Moscow has once again shaken up Syria — this time, by leaving it. Russian President Vladimir Putin, boasting that his military had fulfilled its mission to combat international terrorism, ordered his Defense Ministry to begin the withdrawal of Russian ground forces from the war-torn country starting March 15. But such an unexpected move raises a larger question over Russian strategy.
Russia intervened in Syria for several reasons. Its stated goal was to fight the Islamic State and other militant groups to which many Russian nationals (and other former Soviet nationals) belong. Although Russia ended up concentrating the bulk of its attention on rebels fighting the Syrian regime rather than on Islamic State fighters, there is no denying that Russia has indeed contributed to the serious damage inflicted on Islamist militants over the past months.
Haunted by past failures of intervention, Russia also wanted to demonstrate to the world — particularly to the United States — that it could successfully assert itself militarily and politically beyond its borderlands. The Kremlin wanted to have its voice heard. In the weeks after Russia first intervened in Syria, U.S. President Barack Obama downplayed Russia's actions, saying that Moscow acted out of weakness. In the months since, Russia (along with Iran) has stabilized and bolstered the Syrian regime and the forces loyal to it. In addition, its involvement in Syria, limited though it was, has given Russia the opportunity to brandish its refitted military, demonstrating its recovery from post-Soviet decay.
Russia is not completely abandoning Syria with the drawdown. Although Moscow has indicated that its main air grouping will be withdrawn, it has given no firm withdrawal end date and has made it clear it will keep the Bassel al Assad air base near Latakia and the naval base at the port of Tartus. And for now, it can afford to. Russia may be suffering economically, but the cost of operations in Syria — a few million dollars a day out of a $50 billion defense budget — are pretty tolerable for one of the world's largest defense spenders. (Russia's involvement in the conflict has actually netted the defense industry several contracts from foreign buyers impressed by new Russian weapons.) Still, it's worth noting that there are some in Russia, mindful of how costly it would be to honor an open-ended commitment to the Syrian regime, who have pressured the government to wind down operations. The Russian people enthusiastically support operations in Syria, as long as the conflict doesn't kill too many Russians. They don't want another Afghanistan.
Putin made the announcement, then, to change the perception of Russia's behavior in Syria. But to what end? Is Moscow positioning itself to arrange a larger bargain — not only in Syria but with the West elsewhere?
Given its timing, Putin's announcement appears to be an attempt to shape the latest round of peace negotiations, which began March 14 in Geneva. In what has been called a last-chance effort to strike a peace deal, delegations from the Syrian regime and the opposition are meeting with U.N. envoys this week. The Syrian regime submitted a political proposal to the United Nations on Monday, while the opposition delegation called on Russia to use its influence over the regime during the negotiations. With Russia pulling back on ground operations, Moscow is either positioning itself as an arbiter, or it could already have secured a deal from the regime that it soon will unveil. Either way, the Kremlin is trying to peg the future of the Syrian conflict on its intercession to gain leverage elsewhere.
Moscow could also be reshaping its role in the conflict to transform perceptions beyond Syria. Another reason Russia initially intervened in the region was to gain advantage with the West over an issue more imperative to Moscow: Ukraine and the related Western sanctions. Moscow has failed to use its clout in Syria to budge support from the United States for Kiev or to have sanctions imposed on Russia lifted. The Kremlin also knows that both sides have stalled on progress in the Minsk talks over the fighting in Ukraine. However, Russia's leverage, at least in Europe, has grown in recent months as Syrian refugees continue to flock to Europe. If Russia changes its operations in Syria, it could slow the migrant flight. However, this option is complicated by the state of Russian-Turkish relations. Russia could hope to not only shape perceptions of its positive contributions in Syria negotiations, but also in the EU migrant crisis.
In the coming months, Russia could try to pick away at the negative atmosphere surrounding the country leading to a critical vote in July by the European Union on renewing sanctions. Following the first formal meeting between EU foreign ministers on Russian policy in more than a year, Italy and Hungary (both countries Russia actively lobbies) said March 14 that an extension of sanctions on Russia is not automatic. It takes a unanimous vote to extend EU sanctions, so Russia just needs one dissenting EU member to reject sanctions — something it was unable to secure in the past.
Russia is orchestrating multiple strategies for multiple outcomes, and no outcome is guaranteed. The only guarantee is that Moscow will continue to maneuver in this ever-changing region of the world.