The Russia announcement on March 14 that it was planning to partially withdraw troops from Syria did indeed result in recalling part of its forces from the battlefield. However, Moscow’s overall military involvement in Syria’s conflict was not reduced, as Russian fighting jets have continued to conduct nearly two dozen sorties daily against rebel groups, Russian military officials report. More importantly, the movement of Russian ships to Syria since President Vladimir Putin's announcement of the partial withdrawal indicates that Moscow has shipped more equipment and supplies to Syria than it has brought back in the same period, a Reuters report shows. Therefore, it is important to carefully reexamine Putin’s announcement in light of the news report and verify if Putin’s announcement was a trick to fool everyone, including his allies, and gain more leverage in the conflict.
Russia’s intervention in Syria was announced on September 30, 2015 and its aim was mainly to stabilize the Syrian regime and secure a better position at the negotiating table to end Syria's five-year conflict. Russia’s air campaign focused on bombing armed opposition groups and civilians opposing Assad’s regime, which enabled the regime to recapture key areas across the country from rebels. But suddenly, Putin made his shock announcement on March 14, ordering the withdrawal of the major part of his country's forces in Syria. “I feel that the objective set before the Defense Ministry and the Armed Forces is generally fulfilled, so I order the Defense Ministry to begin withdrawing the main part of our military group from the Syrian Arab Republic beginning tomorrow,” Putin stated. However, Russia has kept a considerable part of its forces, along with its main air and naval installations, active in Syria, which allows it to resume operations with relative ease and rapidity.
Analysts interpreted the Russian partial withdrawal in differing ways, with the majority of interpretations focusing on projecting their ideas rather than investigating beyond the surface of the announcement. It is fair to say that there are some indications that the withdrawal is genuine; there is also solid evidence that the withdrawal could be a ruse. Military officials in Moscow stated on March 18 that Russian aircrafts would continue to fly tens of missions a day against targets in Syria despite the announced pull-out. The heavy presence of Russian airstrikes was obvious last week in the Syrian regime’s offensive to recapture villages in south Aleppo on April 6. This indicates that the Russian partial withdrawal didn’t significantly affect the military capacity of the Russian forces in Syria to support regime during key operations.
Moscow has in fact shipped more equipment and supplies to Syria than it has brought back in the same period, according to an exclusive report by Reuters. While it’s unknown what the ships were carrying, the Reuters report claims the movements suggest a massive effort by Moscow to maintain its military infrastructure in Syria and keep regime forces supplied. The report argues that there is no sign of any slowing down on the scale of equipment and supplies sent to Syria. Furthermore, Russia is also likely to have reinforced its naval force in the Mediterranean Sea and now appears to have more warships near the Syrian coast than at the time of Putin’s withdrawal declaration. These warships, which reportedly number more than a dozen, are equipped with long range cruise missiles and give Moscow the option of firing missiles from the sea. Moscow had previously reported the launching Kalibr cruise missiles at targets inside Syria.
If the reports of continued military build are true, why would Putin go through all the trouble to convey the perception that Russia was withdrawing? According to Danielle Ryan, a media analyst, Putin’s quick withdrawal proves that Putin’s decision to intervene was right and successful, contradicting the Western narrative on Russia’s intervention. “The Western narrative of the Russian intervention revolved around the idea that Vladimir Putin was making a huge gamble, setting himself up to get bogged down indefinitely and that it would be his ultimate undoing,” Ryan argued. Additionally, Moscow gains more leverage on both its enemies and allies by scaling back its direct military support. The limited withdrawal could scare Assad and push him to make more compromises. Russia in the past challenged the Syrian regime’s ambitious declaration that its stated goal was to retake the whole country. Furthermore, the Russian announcement will please the US, who will be keen to compromise and work with what appears to be a moderating Moscow.
“Moscow had been planning to scale down its operations in Syria due to financial reasons and in order to push the political solution forward while it still had the upper hand. Putin played his cards right by claiming a victory and scaling down publically instead of discreetly,” said a diplomatic source based in Brussels who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The announcement was a clever tactical move as it has allowed the Russians to frame a partial withdrawal as a victorious end to a limited, focused military campaign. “It really is a brilliant move to call something by another name. It is as if it started to rain and we announced a program to clean the city,” said Pavel Felgenhauer, a Russian military analyst. The partial withdrawal announcement could also serve to protect Putin from future failures in Syria, as he has already labeled his intervention there as a victory.
The importance of differentiating between a necessary scaling down and a partial withdrawal is not just a technical detail, it helps one understand the strategy behind the Russian move. More research is needed to reveal what Russian military capacity in Syria truly is and whether their partial withdrawal was a strategic decision or tactical necessity. The assumption is that Putin cannot be so devious. But seriously, can’t he?