Could Putin’s Syria Withdrawal Backfire?

March 17, 2016 

In each installment of “CGI Asks,” a selection of experts respond to a question about developments related to Russia and the broader region.

This week, we asked whether President Putin’s surprise announcement of a Russian troop withdrawal from Syria could have negative consequences for Russia at home or abroad.

Yury Barmin, Strategic Risk Consultant on Russia in the Middle East


BarminOne of the reasons Putin decided to start withdrawing forces is precisely to avoid a possible backlash, both military and political. Clearly for the money and forces that Russia has contributed to this operation, it has received close to the best possible result, and the Kremlin must have understood that there is a limit to which they can prop up Assad without contributing ground forces. 

But the withdrawal of forces could in fact backfire in Syria. Some extremist groups that may feel empowered by this move could use this opportunity to conduct offensives in targeted areas, first of all in Aleppo and south of Damascus, contributing to continuing violations of the ceasefire. Russia’s stated goal of fighting terrorism in Syria was clearly not fulfilled, and that means the flow of Russian fighters who join ISIS and then come back has not been curtailed. So the pullout, even a partial one, may pose a domestic threat as well. 

Russia’s withdrawal makes Assad and the opposition come to the negotiating table.

But all these risks taken into account, it was a rather well-calculated and logical decision to start withdrawing forces. By doing so Putin is pressing both Assad and the opposition to start talking to each other. The Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee (HNC) has got what it wantedan end to the Russian air campaign—and now it has no excuse to stay away from the Geneva talks. Assad, on the other hand, may feel less secure now that Russian jets are not readily available to prop him up, so he may become more flexible and give up on some of the aggressive rhetoric that he recently adopted.

Alexander Golts, Military Analyst and Deputy Editor-in-Chief, Ezhednevny Zhurnal


Putin’s decision to reduce military forces in Syria has more positives than negatives for Russia. Moscow took advantage of the truce to avoid the threat of being drawn into a major ground operation. Such an operation would inevitably mean a large loss of life, the possibility of which still remains taboo for Putin.

But the withdrawal is not complete. According to the Russian press, up to 20 airplanes (a squadron of Su-24 bombers and 4-6 Su-30 and Su-35 fighter jets), as well as the S-400 air defense system will remain at the Russian air base in Syria. Putin pointedly noted: “All our partners have been warned that our air defence systems will be used against any target that we deem to be groaning and threatening Russian service personnel. I want to stress: any target.” This effectively means the introduction of a no-fly zone over a significant part of the Syrian territory. Obviously the Kremlin fears that the United States or Turkey might take advantage of the reduction of Russian troops to start their own massive air operation. It is clear that the emergence of a Turkish aircraft in the Syrian sky could cause a serious incident. Moreover, Putin hinted at the intention to avenge the death of  the Russian bomber shot down by Turkey in November 2015.

Russia could be preparing for a joint assault with Assad. 

A demonstrative withdrawal of the aviation unit could mask latent preparations for a strategic assault by Bashar al-Assad’s forces with the help of the Russian military. The departure of the Russian aircraft may also reinforce the hopes of the “moderate opposition” that they might have a chance to remove al-Assad by military means. As a result the Geneva talks might be disrupted, leading to a return to full-scale civil war. There is also a risk that this situation will be used by terrorists of the Islamic State. So far, Russian air strikes had inflicted relatively minor damage to them.

Finally, and most importantly, the Kremlin took full advantage of the opportunities offered by the military mobilization of the Russian population. The need for the Syrian operation became clear to Putin as soon as he was forced to stop hostilities in Ukraine. In conditions of economic crisis, it is possible that the government will  want to start another “small victorious war.”

Gordon Hahn, Analyst at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation and Adjunct Professor, Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey 

Gordon HahnThere are ways that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s draw down of Russian forces in Syria could backfire in the region or at home. However, the way the intervention was introduced and implemented reduces the potential for backfire. Putin stated at the time of deployment that Russia’s military intervention would be limited in both military (largely air forces, no ground combat ops) and temporal terms (limited duration). This and Moscow’s enhancement of its military infrastructure in-country during the first deployment gives the Kremlin considerable flexibility, something Putin prefers to operate with. He can now de-deploy or re-deploy, if necessary, at will. This, in addition to excluding Russian ground operations, helps to avoid the dreaded quagmire scenario.

The potential drawbacks could be fixed with a timely Russian re-deployment.

That said, there are scenarios in which the original 2015-2016 intervention, the subsequent withdrawal and/or any future failure to re-deploy can be questioned and thus backfire politically and otherwise. First, if any of the gains produced by the intervention—such as saving Assad, reasserting Moscow’s role and interests in the region, killing and thus degrading Islamic State (IS) and other mujaheddin, exposing the fecklessness of the U.S. brand of fighting jihadism, and inducing peace talksare lost or diminished, this can and likely will be characterized by Russia’s enemies, ‘frenemies,’ foes and ‘froes’ at home and abroad as ‘lost gains’—winning the war but losing the peace, as it were. This could force an otherwise undesirable re-deployment which could then backfire.

More concretely, any breakdown or loss of Russian stakes at the peace talks in Geneva could be similarly blamed on the decision to draw down forces ‘in an untimely fashion.’ Second, the Assad regime can turn out to be unable to sustain its current offensive or even a stalemate without Russian support, requiring a risky re-deployment and further expenditures of real and political capital. Third, we do not know the extent of agreement that existed between Moscow and Damascus on the general decision to draw down, or on its scale and timing. Therefore, there is a possibility, despite Assad’s considerable dependence on Moscow, that any downside suffered by the Syrian side as a result of the draw down could damage Russo-Syrian relations. Fourth, the West, Turkey, the Gulf Arabs and/or Iran could use Russia’s less robust presence to increase their own influence in Damascus and/or their position on the battlefield, and thus at the Geneva talks, at Moscow’s expense.

Fifth, there could be renewed, intensive fighting and/or resurgent terrorist activity in the region or in Russia by IS or its North Caucasus affiliate (the Caucasus Vilaiyat of the Islamic State), Jabhat al-Nusrah, Al-Qa`ida, or even the nearly defunct Caucasus Emirate. If so, then the costs of the intervention might be seen as not having been worth the risks—especially if any of the aforementioned groups were able to carry out a wave of attacks inside Russia in the near- to mid-term. Although it might be true that any such terrorist wave could have been worse without the intervention, this is impossible to demonstrate and would prove a difficult sell to critics of the Kremlin.

But again, these potential cases of backfire could be at least temporarily mitigated by a timely re-deployment.

Scott Lucas, University of Birmingham, Editor of EA WorldView 


Scott LucasVladimir Putin’s sudden declarationcombined with a developing Russian alliance with the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD)is a short-term tactical victory. Moscow retains the diplomatic initiative while keeping other powers, notably the United States and Turkey, off-balance.

However, it does nothing to resolve the longer-term problem for Russia. With no foreseeable political resolution in the near-future, the Kremlin has the options to “back Assad” or “dump Assad,” neither of which are particularly attractive. Moscow has no alternative to the Syrian President, but he is becoming an increasing burden on Russia’s public line of desiring a negotiated outcome.

The withdrawal is a short-term victory for Russia.

There are also ancillary burdens for Russia. The embrace of federalism, as well as uncertainty over Assad, could strain links with Iran. The alliance with the PYD is a risk, given its combative relationship with other Kurdish groups inside and outside Syria, such as the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government. And the growing cost of intervention, combined with other economic issues facing Moscow, should not be underestimated.

Ekaterina Schulmann, Senior Lecturer, Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA)

SchulmannIn terms of domestic politics, the withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria can be considered a successful move. Russian foreign policy has one primary goal: to generate an attractive and entertaining picture for TV. On the one hand, such a war-for-TV can achieve a “victory” at any moment, and this victory might consist of any randomly selected event that can be declared a “game-changer” in the war and a triumph for the Russian military.   

On the other hand, in order to sell the image of a foreign-policy victory to the Russian viewer, the government has to fulfill two conditions that would appear to be contradictory. For the Russian viewer (who, in a hybrid autocracy, plays the role that a voter would play in a democracy), the high demand for foreign-policy victories and the “strengthening of Russia’s role in the world” is combined with a fear of loss of life, especially if that entails “our” people dying somewhere far from home. You can say it’s the trauma of Afghanistan, which exists equally in the minds of the Russian citizens and the political leadership. For the latter group, this takes the form of the myth that the Americans lured the Soviet Union into Afghanistan so that it would perish there, while today’s Russia knows better and won’t make the same mistake twice.

In Russia, foreign policy victories are engineered for TV.

This trend can be seen in domestic polls about Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine: even during the peak of rising hostilities in 2014, the number of Russians who supported direct military intervention was small and decreasing. Respondents said they were willing to support humanitarian assistance and political patronage of the east, and even the incorporation of new territories, but very few wanted Russian boots on the ground. This, among other things, explains the government’s apparently inadequate efforts to conceal Russian losses in Ukraine.

In other words, we want victory without having to pay for it. This desire might appear childish and unrealizable, but in the current situation of imitation politics it is easily achieved: the military campaign has to take place in a faraway location with an exotic name, be effective and brief, and entail minimal loss of life. Individual fallen heroes can be recognized and celebrated posthumously, which is in fact what happened to the four Russian fighters killed in Syria, whose widows attended a ceremony in the Kremlin on March 17. But no one wants to see a stream of coffins arriving from depressing villages with Soviet names in the Donbass. 

In that regard the Syrian campaign drew upon the lessons of the Ukrainian campaign, which was long, dirty, steeped in lies and with no clear result. By contrast, the Syrian campaign appears fast, successful and elegant: instead of anonymous graves, whose exact number is unknown, we have individually named heroes, whose president proclaims them to be “real men and courageous fighters” in front of the entire country.

Wladimir Van Wilgenburg, Kurdish Affairs Analyst, Jamestown Foundation


wilgenburgSo far, it seems that Russia’s military position in Syria has not changed that much from before the announcement of the withdrawal. Nevertheless, there is no need for Russia to keep a large military presence in Syria if the ceasefire between the Syrian rebels and the Syrian government continues to hold. For Russia it is also more logical to withdraw, since its military bases in Latakia are now safe. For Russia there is a risk that it could get stuck in a protracted conflict between the Syrian regime and the Syrian rebels.

Russia’s withdrawal could embolden the Syrian opposition and stall the Geneva talks.

There is a high possibility that the Geneva talks will fail. The Syrian delegation leader Bashar al-Jaafari said he would not talk directly to the Syrian opposition delegation because it includes people he considers terrorists, and he made clear that the presidency of Bashar al-Assad is a red line. This contradicts the position of the Syrian opposition that calls for Assad’s departure, with Saudi-backed rebel negotiator Mohammed Aloush even calling for putting Assad on trial and executing him.

However, if Russia pursues a serious withdrawal, it could embolden the Syrian opposition and rebel groups to resume fighting. They could also present more serious demands to the Syrian government at Geneva, if they have the feeling that Assad does not have Russia’s full support.

The Center on Global Interests provides an open platform for discussion. The views expressed here are the authors’ alone, and do not reflect the positions of their affiliated organizations.