What to make of the partial withdrawal? Putin’s a tactical thinker, not a strategist. His decisions often are delayed and impulsive – as clear throughout 2014-15. Interestingly, Tehran was as surprised as everyone else – including the Russian Ministry of Defense.
Russia accomplished readily achievable goals with its limited resources. Moscow strengthened Assad (or an Alawite successor) as we noted would happen in September. Long standing Russian bases in Western Syria will not be overrun now. Strategically, however, the actual controlled ground among the various fighting groups and Assad hasn’t changed significantly. (Professional Western pessimists’ claim Russia always planned to conquer all of Syria with Iran never analytically serious).
The limited, quick intervention in Syria and then withdrawal is perhaps the closest Moscow has come to using its military as it was designed after its calamitous 2008 performance against Georgia – even if accidentally. Syria, not the chimera of massed Soviet-style offensives across Ukraine to Poland, represents the example of the Serdykov (former Minister of Defense) modernization. (In Russian parlance, modernization is now a disfavored term – the new expression is ‘increasing national potential’). The Russian military is becoming optimized more for quick operational fighting around the Russian periphery, not protracted occupations or campaigns in Eastern Europe.
Not everything went Putin’s way. To overcome initial failed Syrian offensives, Russia committed limited ground troops into actual combat and escalated air strikes. Putin’s speech and award of medals confirms their role. The Western-backed Free Syria Army bore the brunt of Russian attacks, ISIS almost none at all. After that, what were Moscow’s realistic military options? Not much. And real and potential costs continued to grow.
At the macro strategic level, Russia’s military gambit failed to create the always unrealistic Grand Bargain with Washington/Europe – Moscow’s coveted Yalta 2.0. Sanctions over Ukraine remain. Washington’s grudging acceptance of a Russian role in Syria is not the same. In Syria itself, uncontrollable risks grew as set forth in the preceding post, ranging from Turkish hostility/regional ambitions, Saudi/Sunni rage (delivered MANPADs as well as threatened troops), Iranian agendas, blowback inside Russia and growing domestic Russian economic crisis. Worse for Moscow, China challenges Russian security influence in Tajikistan and across Central Asian (often ignored by the West).
Of the 15 aircraft pulled so far, about half the limited numbers, are mainly SU-24s and SU-25s: a bomber and ground attack platform. Those would be needed to support future ground operations. While Putin claims he could re-introduce forces to Syria, it would not be as easy this time. Syrian Opposition MANPADs greatly complicate future plans. The remaining fighter force in Syria? More than sufficient to complicate a no-fly zone, deter others and gain time to re-assess within strategic constraints.
Claims circulate in Russia the last few days that the Syrian gambit cost Moscow far more than Putin’s stated price of $480 million. The Russian defense budget going forward is already under massive pressure.
The questions still are many. Is it too soon to call Russia’s efforts Pyrrhic? Syria after 2011 remains true today: watch this space.