Russia’s surprise announcement Monday that President Vladimir Putin had ordered the military to begin withdrawing from Syria contained the revelation by Putin: “I consider the objectives that have been set for the Defense Ministry to be generally accomplished.”
These words constitute an admission. Putin revealed that Russian forces did not come to Syria to fight radical Islamic terrorists or ISIS, as he and other Russian government officials have repeatedly stated since their military operation kicked off in September. ISIS is still going strong as a political-military force in Syria, controlling significant territory, fighting in Syria (and Iraq), and from Syria recruiting and inspiring affiliates to terrorist acts worldwide.
It should now be clear to those hanging on to a shred of hope that Putin was never going to join the Western coalition against ISIS in Syria. The Kremlin’s objective was always to achieve a negotiated settlement through the Geneva Talks that allows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to remain in power for some time and for Russia to retain its key influence over his government. It was not to fight terrorism in Syria.
Putin’s Kremlin set out to achieve its objective at the lowest cost. For years Russia tried to get its way mainly through diplomacy but that didn’t work. So last September, Russia decided to try the same strategy in Syria that worked in Ukraine. Russia’s tactical military moves there tipped in their favor the negotiating dynamic that boiled down to the Minsk Agreements. Just as in Ukraine, Kremlin is seeking to turn military advances into diplomatic leverage, having demonstrated it will intervene militarily to save its ally and gain territory for Syria.
But this leverage cuts two ways. Russia’s maximum moment of leverage over the future of Syria will be on Tuesday just its forces begin to withdraw. Up until now Russia’s military intervention had increased pressure on the Syrian opposition and its backers, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, France, the UK and the other European and Middle Eastern states in the 64-member coalition led by the United States. Russia had rescued Assad’s government from ever-increasing military losses and a real threat to its control of territory and survival.
Starting Tuesday, Russia will also have increased its leverage over Assad. By signaling a Russian withdrawal — and at this point, it is only signaling — Putin is making clear that Russia is not providing Assad unlimited support. Now that Russia’s brutal military intervention has forced the West to compromise on when Assad must leave, Assad must be ready to compromise with the opposition and the coalition on a political settlement. Russia thus appears to have thrown its weight behind the U.N.-led negotiations in Geneva.
In Syria, the Kremlin sees greater risks and costs than in Ukraine. Turkey already shot down a Russian fighter aircraft last November and has shown determination to stand firm against Russia. In January after another Russian infringement of Turkish airspace, Ankara warned of ‘consequences.’ Meanwhile, the United States and its allies sent additional ground forces to train and enable the Syrian opposition forces and continue air operations, increasing the likelihood that the Syrian opposition will gain strength over time. For Russia to continue would have meant increased military costs and lives. Russia already has lost military personnel, including at least one general. This intervention, most probably never intended to be long-term, may have become short-term in the face of even incremental increased U.S. and allied assistance.
There is one more thing — the West stayed firm on Ukraine. The additional potential benefit for which some in the Kremlin may have yearned — a loosening or lifting of sanctions against Russia for their invasion of and intervention in Ukraine — was clearly not even remotely contemplated in Washington or by the chancellor in Berlin.
Related: Defense One‘s coverage of Syria
Related: Defense One‘s coverage of Ukraine
Big questions remain: 1) How much military force will Russia withdraw and what assets will Russia leave in Syria? Will air operations continue? 2) Will Russia be prepared to deploy troops again if Assad begins to lose territory? 3) Will Assad (and Iran) compromise? 4) What are the implications for Ukraine?
We can’t watch and react. The U.S.-led coalition must take this moment to increase its pressure on Assad and his allies. We must put on the table the threat of another set of targeted sanctions against Russia and Iran for their support of Assad. Turkey and our Middle Eastern allies must adopt those penalties, not just the United States, European Union, and a few other countries making critical defense components, like Japan. We must also offer to help create a Syrian humanitarian safe zone by increasing military assistance and articulating potential future support to opposition forces. Regardless of Russia’s announcement yesterday, it is incumbent upon the United States and our allies to ensure that we and the Syrian opposition have maximum leverage in Geneva. We must use this moment to encourage the Russian withdrawal, discourage any future Russian military operations in Syria, and move responsibly towards helping the Syrian people live in peace again someday.