Russia’s unexpected move to wind down military operations in Syria could have positive foreign policy and domestic policy benefits.


Pictured: Russian President Vladimir Putin, centre, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu during their meeting in the Kremlin. Photo: RIA Novosti

For a very different take read: "Three lessons from the Kremlin's decision to withdraw from Syria"

The decision to withdraw Russian troops from Syria matches the style of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his foreign policy team: the move is both unexpected and effective. 

The Kremlin actually behaved very cautiously in the Middle East, deciding to leave at a particularly auspicious time. The military operation was a gamble, but one that appears to have paid off for Russia. Moscow chose a very convenient moment: the departure of Russian troops from Syria makes it possible to resolve several problems at once, including both foreign policy and domestic challenges.  

First, such moves show the readiness of Moscow to maintain the peaceful process not only with words, but also with deeds, because Russia’s airstrikes have been one of the major factors that irritated the Syrian opposition. Now the opponents of the current Syrian regime will have fewer arguments.

Second, the Kremlin sends a signal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that the support of Russian aviation is not limitless and he should find common ground with his opponents or fight alone. Recently rumors came from Damascus that the recent victories of the pro-government troops, with the support of Russian aviation, encouraged the Syrian president and his backers to continue the war until they won. This was very noticeable during the recent Geneva negotiations, when the Syrian pro-government delegation seems to have been over-confident. So, the announcement of Putin is a wake-up call for Damascus.      

Now Russia has gotten a chance to present itself as a neutral force, which saved the Syrian state from collapse, but at the same time, shied away from fighting for the regime of Assad, whose miscalculations and flaws were repeatedly addressed by Moscow.

Third, the withdrawal of the major part of Russian troops from Syria is a signal to the West and to the countries of the Middle East region that Russia is not intending to turn Syria into a beachhead for restoring Soviet influence in the Middle East. This will alleviate the misgivings of Turkey and the Gulf states, which met the Russian intervention in Syria with a great deal of concern. So, the Kremlin’s decision to depart from Syria decreases risks of dangerous incidents, such as Turkey’s downing of the Russian Su-24 jet on the Syrian-Turkish border.   

In addition, despite the attempts to compare Russia and the Soviet Union, Moscow is actually interested in improving its relationship with the West, which has always been Russia’s major trade and investment partner. Regarding the Gulf countries, Moscow has been trying to establish cooperation on investment, energy and nuclear cooperation with them, but the differences over Syria and, especially, Russian airstrikes, harshly criticized by the Arab media, have hampered such a partnership a great deal.  

With the decrease of the Russian military presence in Syria, the risks of incidents with Israel, another Middle East country, are decreasing. The Israeli military was rumored to have warned their Russian counterparts about possible strikes on Syrian targets, but the risks of unpredictable incidents have been very high, especially after the basing of the S-400 missile systems in Syria. 

As paradoxical as it sounds, the decision of Moscow is hardly likely to please Washington. It is not ruled out that the U.S. was not against Russia bombing the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). But the Kremlin demonstrated once again that it could be very subtle in its foreign policy decision-making without showing off constantly its military capacity.

At the same time, it is worthwhile to keep in mind that Russia will remain one of the most influential participants of resolving the Syrian crisis, because it proved its capability to act decisively and use military force when necessary. After all, Russia can deploy and increase its Air Force units once again and very fast, because the infrastructure created in Syria will not disappear.

Also read: "Can the major powers manage their allies in the Syria conflict?"

One should not forget about the domestic aspects of the Kremlin’s move to withdraw its forces from Syria. From the first day of Russia’s military campaign, one of the major fears among Russians was the repeat of Afghanistan, when the Soviet Army was stuck there for years and was engaged in a bloody and unnecessary war. The fact that Putin prevented such a conflict will be met with approval in Russia.    

Finally, one should keep in mind the military operation in Syria is very expensive. Amidst the background of low oil prices, it would have been a serious burden for the Russian budget. Even though the financial factor is not determining, alleviating the budget burden is very relevant now, because recently the political opposition started criticizing the Kremlin with rigor and tenacity for wasting budgetary resources on different foreign policy projects.      

However, the Kremlin won’t let down the Syrian government and leave it on its own. The Russian support restored the military capacity of the Syrian Air Force, which now will fight with terrorists and opposition more extensively. At the same time, some Russian military advisors will stay in Syria. They will teach local military units and repair and maintain military equipment. There will be deliveries of weapons and ammunition. The Syrian army will maintain its military capacity thanks to Russia, so that nobody will be able to accuse Moscow of betraying its allies.

Thus, it seems that Russia has found a way to benefit twice from its participation in resolving the Syrian crisis: first, when it suddenly started airstrikes and flexed its military muscles and, secondly, when it unexpectedly withdrew its forces and decreased its military costs and risks.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.