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Syrien russische Kampfjets
Image: picture alliance/dpa/Russian Defence Ministry

Why Putin pulled back troops from Syria

Bruce I. Konviser
March 16, 2016

Russian President Putin's decision to pull back troops from Syria came as a surprise. His reasons for doing so appear to be a sense of success in the mission and economic problems at home, DW's Bruce Konviser writes.


Experts agree Russian President Vladimir Putin's surprise announcement that Russian troops were to withdraw from Syria raised more questions than answers. Russian air power may have turned the conflict in favor of Syria's embattled government but Putin's agenda goes beyond propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Putin has sought to reestablish Russia as a world power to be reckoned with.

Chatham House

"He's demonstrated to the world that assertive military action can change US policy, and force the US to give Russia the influential status it has been craving," said Keir Giles, an associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at London's Chatham House policy institute.

an associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme - See more at: https://www.chathamhouse.org/about-us/directory/193279#sthash.Zl2R0gk6.dpuf
an associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme - See more at: https://www.chathamhouse.org/about-us/directory/193279#sthash.Zl2R0gk6.dpuf

Giles added that the take-away message for Putin was that "aggressive military intervention is the most effective way to achieve policy goals." He criticized US President Barack Obama for giving Putin an opening, suggesting that Obama erred in not arming moderate rebels and by stepping back from his "red-line" on chemical weapons.

Obama has defended both of those decisions saying that Syrian rebel commitments to western style democracy were often suspect, and citing the US experience in Iraq.

John Hopkins

Mamuka Tsereteli, a Russia and Middle East expert at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, agreed that Russia took advantage of the situation. But he cast doubt on the notion that a more militarist posture would have benefited the US.

"We can dispute the US strategy in the Middle East to detach, not completely but without US military intervention. It allowed a certain vacuum, and Russia seizes on those opportunities," he said.

"There was no appetite in the US for military engagement," he added. "There are many tools the US could use. Strategic intent was to let other forces fight it out."

Tsereteli said Obama was right to be wary of arming rebels in Syria who might not be committed to the cause of democracy.

"A lot of US weapons ended up with ISIS in Iraq," Tsereteli said in reference to the so-called 'Islamic State' (IS) group, speaking of weapons the US supplied to the Iraqi army, only to find later that many of those weapons ended up in the hands of IS.

Obama has also defended stepping back from the "red line," his threat that Syria would face unspecified military consequences if it used chemical weapons. The president argued that since the Syrian regime had agreed to give up its stockpile of chemical weapons, the goal of disarming the regime of such illegal weapons had been achieved.

Clingendael Institute in The Hague

Tony van der Togt, an expert on Russia and its international relations at the Clingendael Institute in The Hague said that Putin had exploited the mistakes of a US president. But he pointed the finger at Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush and his military adventurism.

"Putin used some mistakes from the US, which are from the Bush administration," van der Togt said. "It was the war in Iraq. Obama is trying to cut his loses. When you are pulling out of Afghanistan and Iraq you can't just go into Syria."

But regardless of the mistakes that were or weren't made by the current or past US presidents, Putin appears emboldened as peace talks resume in Switzerland. "Russia goes to Geneva and has a strong position," Tsereteli said, explaining that Putin can now boast about being "a responsible actor."

Two possible causes for Putin's action

Why Putin chose to effectively pull the plug on Russian military operations in Syria is not entirely clear but two theories are being advanced.

"Putin feared seeing an ‘Afghanistan' in Syria," Tsereteli said, referring to how the Soviet Union got bogged down in a conflict with Afghan rebels in the 1980s before eventually pulling out. Tsereteli added that Putin may also be positioning himself as a peacebroker and as something of an ally for the West.

Syrien Kafr Hamra Luftangriffe in Aleppo trotz Feuerpause
Russian air strikes in AleppoImage: picture-alliance/abaca

"In recent days Russia started to attack ISIS," Tsereteli said. But he acknowledged that Putin had vowed to go after IS in Syria when he launched Russia's air assault last September only to target more moderate rebel forces, some of them backed by the US.

Van der Togt agreed: "Russia doesn't want to be dragged into a quagmire." But he added that Putin's motivation for peace now might be more financial than anything else.

Economic challenges at home

"The Russian budget is under severe pressure, with low oil prices and international sanctions, as a result of occupation of eastern Ukraine," Van der Togt said. "They're facing severe budget cuts, including the military budget."

"A year ago they were using $100 (90 euros) per barrel of oil to finance the state budget," Van der Togt continued, explaining that 50 percent of the Russian budget came from oil and gas revenues. "They have two sovereign wealth funds and one will be depleted this year," he added.

Substantial budget cuts or additional revenue from elsewhere are sorely needed as oil prices held at $36.34 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange on Tuesday. Brent, the global benchmark, was at $38.74 a barrel on ICE Futures Europe.

Van der Togt summed up Putin's dilemma: "He faces some very nasty choices, ordering all of the ministries to cut their budgets by 20 percent, and the military budget by 10 percent," he said, adding: "Until last year the military budget was not cut at all."

But Putin's announced withdrawal appears to be softening the hard-line position of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Prior to Putin's announcement, the president showed more interest in continuing to press for military gains on the battle field rather than negotiating a peace agreement with the rebels.

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