PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin

The Center on Global Interests asks six analysts, including EA’s Scott Lucas, about the likely consequences for Russia of President Vladimir Putin’s declaration that “most” Russian forces will be withdrawn from Syria:

“A Well-Calculated and Logical Decision”

Yuri Barmin, Strategic Risk Consultant

One 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 may feel empowered by this move and could use this opportunity to conduct offensives in certain areas, first of all in Aleppo and south of Damascus, contributing to continuing violations of the ceasefire. The stated goal of fighting terrorism in Syria was clearly not fulfilled, and that means the flow of Russian fighters who join ISIS [Islamic State] and then come back has not been curtailed. So the pullout, even a partial one, may pose domestic threats as well.

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 wanted — an end to the Russian air campaign — so now they have no reason to stay away from the Geneva talks. Assad, meanwhile, may feel less secure now that Russian jets are not easily available to prop him up, so he may become more flexible and give up on some of the aggressive rhetoric he recently adopted.

“More Positives Than Negatives”

Alexander Golts, Military Analyst and Deputy Editor-In-Chief, Yezhednevny Zhurnal

Putin’s decision on the reduction of 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.

However, the withdrawal is not complete. According to the Russian press, up to 20 airplanes (a squadron of Su-24 bombers, 4-6 fighter jets Su-30 and Su-35), as well as the S-400 air defense system will remain at the air base. 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.”

In fact, this 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 Russia’s withdrawal 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 in November 2015.

It is also possible that a demonstrative withdrawal of the aviation unit is being used to mask latent preparations for a strategic advance by Bashar al-Assad’s forces with support from the Russian military. General Yury Yarovitsky, first deputy commander of the 1st tank army of the Western military district, was awarded yesterday one of the highest orders of Russia for his participation in the Syrian operation. This confirms reports that Russian tanks have supported government forces.

In addition, the withdrawal of Russian aircraft may reinforce the hopes of the “moderate opposition” that they could remove Assad by military means. The Geneva talks could be disrupted and the country could return to full-scale civil war. There is also a risk that this situation will be used by terrorists of the Islamic State. To be honest, Russian air strikes have inflicted relatively minor damage on 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. It is not excluded that in the current conditions of economic crisis, the government will want to start another “small victorious war”.

“Scenarios for Backfire”

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

There are ways that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s drawdown 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 this 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.

That said, there are scenarios one can imagine 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 — saving Assad, reasserting Moscow’s role and interests in the region, killing and thus degrading Islamic State (IS) and other mujahedin, exposing the fecklessness of the U.S. brand of fighting jihadism, and inducing peace talks — produced by the intervention are 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 then could backfire.

More concretely, first, any breakdown or loss of Russian stakes at the peace talks in Geneva similarly could be 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 the Russian air and other support, requiring a risky re-deployment and further expenditures and political capital to be expended. 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 a renewal of 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-Qaida, 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 be difficult to prove to Kremlin critics. But again, these potential cases of backfire can be at least temporarily mitigated by timely re-deployment.

“Short-Term Tactical Victory But No Long-Term Resolution”

Scott Lucas, University of Birmingham and Founder of EA WorldView

Vladimir Putin’s sudden declaration — combined 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.

There are also ancillary burdens for Russia. The embrace of federalism in Syria, 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.

“A Domestic Success”

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

In 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 of 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 contradict one another. 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 population 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, whereas Russia knows better and won’t make the same mistake twice.

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 without a 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.

“Could Embolden Syrian Opposition”

Wladimir Van Wilgenburg, Jamestown Foundation

So far, it seems that Russia’s military position in Syria has not changed that much from before the withdrawal announcement. 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 will continue to hold. For Russia it is also more logical to withdraw, since its military bases in Latakia are now safe. Otherwise, Russia runs the risk of getting stuck in a protracted conflict between the Syrian regime and the Syrian rebels.

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 is in contradiction to the Syrian opposition, which calls for his departure, with Saudi-backed rebel negotiator Mohammed Aloush even calling for putting Assad on trial and executing him.

However, if Russia is serious about its withdrawal, it could embolden the Syrian opposition and rebel groups to resume fighting or present higher demands to the regime delegations in Geneva, if the opposition feels that Assad is not fully backed by Russia.