Vladimir Putin’s Tuesday decision to scale down the Russian military campaign in Syria seems to have caught world leaders off their guard. But is the Russian leader’s declaration of mission accomplished really that surprising? A brief look at the list of Russia’s stated short-term objectives in Syria, which I formulated shortly after beginning of Russian air campaign, shows that Putin has attained all that he wanted — and made significant progress toward his longer-term objectives as well.
Did the Russian air strikes prevent Bashir Assad’s government from losing control over the remaining part of Syria and enable his forces to eliminate most immediate threats to their positions, making frontlines more defensible?
Did Russian bombs and missiles weaken ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other non-state actors which had attracted nationals from post-Soviet republics to their ranks and thus threatened the security of Russia?
Yes, if Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu is to be believed. “Over 2,000 criminals who have come from Russia have been eliminated in Syria’s territory, “according to Shoigu. According to critics of Russia’s campaign, however, Sukhoi planes have been mostly pounding positions of moderate rebels closest to Assad’s forces in attacks, which reportedly have led to hundreds of civilian casualties.
Did Russia prevent all of Syria from becoming a “terrorist state” run by ISIS and al-Nusra Front, a potential refuge for enemies to the Russian state?
Yes, at least in the short-term.
Did Russia maintain control of Russia’s military facilities in Syria, including the naval facility in Tartus?
Yes. Moreover, Russia added an air base to the list of these facilities.
Did the strikes force the moderate opposition to start negotiating in earnest?
Yes. What’s more, the drawdown may force the Assad regime to negotiate in earnest. Contrary to the predominant view among Western pundits, Russia is prepared to let Assad go as long as its interests in Syria are honored.
In addition, Putin’s decision to cut the campaign short helps to limit the growing anger among Sunnis over Russia’s heavy hand in Syria. This, in turn, reduces the terrorist threat to Russia and Russians. Watch for Russia’s remaining planes to focus on attacking ISIS and the Nusra Front. (In fact, the desire to limit damage to Russia’s reputation in the eyes of Sunnis, including Russia’s own, might have been a chair why chair of State Duma’s international affairs committee Alexei Pushkov predicted in October that the air campaign would only last a few months.)
Russia still has a number of long-term objectives to pursue in Syria. These include the formation of a coalition government free from extremist organizations, such as Al Qaeda and ISIS; ensuring Syria’s territorial integrity; and ensuring Russia’s leading role in the country’s future.
The Russians have a lot at stake in the shattered country. Moscow wants to keep Syria open to Russian goods, particularly arms and machinery, since the Russian economy is so driven by the oil and gas sectors. Putin himself wants to maintain Russia’s reputation as a reliable protector of its allies and a “balancer” on the global stage, a reputation that would take a hit if Assad’s departure is forced rather than negotiated with Moscow’s participation.
However limited, the Russian campaign has made progress towards fulfilling these long-term objectives, progress that no longer requires the same level of military presence in Syria.
Of course, things can always take a turn for the worse, forcing the Russian military to re-escalate, as it did in Ukraine (which, by the way, Putin will now have more time to focus on as he seeks guarantees that Kiev will not join NATO). Such re-escalation still won’t amount to getting into a “quagmire,” as President Barack Obama predicted when Russia launched the campaign in September.
Indeed, contrary to Obama’s prediction, Russia’s strategy in Syria did work, especially compared to Washington’s failed effort to train moderate opposition.
Notwithstanding their differences, US and Russian actions share a long-term interest in preventing Syria from either becoming a terrorist state or falling apart. Given convergence of their interests, both Washington and Moscow should work to put pressure on the opposition and Assad to negotiate the transition to a coalition government, which could then take on ISIS and Nusra. Iran too has every interest as well in attaining such an outcome, as do other responsible nations in the region.
Only a concert of nations can make Syria, where over 300,000 have already died, whole and at peace with itself. Russia’s drawdown in Syria helps the formation of such consensus.
Simon Saradzhyan is the founding director of the Russia Matters Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.