Putin’s ‘victory’ announcement in Syria carries strategic and electoral implications
Tunis - When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the withdrawal of troops from Syria, he was speaking to audiences beyond those at the Hmeimim Airbase in Latakia. As he told the Russian troops that they would be going home “with victory,” he was also sending word to his country’s electorate and the world at large. To both, his message was essentially the same: Russia has succeeded where all others have failed.
However, with no clear pronouncement about how many troops would leave and how many would stay to safeguard the country’s gains in Syria, there have been questions about the extent of Russia’s intended withdrawal.
Russia experts said Putin is more focused on next year’s presidential election, even if the outcome appears a foregone conclusion, than he is on developments in Syria.
Levada, one of Russia’s last remaining independent pollsters, reported in November that 81% of Russians asked said they approved of the work Putin was doing. Nevertheless, with the scars of the country’s disastrous involvement in Afghanistan still imprinted on the national psyche, the ghosts of more recent foreign policy excursions still stand to spoil March’s electoral feast.
Mark Galeotti, a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, said Putin’s announcement has “some connection to the presidential elections” but that it is “more a question of clearing away vulnerabilities than scoring points, as few Russians are interested in Syria but they do care about casualties.”
“Mainly this is about the situation on the ground: [Syrian President Bashar] Assad has not ‘won’ but there is a sense that he is no longer at risk,” Galeotti said in e-mailed remarks.
For a country that has come to define itself by its opposition to the West, there is the inescapable fact that “Washington is no longer a key player,” Galeotti said.
Putin’s strong poll numbers, likely bolstered by the absence of any credible opposition, can be misleading, he said.
“Putin’s approval ratings are not the same as his likely share of the vote,” he said. “He will be lucky to get 70% of the vote on a 70% turnout with only the usual levels of rigging but he is not looking for major foreign policy successes to help his campaign (Crimea was a one-off) but rather to stoke up the sense of threat and vulnerability, to convince even Russians not happy with the current situation that this is not the time for change.”
Moscow must contend with the military realities of the conflict in Syria. Its withdrawal of troops will be limited at best. With Damascus’s military reach confined and security in territories beyond Kurdish control provided by a shifting alliance of militias — Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah — threatening Putin’s declaration of victory, the degree to which he can withdraw troops is open to question.
“This is probably a pretty cosmetic move by the Kremlin,” former US Ambassador William Courtney, who is a senior fellow at the RAND Corporation, said by telephone. “Some troops will be rotated out and some will be rotated back in.
“The important thing for Putin is to show that Russia is not bogged down in Syria. At the same time, the Kremlin is aware that ISIS and other insurgencies remain a threat and so if Russia were to pull out completely, a resurgence of hostilities could cause the Assad regime to fall. Thus, Russia will not abandon it.”
Courtney added that “Russia wants an expanded airbase at Latakia and a larger naval base at Tartus, as well as to be seen internationally as a great power.”
Reinforcing Courtney’s comment, Interfax reported that the Kremlin requested funds to expand the Tartus base two days after Putin’s announcement of troop withdrawals.
Peace will not only need to be safeguarded, it will need significant levels of investment. Towns, cities and much of the countryside in Syria have been destroyed and little of the infrastructure that was in place before 2011 remains.
“Despite the World Bank’s classifying Russia as an upper middle-income country, the economy is growing slowly or stagnating.” Courtney said, “Russia just doesn’t have the resources itself to rebuild Syria. Moscow is going to need international aid but this might not come if Iran and its allies control security on the ground.”
Irrespective of what practical effects Putin’s withdrawal announcement may hold, the reality on Syria’s bloodied ground remains unchanged. Russia is present and looks to remain so.
“If Russia is going to be a great power, “Courtney noted, “it has to be so in the Middle East.”