Putin’s ‘victory’ announcement in Syria carries strategic and electoral implications

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.
December 17, 2017
Russian President Vladimir Putin (F-L) and President of Syria Bashar Assad (F-R) inspect a military parade at the Hmeimim Airbase in Syria

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.”