Putin's Game in Syria

Why a Withdrawal Does Not Mean a Pullout

Russian President Vladimir Putin, June 24, 2007. Damir Sagolj / Reuters

On March 14, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced without any warning that he would be withdrawing his main forces from Syria while maintaining Russia’s bases and forces in the coastal provinces of Latakia and Tartus. This came as a surprise for most, but Putin’s announcement is not actually a pullout from Syria, and it is also consistent with his strategy there to date.

As I argued in Foreign Affairs last fall, the Kremlin has been following a policy of “reasonable sufficiency” in Syria, which means using just enough force to convey that Russia still has significant influence in the country, but not so much that it got pulled into a messy war. To ensure the right balance between using too little and too much force, Moscow used a combination of diplomacy and military intervention in Syria, an approach that falls under a doctrine known as “New Generation Warfare.” Moscow understands its military and diplomatic operation in Syria is far from over, but its overall assessment of its intervention is positive, given that it has reversed the course of the war and met most of its initial goals.

In Moscow’s view, its heavy strikes on forces attacking the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have significantly weakened the opposition and killed hundreds of Islamic State (also known as ISIS) fighters, strengthening the incumbent regime and making the political process more attractive to all fighting parties. Russia has also expanded its stronghold in Syria, positioned itself as an indispensable player in the Middle East that succeeded where Washington failed, and diverted attention from the conflict in Ukraine. Another of what Moscow considers its achievements includes testing state-of-the-art weapons systems in Syria, showing off military capabilities to advance its arms sales and sending threatening signals to NATO. Furthermore, this proved a cost-effective way to train its forces. All the while, Moscow facilitated parallel diplomatic meetings with the international community in Geneva and Vienna, as well as separate reconciliation talks with opposition groups

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