surprise decision to pull the bulk of its forces out of Syria reveals only part of Moscow's agenda for the country and the limitations of intervention.
3 min read
15 March, 2016
Regime supporters were taken back by the Russian decision to pull out most forces [AFP]
From the first day of the Russian intervention in Syria on 30 September 2015 it was clear that the few thousand Russian troops deployed to Syria as "advisers" were not meant to take part in ground operations.

Nevertheless, the decision to withdraw the bulk of Russian forces - as announced by President Vladimir Putin on Monday evening - is a very significant move. 

A large part of warfare is about symbolic gestures and messages. Putin's decision could be the translation of a US-Russian deal over a political settlement in Syria, which it appears now means that Bashar al-Assad will be excluded from power.

Or the withdrawal could reflect a sense of hopelessness among Russia's political elite regarding the possibility of "taming" Assad and forcing him to abide by the Russia's agenda, which was probably agreed with Washington last year during meetings in Vienna.
Putin's shock decision could be the translation of a deal with the US or frustration with Assad...or both
Either way, the fact remains that the Russian president's decision is a major shock.

The decision to withdraw Russian forces from Syria is no doubt a key moment in the Syrian conflict. It is akin in its importance to the crucial Vienna talks by world powers, the chemical weapons attack by the regime on Ghouta, and the 2012 bombing of a security headquarters in Damascus, which killed several leading regime figures.

Yet what Putin did not state in his decision on Monday remains more important than what he did state:

- Russia is not committed to Bashar al-Assad, personally. The goal of Russian intervention has been a political settlement that serves Moscow's interests, while betting on many horses of which Assad is only one. Other "horses" included the Kurdish forces and other factions, as part of a deal that might extend far beyond Syria.

- The lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq are well established in the minds of the rulers of the Kremlin, who want to avoid Russian troops experiencing the same in Syria.

- The progress achieved by Syrian regime forces on the ground with Russian air cover have hit a peak and pro-Damascus forces can make no further gains.

It is therefore important to put Putin's Bush-style "Mission Accomplished" claim in this context.

What has been achieved is the freezing of territorial advances by either side, in a way that is difficult to alter fundamentally.

In truth, the opposition factions might be able to advance in some areas in Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Daraa provinces.

The opposition may receive a boost, exactly because half of warfare is about symbols and morale.

Yet no doubt, the division of Syria's areas of control remains a difficult and thorny issue.

The geographical division that the Russian and US leaders are probably envisaging remains hard to fathom. Whether it takes the form of federalism or partition, this seems to be the way forward for the US-Russian (and even Israeli) agenda.