Russia's president produces a media bomb every six months. But what does the withdrawal mean and entail?
Putin's announcement that he has ordered "the major part" of Russian forces in Syria home has come as a major surprise to most everyone which is exactly as was intended and exactly the way Putin conducts his politics, especially in recent years.
Recall the surprise military takeover of Crimea (spring 2014), import ban on EU food (summer 2014), the cancelation of South Stream (late 2014) and the beginning of Russia's Syria intervention (fall 2015). None of these were telegraphed in advance but instead ordered out of the blue so as to have the biggest impact as possible.
So what is the intended message of this latest move and who is its intended recipient? Germany's Foreign Minister and Bloomberg News have so far commented that this Russian move puts added pressure on Assad. That is true but Russia's communications with Damascus are wide open. Putin doesn't need to amplify the gravity of his moves by conducting them in a way that keeps the media guessing to get a message across to Bashar Assad. (In fact Syria has explained it was briefed in advance of the move.)
More likely the Russian president is speaking to those Russians who feared, as well as those Western governments which predicted and looked forward to Russia becoming stuck in an Afghanistan-like quagmire. Moscow is showing them it's far too smart for that and signaling that it's Syria goals remain limited.
Thus the move is simultaneously a Vladimir Putin's tiny victory lap where he's saying: "look we've done so much already we could withdraw completely tomorrow and very credibly be able to declare victory", but it's also a signal that he has not been carried away by the spate of recent victories and that Russia's goals in Syria remain strictly limited and do not entail winning a total victory in the civil war for Assad.
Another question that arises is what does the withdrawal mean for the Syrian-Russian war effort? Which Russian forces are actually leaving for home?
Putin has elaborated the withdrawal will not affect Russia's naval facilities at Tartus and the Latakia airbase. Russia has maintained a repair dock in Syria's Tartus since 1971 so it was only to be expected it would not be part of a pullback of forces that only landed last year.
The much more relevant information is that Russia's air group in Syria will remain put. In fact in terms of impact it is really the 50 Russian aircraft in Latakia which form "the main part" of Russian forces in Syria as they've been the ones carrying out the greatest number of combat actions.
Also if the Russian air legion is staying behind there is no doubt that so is the rotation of Russian missile cruisers parked off the Syrian coast as well as the anti-air batteries on land. After a Russian Su-24 was shot down by Turkey in November there is no way Moscow would compromise its beefed up anti-air umbrella that defends them.
That would leavee the following options: Russian advisers helping Syrians familiarize themselves with deliveries of new Russian weapons such as T-90 tanks and TOS-1 missile launchers. The infantry battalion providing security for the Russian airbase in Latakia. And any previously unadvertised Russian special forces troops, perhaps observing and helping to direct Russian air strikes – as well as providing a search & rescue for any downed pilots.
All of these aspects of Russian involvement are an asset to the joint Syrian-Russian effort but none is such that it could not be taken over by Syrians. Instead of sending their own technical advisers to Syria Russia could train up Syrian advisers in Russia.
Syrians are already protecting their own air bases so they could protect the Russian one as well – particularly now that Al Nusra has now been pushed back and nearly cleared from Latakia.
Also the Russian air force can also work with Syrian observers which it is doubtlessly already doing. Moreover when the Russian Su-24 was downed in November it was actually Syrian rather than Russian special forces which carried out the ground rescue mission.
The only aspect of the Russian involvement in Syria that if downgraded could not be adequately replaced by increased joint efforts is the actual air and anti-air capability that Russia's strike group and air defense batteries provide. And it is exactly these that Russia may still be keeping put.
Thus it is possible that Russia withdrawing "the major part of its contingent" (whose majority are the common infantry securing the Latakia airbase) will not have a radical effect on the Syrian-Russian war effort at all.
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