Five reasons why Putin’s withdrawal from Syria is a stunning success

Putin’s decisive intervention to help Assad has turned things around remarkably quickly

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

President Putin has already started withdrawing some forces from Syria. As it stands, we don’t know the extent of the withdrawal, or the timetable. As we have learnt, he likes to keep everyone guessing. It has given him the upper hand in the past, and it continues to do so. But what is clear is that as he is leaving Syria, he is holding most of the cards. Consider the following five points:

1. There is no longer any doubt about who controls the fate of Syria:

During the summer last year, it was obvious that nobody was in control of the unfolding mess in Syria. But the Assad government, Russia’s long-term client, was teetering on the edge of collapse. His army had been depleted and many senior officers defected.

Putin’s decisive intervention to help Assad has turned things around remarkably quickly. The brutal, uncompromising tactics, combined with the fact that the presence of Russian boots on the grounds scared off Western support for the “moderate opposition”, has led to a dramatic reversal of fortunes. Russian intervention is undoubtedly the most significant event in the conflict since the initial rise of ISIS.

On the other hand, when he intervened to stop regime collapsing, Putin found he had been given a raw deal. The situation was worse than anyone had thought. He quickly realized that he needed to be quick about it, or he would be caught in a quagmire. This explains the zeal – “shock and awe” if you will – of the Russian intervention.

The other thing is that Assad began to get overconfident from victories with Russian and Shiite militia support, and diplomatically inflexible even with his allies. For these two reasons, it is likely that Putin is rather at the end of his patience with Assad.

The withdrawal signals, mainly to Assad, that what Russia giveth, Russia can taketh away. This should slap some discipline back into Assad, and make him more yielding to Russian diplomatic sensibilities.

2. Putin’s political standing at home has gone up considerably:

The Russian economy suffers under mismanagement, low global commodity prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine. The sanctions are clearly a case of “the West trying to keep the Russian bear down”. Low commodity prices can be explained by reference to some conspiracy theory that Obama convinced the Saudis to flood the market with oil specifically to hurt Russia.

And the fact that it is inexcusable for Russia, a highly educated, highly scientifically innovative country to still be a petro-economy vulnerable to the price shocks of the global market 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union can be glossed over.
What matters is that Putin has declared victory in the Syrian theatre. As Donald Trump would put it, “Russia is winning. Vladimir Putin is a winner.” It seems that to many Russians that is enough.

3. Putin has achieved his main strategic objectives in Syria:

His main objective was to stop the Assad regime from collapsing. This has been achieved. The regime had been a Russian ally for over half a century, and Putin has sent the strongest signal to other similar regimes around the world that Russia will put their money where their mouth is, with boots on the ground to help their allies in trouble. This is in sharp contrast to the United States’ attitude to the Arab Spring, where it was more than happy to see long-term allies such as Egypt’s Mubarak be swept away from power by a popular uprising.

By declaring victory and bringing home troops to huge jubilation with minimum casualties Putin can finally claim to have reasserted Russia’s rightful place as a global super power

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

The other important Russian objective was to fully secure the Latakia port for Russia’s east Mediterranean operations. Just as securing the port of Sevastopol was one of the main reasons for Putin to annex Crimea, maritime access is something that the Russians care very deeply about in their security calculations.

4. Projecting power from Syria:

Despite the formal withdrawal, Russia still controls considerable airspace with numerous S400 anti-aircraft batteries. Russia also intends to follow the American model of regional power projection and convert the Khmeymim airbase into a permanent Russian outpost/base. If this will work anything like American bases, it will be a guarantee that any local or regional challenges to Russia’s preferred status quo is very unlikely to get very far off the ground.

5. Burying the ghosts of Afghanistan and Chechnya:

Just like the US had a Vietnam trauma, so did Russia have an Afghan one. By declaring victory and bringing home troops to huge jubilation with minimum casualties (official figure is three dead) he can finally claim to have overcome this deep-seated fear in the Russian psyche, and reasserted Russia’s rightful place as a global super power. We in the West may not buy it, but it seems Russians are more than happy to get with any increase of prestige and national self-confidence Putin can give them.

All in all, the Russian intervention, as it stands judged at this moment in time is an unambiguous success, and the withdrawal, the ultimate crowning of that success. We may not like it for its brutality and the humanitarian excesses such as systematic targeting of civilian and medical targets (a war crime), but I can’t imagine Putin will lose any sleep over that tonight.
Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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