After five months of bombing the enemies of Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad, Putin has declared that the Russian mission in Syria has been successful and he is taking Russian combat troops and attack aircraft out of Syria.Putin’s sudden decision to pull out came as a shock to the world. But should it have?
What was Putin’s objective?
Putin’s objective in Syria was fairly obvious to many observers. He went into Syria to do two things; save his client state (the Assad regime) and preserve the Russian naval base in the Mediterranean. What was not obvious was how he was going to achieve this given the entrenched rebellion.
Now we have our answer. Like Putin’s interventions in Syria and Georgia, the Syrian campaign was conceived of as a limited war. Putin never intended to totally destroy the rebellion or take Raqqa from ISIS. It was simply not necessary. The Russian naval and air bases in Tartus and Lakatia are now safe and the Assad regime is no longer in danger of imminent defeat. With those facts on ground, Putin has no reason to expend the lives of Russian soldiers to fight a group that no longer threatens key Russian interests.
War is politics
Remember that war is, after all, politics by other means (as the saying goes). War is about achieving political ends through force, not total military victory. This paradigm is seems to be hard for American’s to grasp, but there are ways to achieve political objectives without total victory or regime change. Putin’s objectives in Syria were limited; therefore, the force he needed to use was limited. Simply strengthening Assad’ position was enough to shift the political situation in his favor.
Putin wanted to protect his naval base and keep Assad in power. These objectives were realistic and attainable without a long term and costly deployment. A total victory was simply not necessary (or advisable). Putin was not going to repeat the the mistakes the U.S made in Iraq by getting bogged down fighting militants while his own power and political capital diminished.
Holding his gains
Russia has also taken steps to ensure that Assad’s gains are not reversed. They have implied that the will still fly air patrols over Syria and will keep the S-400 air defense systems in place, likely to prevent a coalition no-fly zone from being implemented. The Russians are also unlikely to stop supplying Assad with weapons. Russian Advisers would remain to instruct the Syrian army and soldiers will remain to guard Russian bases.
Putin is not calling it mission accomplished. After the Russian warplanes and troops leave there is still the work of a cementing a favorable political solution from Assad’s new position. Putin can use the leverage created by his recent battlefield success to further his political ends in the diplomatic arena. He can do something American haven’t been able to do in years; turn military success into a political outcome.
Putin has done this before
This limited intervention in Syria mirrors the situation Putin has created in Eastern Ukraine. After the initial objectives of securing Crimea and creating a proxy in East Ukraine were completed, he stopped offensive action and solidified his gains. He stocked the Ukrainian rebels in the Donbas with advanced Russian armored vehicles, small arms, and artillery. He preventing the Ukrainian army from defeating them and maintaining his foothold in Ukraine’s east.
If the T-90s showing up in Syria are any indication. Putin is doing the same thing with the Syrian Arab Army. When he leaves, he expects them to hold onto the gains he has given them while he deals with the new created diplomatic and political situation.
Like he didn’t need to take Kiev to influence Ukraine, Putin doesn’t need to conquer Raqqa or Aleppo to achieve his objectives in Syria. Putin’s decision to pull out of Syria was smart, nuanced and something the United States could learn from. Total victory was never the plan, but with his military success Putin may have a victory coming in the upcoming peace talks.
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