We Asked an Expert What Will Happen in Syria After the Russian 'Withdrawal'

Vladimir Putin's surprise announcement is just the latest development in a long game of geopolitical chess.

by Brian McManus
16 March 2016, 12:00am

A Russian Su-34 bomber lands after returning from Syria at an airbase near the Russian city of Voronezh on March 15. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a sudden withdrawal of the bulk of his military forces from Syria. Russia has been backing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad against the rebels; a US diplomat told Al Jazeera that the move is meant to send a message to Assad that he is on a short leash. The New York Times described the secrecy surrounding the decision, which caught the vast majority of the world by surprise, as "vintage Putin."

As with everything involving Syria, up to and including the recent tentative "ceasefire" agreement between foreign powers, this news takes some unpacking. (To begin with, Russia is maintaining a presence in the country; the "withdrawal" is far from total.) To learn more about the geopolitical chess game going on here, we got in touch with Elena McLean, an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo's Department of Political Science. McLean specializes in the study of the international political economy and international institutions, with a focus on foreign aid, economic sanctions, and environmental cooperation. "This move makes perfect political sense in every way," she tells us.

VICE: What effect will this withdrawal have on the war in Syria?
Elena McLean: This will probably have a marginal effect on the war. On the one hand, Russia's withdrawal will likely increase the probability of reaching a more permanent solution to replace the cessation of hostilities agreement that is currently in effect. Without Russia's military presence, Syria's president may be more willing to accept some agreement with rebel forces. On the other hand, Russia is not withdrawing completely; hence, President Assad may view this as a promise that Russian support will be available again if negotiations break down and government forces find themselves in dire straits. Iran and Hezbollah continue providing their support for the Syrian government, and Russia did not announce any intentions to stop providing military equipment and other resources to the government troops.

One last factor to consider is the willingness of the rebels to accept a peace settlement with the Syrian government. Russia's withdrawal may make them less willing to accept it because they may perceive that their opponents' capabilities have been diminished, and hence they are now more likely to prevail. As a result, bargaining between the government and rebels is more likely to break down and hostilities are more likely to resume. This suggests that Putin's decision is unlikely to change the course of this conflict.

Does this move make Assad vulnerable again, or does it speak to his regaining stability?
Assad's position is certainly stronger now than before Russia initiated its military strikes. The government forces are not in retreat any more, and the president's hold on power is more secure than last year. The US and its European allies appear to be more willing to entertain the idea that Assad can remain president at least in the short run, until elections can be held and a power transition can take place peacefully.

Watch: The Battle for Aleppo

Putin claims this withdrawal is a result of Russia's having achieved all its goals in Syria. What were those goals?
The official goal was to fight terrorism. More specifically, Putin stated that Russia's objective was to help the government of Syria in its fight against "terrorists" who operate on its territory and receive support from outside. He pointed out that the Syrian government asked for Russia's help, and Russia had to cooperate because of the alliance between the two countries. Also, the military strikes were aimed at stopping the spread of terrorism throughout the region and preventing it from reaching Russia's own territory.

These objectives have been largely met. Note that Putin defined "terrorism" as everybody who was fighting against Assad, which includes ISIS, but also all moderate opposition forces. Putin blamed the US and its allies for supporting these moderate groups and labeling them "opposition" instead of "terrorists." While none of these groups have been decisively defeated, the objective wasn't necessarily to win. Instead, Putin spoke of helping the Syrian government in its fight. By this measure, Russia has achieved its objective. In addition, Russia demonstrated that it respected its alliance agreement, thereby signaling its credibility as an alliance partner. It was also successful in increasing Assad's political stability and presenting him as a legitimate participant in peace negotiations.

There may have been some unofficial goals, of course. Increasing Russia's military presence in the region and beefing up its military installations could have supported Putin's mission to regain the status of a global power player. The US had to negotiate with Russia in order to secure the temporary agreement between the government and rebels, which can now be touted by the Russian president as evidence of his international influence. In addition, Russian military personnel received training that they otherwise would be unable to receive, and tested missiles and equipment in a combat zone. This can be very valuable in other conflicts. Finally, a quick and successful military operation may have served to distract domestic audiences from the significant economic and political problems that Russia faces right now domestically.

About that: The collapse of the price of oil has hurt Russia terribly, and their economy is really fragile as a result. Is there a chance Putin has declared "mission accomplished" in Syria because he simply can't afford to help Assad any longer?
The economic situation is certainly a concern for Putin, but I would not say that Russia has to pull out because it ran out of money. Russia's military budget has been largely shielded from the economic downturn up until now. However, government representatives recently announced that even the military contracts would now be cut by 10 percent. Therefore, the recession may have an effect on Russia's ability to continue airstrikes in the future. Right now the effect of the weakening economy is probably fairly small: Russia's participation probably wasn't too costly because it was using the planes, missiles, etc. that it already had in stock, as long as the mission could be accomplished within a limited timeframe. Hence, it makes sense to wrap up the strikes now before costs begin to add up.

"Putin is very much mindful of the risk of being bogged down in Afghanistan number two."

Do you think this decision by Putin says anything about the alliance between Syria and Russia? Is it weakening in any way?
There was some evidence that there is indeed a rift between Assad and Putin. Putin does not want to be trapped by an overly belligerent ally who was emboldened by his newly strengthened position—Putin is very much mindful of the risk of being bogged down in Afghanistan number two. Assad suggested that his objective was to regain full control over the entire country, which is clearly not a feasible military objective at the moment. Putin certainly did not share this vision, and Russia made it clear that it was not going to support Assad in this. Therefore, Assad was most likely presented with a fait accompli and did not have any input in this decision.

Overall, is this a savvy move on Putin's part?
This move makes perfect political sense in every way. Putin can credibly take credit for bringing about a temporary agreement in Syria and paving way for peace negotiations. This will enhance his reputation internationally and domestically. It would have been extremely risky to remain in Syria any longer because the probability of a permanent peace agreement between the government and rebels is very low, which means that hostilities can resume at any point. It would be much harder to pull out then without losing face. Continued air strikes can do little to eliminate Islamic terrorists, but they do result in civilian deaths, and the latter would certainly hurt Putin's reputation of peacemaker.

Domestically, there was never much understanding of Russia's involvement in Syria's war, so the longer this involvement dragged on, the more this intervention would resemble the USSR's intervention in Afghanistan. This is still a painful memory, and Putin was very keen to avoid any associations with that failed effort. Hence, Russia's involvement in Syria had to be short—and the current cessation of hostilities agreement provides a logical point for declaring the mission a success and pulling out. On the flip side, research shows that leaders who fight a losing war are more likely to be replaced in office, especially if the country experiences large losses as a result of that conflict. By pulling out of Syria, Putin avoids these political costs.

Follow Brian McManus on Twitter