What shock-and-awe accomplished for Putin in Syria

With Syria, Vladimir Putin wanted the world to know Russia is once again a major military player. Mission accomplished.

Syrian solders and Russian solders, who escort a group of journalists in the background, stand near a car covered by collage showing photos of faces of Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, and a Syrian general, President's Assad brother, Maher Assad, center, in Maarzaf, about 15 kilometers west of Hama, Syria, Wednesday, March 2, 2016. (Pavel Golovkin/AP)

Syrian solders and Russian solders, who escort a group of journalists in the background, stand near a car covered by collage showing photos of faces of Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, and a Syrian general, President’s Assad brother, Maher Assad, center, in Maarzaf, about 15 kilometers west of Hama, Syria, Wednesday, March 2, 2016. (Pavel Golovkin/AP)

It was perhaps the most undramatic moment so far in Vladimir Putin’s colourful political career. In an otherwise bland and un-noteworthy speech broadcast on Russian state television on Monday, President Putin announced he would be withdrawing the “main part” of Russian forces from Syria.

The surprise move couldn’t have come at a more propaganda-friendly moment. Just hours earlier Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy to Syria, had opened the latest round of peace negotiations in Geneva, Switzerland, with a press conference, and his tone had been dire.

“The only Plan B would be a return to war,” he said of the options available to Syria if talks fail, “and it would be worse than before.”

Considering the significance of what Putin was announcing, the Russian president’s delivery was uncharacteristically low-key.

“I believe that the goal set out to the ministry of defence and the armed forces has in large part been fulfilled,” he said, as if he was referring to a change in the army’s laundry procedures.

The message however was unequivocal: Mission accomplished.

But unlike George W. Bush’s eerily familiar declaration in 2003, Putin didn’t land on the deck of an aircraft carrier in a fighter jet to make it. (In his case, riding shirtless and bareback into a grizzly bear enclosure would have been more apropos). Nor was there any pomp and circumstance; just Putin, in a grey suit seated at a conference table with two Russian officials, announcing phlegmatically the end to what many observers have called the bloodiest few months in the five-year-old Syrian civil war.

Russia’s own shock-and-awe tactics seem to have had more success in Syria than the American version in Iraq. Starting at the end of September last year, five months of relentless bombing turned the tide of the war. The Syrian regime, along with its Iranian-backed militias, made dramatic advances in the wake of the devastation Russian bombs wreaked.

Experts were taken aback: no one had believed the Russian military fielded the kinds of capabilities needed to mount such a sustained operation so far from its borders. But within weeks Russian forces had rebuked the pundits. The brute force of the campaign was troubling. Tens of thousands of civilians were displaced, adding to the already devastating refugee crisis.

Calls for a ceasefire mounted and on Feb. 27, a tentative cessation of hostilities took hold. Defying most predictions, it mostly held and led directly to the peace talks now under way in Geneva.

Russia’s latest twist has delegates buzzing. Some, including U.S. officials, have cautiously applauded the move while others have been less impressed.

“Nobody knows what is in Putin’s mind,” a spokesman for the main Syrian opposition group, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), told CNN, “but the point is he has no right to be in be our country in the first place. Just go.”

It’s unlikely that will happen. While the military withdrawal is reportedly significant, equally noteworthy is what the Russians are leaving behind: Two military facilities, located in regime strongholds on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, will remain operational, Putin said, manned by an estimated 800 personnel. The Russians would also continue to fly reconnaissance missions while “specialists” would remain on the ground to advise Syrian commanders, bringing the total size of the Russian military presence to around 1,000.

Crucially, Russia also announced its S-400 air defence system would remain in place in Syria. It was deployed after Turkish fighter jets downed a Russian bomber in November last year over an alleged airspace violation. The S-400, considered the world’s most advanced air defence system, ensures Russian influence over Syrian skies without the costly burden of continuing Russia’s torrid bombing campaign.

So is this mission accomplished for Russia, and more important, what does mission accomplished mean from the Russian perspective?

A Russian military jet takes off from the country's air base in Hmeymin, Syria, to head back to Russia, part of a partial withdrawal ordered by President Vladimir Putin, in this still image taken from video shot on March 15, 2016.  (Russian Ministry of Defence via Reuters TV/Reuters)

A Russian military jet takes off from the country’s air base in Hmeymin, Syria, to head back to Russia, part of a partial withdrawal ordered by President Vladimir Putin, in this still image taken from video shot on March 15, 2016. (Russian Ministry of Defence via Reuters TV/Reuters)

Most experts read Russia’s military withdrawal as a message to Assad and the Syrian regime. Going into Monday’s meetings, regime delegates had insisted that talking political transition in Syria would be a red line. Assad’s future, de Mistura conceded, is the one issue that has the potential to derail any negotiated settlement.

The Syrian regime’s intransigence has annoyed Moscow, insiders say. During a February panel discussion in Istanbul on “Making sense of Russia’s Syria intervention,” Ekaterina Stepanova, a researcher at the Institute of the World Economy and International Relations in Moscow, argued a more nuanced interpretation of Moscow’s intentions. Russia is willing to reduce Assad’s political influence in Syria, she said, in exchange for his political survival. What Moscow envisions for Syria, she said, is better representation for minorities and decentralization of government, “something between the old regime and Lebanon.”

In this context, the Assad issue would become a “technicality” between Russia and the U.S., she added.

Ultimately, the Russians would prefer to see Assad survive, or at the very least his Baathist political allies, who would continue to rule over their strongholds in Syria, namely the coastal region where Russia has set up its permanent military bases. And it looks increasingly likely the Russians will get their way.

Moreover, military experts warn there is nothing permanent at all in the withdrawal of Russian forces. The speed with which they were deployed, and the equal rapidity with which they are withdrawing, is in itself a message to the world, some say.

According to Dmitry Gorenburg, a senior researcher at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, who spoke to Maclean’s last month about Russia’s strategy, Syria was as much “a showcase for Russia’s military capabilities, primarily for NATO,” as it was aid for an ailing ally. In less than six months, the Russians have proven that they have not only vastly improved those capabilities but they have also been successfully tested on the battlefield, he said.

Putin now holds the best cards in Geneva. He has manoeuvred Russia into a position where its central role in Syria, and the broader Middle East, is assured. He has made the Assad regime so dependent on Russian protection that it will have little choice but to accept Putin’s “federalization” plans. And in the process, Moscow has demonstrated that it is again a major military player in the world.

Even without theatrics, that sounds like mission accomplished.


What shock-and-awe accomplished for Putin in Syria

  1. Everyone has forgotten about Crimea?

    • Still quiet, though there seems more heavy weapons use lately, and some tank movement. The Syria withdrawal may actually be repositioning. It’s possible the Donbas rebels, or whatever you want to call them, are gearing up for a spring offensive. Putin may have seized the opportunity to be ready for Ukraine heating up. He only has so many contract soldiers (not drafted) that he’s legally allowed to deploy out of country. Not that laws are much of a deterrent.

  2. While I largely agree with the article, saying Russian forces are now combat proven is a bit of a stretch.

    The S400 system is still untested. Most of the munitions were not ‘smart’. No air combat as well, except for being shot down. Not exactly tested. About the only thing really tested were their cruise missiles, at considerable range, and most made it to target.

    Realistically, they deployed to a friendly airbase and dropped a bunch of bombs. Further, they did the train and equip thing, with some on-the-ground support. Excepting the cruise missiles, Canada could have mounted the same campaign. Seriously.

    We’d not have the guided missile destroyers off the coast, no attack helicopters, and no cruise missiles of course. But, the grunt work was bombing, by about the same number of planes we could field (assuming we concentrated what we had), and some boots on the ground.

    I’m not saying we should have done it, nor am I disappointed that Russia didn’t get to test their S400 and the like. What I am saying is that Russia’s performance in the Syria conflict doesn’t exactly elevate it to super-power status. The US could field twice the firepower, nearly anywhere on earth, with no friendly airbases, with little to no notice… while fighting another medium scale war somewhere else, easily. There is no doubt the US is still the world’s sole remaining superpower. No other nation even comes close to their ability to project power.

    Politically, Putin has scored big. He seems very good at these kinds of manipulations and has shown he’s willing to go farther than most would have thought. But, militarily, not exactly something that will shake up the status-quo.

    • Hi Dave,

      Just wanted to respond to your great comment. I entirely agree: Russia is nowhere near the military capabilities of the U.S. It is still a second tier power. That said, the Russians have begun to prove they can operate further afield regionally and they can shake up the status quo, in the Middle East at least, not to mention eastern Europe.

      I think the key development for Russia over the past 7 or 8 years of its military reform program has been its command and control capabilities. Canada, for instance, would not have been able to mount the kind of operation the Russians managed in Syria. We would need the support of our allies, particularly in terms of command and control. The Russians proved they have integrated their various military forces. Syria was a coordinated effort that brought together the Russian navy, air force, and the army. I’ve written more about this here: http://www.macleans.ca/news/world/how-russia-used-the-war-in-syria-to-reassert-its-global-might/.

      So Russia pulled of on its own what most of the world’s militaries, including Canada’s, would need the support of friendly nations to accomplish. Russia had special forces on the ground guiding regime forces (under Putin, Russian special forces have become a key military asset) ; they were in communication with the airforce and the navy in the Caspian Sea, etc., who demonstrated Russia’s advanced long-range precision munitions. The only other military in the world with those kinds of command and control capabilities is the U.S.

      The S-400 is a funny piece of tech, no? It’s reputation matters more than its proven capabilities. I speculate entirely, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Russians have violated Turkey’s airspace since the November incident. With the S-400 deterrence in place, Turkey would think twice about a repeat.

      Thanks for your input.


      • I was going to argue that a Canadian Kandahar-sized battle-group along with a significant percentage of our aircraft would amount to what Russia put in Syria, but you’re right. There would be holes we’d have to rely on our allies to fill. However, we’d alway have those allies, so we’d not have to go it alone like Russia. And, that got me thinking.

        This is getting off topic… but Canada has always had allies, good ones, reliable ones. Thinking of that has given me a new-found appreciation for Canadian politicians through history. I had considered Putin’s international tactics to be well ahead of his peers, but his victories are tactical rather than strategic. He has no real allies; he has to go it alone. The US has real allies, like Canada. Yes, we complain about them and that we’re junior partners. But, if it came down to it we’d be there supporting the US, along with the UK, Australia, Japan, and a host of others, and not because we had to but rather that we wanted to. Who would support Russia? No one that wouldn’t exact a heavy price.

        Putin may have run up a string of tactical victories, ones that rival Hitler’s early years, but he has already lost. He has isolated Russia. He may meddle in the affairs of his neighbours and play games in the Middle East, but he has no chance of building a block that could raise Russia up to the stature of the old Soviet Union. He’s just not that good a politician.

        Again, sorry for going off-topic, but the discussion kind of slipped sideways for me in a way that put things in a different perspective. Thank you for that.

        • I entirely agree. The longterm viability of Putin’s strategy is suspect.

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