The 'shock' Russian withdrawal was little more than evacuation of idle planes which the partial truce had made excess to requirements
A near week later we finally have enough information to really know what Putin ordering "the withdrawal of the main part of Russia's military contingent from Syria" on Monday means and entails.
For one thing it does not mean that forces Russia has been fighting on the side of – the Syrian army, Kurdish militias and some opposition groups – have been abandoned. Firstly not all strike aircraft have been withdrawn, instead some continue to assist these forces. Secondly Putin has now clarified that withdrawn aircraft could return at any time if things went south – and do so within hours:
“Of course, if such a need arises, Russia can, in several hours, build up its forces in Syria to a size capable of dealing with an escalating situation and use the entire range of means at its disposal,” Putin said.
Moreover, as RI's Alexander Mercouris pointed out yesterday Russians already had more planes on the ground than they could find targets for:
What is perhaps being overlooked is that following the recent declaration of the truce the tempo of Russian bombing in Syria had already declined markedly even before the announcement of the partial withdrawal was made.
The reason for that almost certainly is that because of the truce the Russians now have fewer targets to bomb.
What this has means is that at the time of the partial withdrawal announcement the greater part of the Russian strike force at Khmeimim air base was actually standing idle.
The choice was whether to leave the aircraft standing idle at Khmeimim air base or to bring them back to Russian.
Not surprisingly, in light of everything previously said, the decision was taken to bring them back to Russia.
The "shock announcement" of Monday may have been nothing more than Russians rebasing planes which after the partial truce became excess to requirements of the Syria mission anyway.
That also means that the "grand bargain" between Russia and the US that some speculated was behind the Russian withdrawal was never struck. That's a shame because such a deal is probably the only thing that can bring peace to Syria.