News broke on Russian state media this afternoon that Putin has ordered "the main part" of his forces deployed in Syria to "start" withdrawing from that country on Tuesday. The report was followed by near-immediate murmurs among Americans who are sympathetic to President Obama's foreign policy that Putin's order constitutes some sort of American success, or "victory for diplomacy," or, at the very least, a recognition by the Russians that they have indeed wandered into a quagmire, just as American liberals have been warning them all along.
Not so fast.
Assuming that the report can be taken at anything like face value (a considerable assumption when it comes to the Russians) why should we doubt that Putin is essentially correct when he justifies his withdrawal by asserting "the objectives that have been set for the Defense Ministry to be generally accomplished"? There is much dispute about what Putin's true strategic objectives in Syria are, but most serious accounts involve something like the list below. Which of these goals have not been furthered since the Russian intervention began last fall? And which would be seriously endangered by a limited Russian withdrawal?
- Preserve a functioning Syrian rump-state that is friendly to Russian interests. (If this state is controlled by Assad, great. If not, so be it.) This preservation ensures, among other subsidiary goals, the preservation of the Russian naval base at Tartus and thus Russia's ability to project military power in the Mediterranean.
- Weaken the diplomatic isolation that the Russian invasion of Ukraine had brought about, and generally redirect the international conversation away from Ukraine.
- Establish Russia as major player in the Middle East for the first time in many decades—and, implicitly, reduce the level of American and NATO influence there.
- Gain leverage over Europe by assuming a critical role at the very source of the refugee crisis.
- Strengthen an emerging strategic alliance with Iran.
I think the answer is, quite clearly, "none."
Note that I didn't include "fighting terrorism" on this list, even though Putin repeatedly cites it as a leading objective, because battling the Islamic State or other international jihadists is not a Russian priority. (If it were, why are the Russians leaving? The terrorists are still there!) Indeed, the Putin-Assad-Iran axis enjoys a symbiotic existence with ISIS in particular, inasmuch as ISIS's presence in Syria has prevented the international community from concentrating its ire on Assad. Whatever the progress of the somewhat fantasy-driven Geneva talks, or the future of the ceasefire, it seems that Assad or an Assad-like regime is here to stay: the main goal all along.
Moreover, if Putin accomplishes something like the limited withdrawal he announced today in a reasonable period of time without the Assad regime swiftly collapsing in Russia's wake, he will have scored a victory for his domestic political standing, and would always be able to send forces back to Syria if he judged it necessary.
"Putin: the man who set off to fight the terrorists, pull Syria back from the brink, and enhance the reputation of Russia as a force for global order—and who did so swiftly and then brought (the bulk of) the boys home." This is a good political narrative for him, regardless of the frozen war and further destabilized region he actually leaves in his wake.