Love him or hate him, but for better or worse Russian President Vladimir Putin has a talent for surprising the world. After six months of Russian air campaigns in Syria, Putin announced unexpectedly on 14 March 2016 that Russia would be withdrawing most of its armed forces from Syria.  This decision goes contra to two ideas: first, that Putin would back his client in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad, to the very end; and two, that intervention would entrap Russia and Putin in a quagmire conflict. However, these two views do not take into account that the logic behind Putin’s actions in Syria is multifaceted and influenced by numerous factors.

Firstly, Putin never had any intention of dragging the country into a prolonged conflict in Syria or of escalating it beyond an air bombing campaign. Putin had a plethora of historical examples as warning of what happens when a great power becomes embroiled in a conflict with large-scale ground troop involvement within a highly fragmented and war torn society--particularly in the Islamic world. Furthermore, Putin was cognizant of not being able to afford an escalated conflict given the Russian economic difficulties caused by Western sanctions and the global oil price drop.  Indeed, the country’s economy has contracted by 3.7 percent, unemployment is estimated at 7.4 percent, and even Russian military modernization was forced to recalibrate due to a 5 percent cut in the annual military budget.

Secondly, Putin knows that, irrespective of the ultimate outcome of the conflict, none of the combatants would be able to govern over all of Syria given the war-fractured government structure and deep divisions within the country and its territory. Instead, Putin chose to prevent the defeat of Assad and his forces and help the two consolidate their stronghold in Damascus, the Mediterranean coast, and in north Syria. Putin seems firmly determined to keep these possessions by declaring his intention to keep the Russian naval base in Tartus and the Khmeimim airbase in Latakia, alongside the highly advanced air defense system S-400. In this way, Russia has enabled a territorial stronghold for Assad and his Alawite community that ensures that Russia’s assets are safe.

However, there are other factors beyond Assad and Syria that conditioned Putin’s strategic thinking and actions in Syria. Ever since the end of the Cold War, Russia has been the staunchest opponent and critic of the US policy of military unilateralism, regime change and humanitarian interventions. In the Russian perspective, these interventions are troublesome because they bypass the UN Security Council, where Russia has veto power; thus, it denies Russia the ability to influence events and represents a symptom of its diminished role in international affairs. Moreover, it speaks to the fear that the regime in Russia itself will one day be forced to undergo regime change.  Russia believes that by preventing the collapse of the regime in Damascus, it is establishing at least some form of restraint on US interventionism and preventing the practice of regime change and unilateral military intervention becoming established precedents and a new norm in international affairs.

Furthermore, Russia’s worry when it comes to regional hot spots like Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria is motivated by the question of how this instability will impact Russia’s Muslim population. Will the regional extremism and instability spill over in Central Asia, South Caucasus, and Chechnya?  Thus, Putin would much rather have Assad in power, no matter the costs, than have another failed state with all the risks and uncertainties that it entails for Russia’s southern flank.

Putin’s actions have prevented the defeat of Assad and enabled him to sit at the negotiating table from a stronger position, instead of from the position of a losing party.  At the same time, Russia can afford to not have Assad in Damascus and can accept other forms of power arrangement--as long as respect for minimal Russian influence in the country is ensured, and as long as the government does not collapse in a fashion that leads to anarchy and the rise of militant and Jihadi groups.  Russia has proven its stance in this regard before; for example, in February 2012 it proposed Assad’s peaceful departure from power as part of the peace talks. At the same time, by withdrawing a major part of Russian forces, Putin disciplined his disciple, Assad, from becoming overly reliant on Moscow and forced him to show flexibility in peace talks. This became evident when Assad became emboldened with territorial gains made with Russian military help, announcing the desire to take hold of the whole of Syria. In turn, Russia warned him of such a move and urged him to take peace talks seriously.

Finally, although the ultimate fate of Assad and the ending of the peace talks is impossible to predict, it would appear that Putin’s Syrian strategy seems to have worked for now, as he has achieved his goal of ensuring that Russia is an unavoidable actor whose interests must be considered during Syria talks.

by Vuk Vuksanovic
Senior Researcher