Russia’s Syria withdrawal: a game changer?

Having improved the regime's position on the ground, Russia now looks set to move forward its own political track

President Putin’s 14 March announcement that Russia will begin withdrawing its military forces from Syria has provoked feverish speculation as to Russia’s motives. Much as the country’s initial intervention into the country last September thrust a game-changing dynamic into the conflict, securing the regime’s position in the face of significant military setbacks, this proposed drawdown opens up the possibility of a new shift in direction, particularly in terms of the political process unfolding under the auspices of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG).

But even though some now hope that Putin will look to push ahead the political process, caution is needed. Renewed Russian efforts are likely to remain firmly focused, as they always have, on securing their own objectives in Syria. If this is to be a prelude to a meaningful opening it will still probably depend on accepting a process that doesn't deliver the opposition the outright victory – including the near-term removal of Assad – that they are seeking.

On one level Putin’s announcement appears to send out an important message that Moscow is not willing to facilitate total victory for Assad. Putin’s accompanying declaration of support for the peace process indicates a shift towards negotiations, which has been increasingly marked by their actions on the ground. Moscow’s better than expected compliance with the current cessation of fire, including by imposing it on a reluctant Assad who would have preferred to press on the military fight, suggests that this may be more genuine than many anticipated. While Moscow’s retention of the Tartus naval base and the Hmeymim airbase, from which it is continues to launch air sorties against ‘terrorist’ groups, points to its ability to quickly ramp up operations anew, Moscow appears to be zooming in on the non-military dimension of the conflict.

A core premise of any hoped for political track has long been the need for Assad’s allies to exert pressure on him to deliver meaningful compromises and Russia may be hinting at a willingness to act on this front, using the leverage it has acquired though its intervention. It is perhaps no surprise that Putin’s announcement came just days after the Syrian foreign minister shot down talk of meaningful government engagement with the Russian-backed negotiations now unfolding in Geneva. It seems clear that the announcement caught the regime by surprise, suggesting some developing distance between Damascus and Moscow.

Of course, this shift is, to a large extent, based on the military gains Russia has secured over the past seven months. Putin is now talking politics from a position of immense strength. When Moscow intervened last September the regime was on the back foot, with some Western diplomats talking about possible impending collapse. Since that point the tide has turned enormously. The rebels have been significantly pushed back in Latakia province, rebel-held East Aleppo is facing the prospect of a government siege and government forces have made notable advances across the central belt and in the south with the seizure of Sheikh Miskeen. The prospect of regime defeat is now entirely off the table, in large part due to Russian intervention. Assad is probably not incorrect to think that with continued Russian support he could make notable further gains.

But Russia appears to have concluded that this is the time to translate these advances into political gains. Even if the Russian intervention has been relatively cost-free, Moscow knows that the prospect of total victory remains a distant illusion and that without some form of political settlement it faces a longer term insurgency, likely fuelled by continued – and ever more sophisticated – external support. The current ceasefire, a deal effectively brokered on Russia’s terms by freezing the conflict in a manner that favours the regime’s position, may also have suggested to Moscow that now is the opportune time to lock in US political partnership rather than risking an intensification of the military fight, particularly in the context of a potentially more assertive post-Obama US presidency.

Undoubtedly there are also broader strategic concerns at play, notably the need to maintain relations with the Gulf monarchies, and Saudi Arabia in particular, in view of the plummeting oil price which poses such an economic threat to Putin at home. A continued military fight in Syria risked drawing Moscow into a more confrontational position with Riyadh given the Kingdom’s support for the rebels. Here, however, and even if Russia’s new position has initially been welcomed by the opposition and its backers, Moscow probably doesn’t expect enthusiastic regional buy-in for the terms it is going to put on the table.

The reality is that having secured significant military gains on the ground, it is improbable that Russia will accept a political process that doesn’t recognise its strong position – and this will not go down well with the opposition and its backers who remain intent on establishing a near-term timetable for Assad’s departure. Put simply, having intervened to save the regime Moscow should probably not be expected to now partake in its unravelling, including through the removal of Assad. Given the perception that any imposed transition away from Assad would be seen as a Western victory – to say nothing of the fact that any immediate move away from Assad risks a wider regime unravelling that would threaten Russia’s remaining material interests in the country – Moscow is unlikely to suddenly change tune.

Moreover, Russia is aware that delivering Assad is no easy task, however much leverage has been gained over recent months. It is one thing holding Assad to a ceasefire, another pressing him to open up a political reform process aimed at his own undoing, particularly if he retains the backing of his key regional backer, Iran, which has more immediate security and strategic interests within Syria than Moscow and retains ground forces able to protect them. Tehran’s positioning towards any potential Russian political approach will be a key dynamic to watch in ascertaining its seriousness.

If there is now to be a genuine Russian push behind the political process the aim, in terms of both ambitions and capabilities therefore, is more likely to be a dilution of Assad’s powers through constitutional reforms, the creation of a national unity governing body and the holding of new elections in which Assad is allowed to stand. This is a position broadly shared by Iran.

While Russia may now feel it can broadly deliver the regime along these proposed lines, it will be looking to the US, in particular, to bring the opposition and regional backers on board, a hard sell given the distrust between them and the growing sense in the region that waiting out Obama in the hope of a more sympathetic US president is now the best option. If there is to be any prospect of progress the answer could initially lie in an accompanying process of devolution, which, building on the gains of the ceasefire by granting significantly increased and sustainable local autonomy, may offer one of the few ways of incentivising local buy-in. In the current climate a geographical power-sharing model, based on the de facto facts on the ground, may be one of the few avenues able to generate meaningful movement. It remains to be seen whether Russia will offer any support for this kind of decentralised model given its longstanding commitment to a strong central government.

In the end Moscow may not be totally surprised by failure and to a certain extent may actually welcome it, using the situation to place the blame and burden of responsibility on the opposition, while tightening its own partnership with the US and justifying what turns out to be a rather rapid redeployment of force to Syria. But given that this would represent a prelude to yet another round of devastating escalation, the current opening needs to be tested to the utmost. Maximising the possibility of success will depend on a response that seeks to take advantage of any new Russia commitment to a political process, including a willingness to squeeze some compromises out of the regime, but doesn’t pre-emptively close the space of engagement by insisting on terms of absolute victory. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Director, Middle East and North Africa programme

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