Why is Russia withdrawing forces from Syria? | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 15.03.2016
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Middle East

Why is Russia withdrawing forces from Syria?

President Vladimir Putin's announcement that Russia is beginning its withdrawal of forces from Syria came as a complete surprise. DW's Moscow correspondent Emma Burrows looks at why the decision has been made now.

The announcement that Russia is beginning its military withdrawal from Syria was as sudden as the announcement in September that it would start carrying out airstrikes.

In that time Russia has significantly bolstered the position of its ally, Syrian president Bashar al Assad, who six months ago looked as though he might be losing the war. Russia says its strikes have helped Syrian government troops to retake 400 towns and more than 10,000 square kilometers (6,000 square miles) of territory.

Russian strikes have turned the tide in the conflict for President Assad and have helped to put the Syrian regime in a stronger negotiating position at the peace talks in Geneva. That, in turn, also means Russia has greater control over their outcome.

Maintaining a presence

President Putin has said that Russia will continue to maintain its air and sea bases in Syria in Tartus and Latakia, defending them by "land, sea and air."

We do not know exactly what equipment Russia currently has deployed in Syria, so it is hard to say who, or what, will be coming home. We do know that Russia has stationed the sophisticated S-400 anti-aircraft weapon system in Syria - giving it de facto control of the skies in Syria, and potentially reaching into parts of Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Cyprus and Turkey. It could leave systems like these in place - reserving its position to be able to become involved again in the future if it thinks it necessary.

The cost factor

However, while Russia may feel that it has met its goals in Syria, bringing warring parties to the negotiating table and bolstering its role on the world stage, the decision to withdraw forces could also be down to cost.

Falling oil prices have hit the Russian economy hard, and the government has had to make widespread budget cuts. It cannot afford to keep pouring money into an expensive war.

This appears to be a signal to the Syrian president that Russian appetite for involvement in Syria is not limitless, and that his focus now needs to be on finding a political solution to the conflict.