Russian force ‘withdraw’ step in Putin’s grand plan

On March 14, Vladimir Putin announced the withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria, declaring their campaign “a success.”
Within hours, aircraft and crews were observed departing from Khmeimim Air Base, near the northern city of Latakia. Since then, the media has been buzzing with speculation on the reasons for this “unexpected” move. Much of the speculation is dead wrong.
Let me be as clear as I can: There is no Russian withdrawal from Syria, but rather a highly publicized drawdown of a few combat aircraft from the Russian-built Khmeimim Air Base. Putin simply moved a few pieces on the board, without changing a thing.
This gambit is more about perceptions than military reality. It constitutes a political reframing of Russia’s mission in order to solidify Russia’s long-term military footprint in northwestern Syria … while convincing the citizens at home that the campaign is “over.”
Pun’s statement is another successful domestic and international publicity coup, which had nothing to do with how Russia leaves Syria … but rather how it stays — permanently.
In a widely broadcast video of Putin instructing Russian Defense Minister Shoigu and Foreign Minister Lavrov to “start” withdrawal, he orders that Russia’s large existing bases in Tartus (Navy) and Khmeimim (Air Force) will continue to operate at present levels. In addition, Russia’s defense minister is to make sure that they are fully defended from land, sea, and air.
Putin emphasized that the very advanced S-400 long-range anti-aircraft missiles, along with shorter-range systems, will remain in place. Russia’s main military bases will continue operations: with naval cover, a ground contingent for “force protection,” and an unknown number of troops still on the ground advising Syrian forces.
While Russia is withdrawing Su-25 strike aircraft and Su-34 bombers, it’s leaving Su-24 bombers and Mi-24 and Mi-35 attack helicopters, as well as Su-30SM and Su-35 multirole fighters. These aircraft continue to operate over Syria, having conducted strikes in recent days in support of Syrian army efforts to retake Palmyra from ISIS.
According to the Russian webpage “Sputnik”: “Nearly 20 Russian combat aircraft, an air defense system and some 2,000 personnel will stay at Khmeimim air base in Syria, including a squadron of Su-24 tactical bombers that during the main stage of the campaign conducted most of the airstrikes.”
The newest Su-30 and ‘Generation4+++’ Su-35 fighters will also stay at the Khmeimim air base for “aerial protection.”
Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov stated that intense combat operations will continue against ISIS and al-Nusra Front, in support of Assad’s advancing troops.
So far, Russia’s naval squadron has shown no sign of leaving the eastern Mediterranean, and there is no evidence of any significant withdrawal of tanks, artillery, armored personnel carriers (APCs), troops or support units.
In other words, what is happening is a partial drawdown of forces that were surged into Syria after the shooting down of a Russian Su-24 by Turkey in November 2015.
With Russia keeping control of the Khmeimim air base and continuing to expand and harden the Tartus naval base, the permanent Navy and Air Force military infrastructure is actually expanding. The fighters and bombers that were withdrawn can easily be returned on short notice. Nothing is leaving that cannot come back within days.
So why declare a withdrawal now? Keeping and maintaining equipment and personnel in Syria has never been expensive for Russia. On the contrary, the operation has provided an invaluable training, testing and military hardware showcasing opportunity.
Declaring victory and announcing that (some) Russian forces are going home serves Putin in several ways:
It gives him political leverage with Assad in the current Geneva peace talks: Putin wants Assad to accept a compromise at the talks, and abandon any ambitions to reconquer all of Syria. If Syria breaks the cease-fire, or obstructs negotiations, Assad cannot know for certain that Russia will support him.
Since his domestic Russian audience is even more important to Putin than Syria’s future, he had to cash in politically on Russia’s recent military ”successes” before any further complications can occur. By declaring victory and calling an end to the operation, he locked in his gains in both domestic and international public opinion, regardless of what comes out of the cease-fire or peace negotiations, bumping his approval ratings at home.
Putin is using this declaration to recast the military operations in Syria as a “traditional” military “presence,” thus “normalizing” it for his domestic audience. Putin said it in plain Russian: The military presence moving forward will be considered Russia’s traditional footprint in Syria, and not an ongoing operation.
Putin’s March 14 announcement was never about how Russia leaves Syria, but rather about how it stays to secure its Middle East interests. Putin is betting that Russian voters and the international community will accept Russian permanent military presence in Syria as the new “normal.” … And that is Putin’s “Long Game” in Syria.
Agree or disagree, that’s my opinion.
Lt. Col. (IDF res) Gil Elan is president and CEO of the Southwest Jewish Congress, and a Middle East analyst. Email:

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