Recently, Russian President Vladamir Putin announced that he would be withdrawing Russian military equipment and personnel from Syria. After a relatively brief intervention to prop up Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad, it appears that Russia is departing. That is deceptive, however, because in reality Russia is not leaving Syria. While Russia is certainly drawing down forces, it will still maintain a significant presence in the country. As Dmitry Gorenburg and Michael Kofman explain, “Putin simply moved pieces on the board, without altering the equation.”
So, why is Putin removing forces at all? The answer is threefold. First, Russia has accomplished its two major objectives. It has managed to secure and upgrade its bases in Tartus and Hmeymim, thus ensuring that it will be able to maintain a meaningful presence in the Middle East and Mediterranean. Moreover, by intervening against ISIS and the rebel groups fighting against the regime, Putin effectively prevented a rebel takeover of Damascus, thus guaranteeing that Assad remains in power. Second, Putin is trying to avoid a long, costly war. Russia was able to achieve success relatively quickly, and Putin doesn’t want to risk his approval ratings by getting bogged down. After all, recent U.S. interventions demonstrate the political dangers of leading a country into a never-ending war. Third, Putin wants to increase his leverage over Assad. By withdrawing Russian forces, Putin is signaling that his commitment to the Syrian regime is not absolute, and he is willing to leave if Assad doesn’t acquiesce to Russian demands. Recently, Assad asserted that he would fight until he regained full control of Syria, a position that frustrated Putin immensely. It is not surprising, therefore, that Putin is reminding Assad of where the power really lies.
What’s interesting, though, is that Russia is not actually retrenching. Instead, Putin is merely withdrawing the troops surged to Syria after the Turkish shootdown of a Russian Su-24 back in November. While the Russians are withdrawing its Su-25s, Russian Su-34s, Su-24s, Mi-24s and Mi-35s will all remain in theater. Moreover, Russian forces in Syria will retain their S-400 SAM batteries and are receiving new helicopters in the form of Ka-52s and Mi-28Ns. In other words, Russian forces will maintain a significant presence in Syria for some time. The reason that Russia is maintaining its presence is simple: it wants to continue to exert influence in the region, and it wants to be able to apply coercive pressure against anti-Russian and/or anti-Assad elements in the Levant. Russia has already invested significant amounts in propping up the Assad government and upgrading its regional military facilities. They aren’t going to abandon those sunk costs without a reason.
The Russian withdrawal is nothing more than posturing. It’s designed to appease an increasingly restless domestic audience while reminding Assad that he must comply with the Kremlin’s demands. Syria seems to be ever so slowly moving in the right direction, but if anyone expects Russia to withdraw completely from the region, they’ll be sorely disappointed.