As this blog explained in October last year Putin was not being his cleverest when he intervened in Syria (click this highlighted text to see article). So it is hardly surprising that he is using the (temporary) ceasefire as an excuse to bail out. He is keeping his warm water port and strategic airbase no matter what, which gives him a long term strategic benefit. Without Russia Assad would seem to be in enormous trouble, all the rebels will go for it as hard as they can, especially with winter finishing.
So what are the possible reason for Putin’s departure?:
- Cost/benefit analysis. It was costing a huge amount of money to run the expeditionary force, with no great upside for Russia.
- Coming to the realisation of just how execrable Assad is. The most evil of the Middle East despots he has had tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people tortured to death for not supporting him. And has used chemical weapons repeatedly on his own population.
- International opprobrium. This doesn’t usually bother Putin, but in Syria he was mainly killing civilians, due to poor intelligence and Russia’s limited availability of smart weapons.
- Libyan MANPADs coming onto the market. These are a game changer. Maybe Putin could envisage lots of Russian aircraft being shot down.
- Turkey. Erdogan is an unpredictable little despot who seems to love any conflict he can get into. If he closed the Bosphorous then Putin’s expeditionary force would be in trouble. If he increased his ground involvement in Syria he would come into direct conflict with Russia.
- EU pressure. Putin’s indiscriminate bombing of civilians was massively increasing the migrant swarm and Europe is already overrun.
- USA pressure. Maybe the POTUS thinks that this conflict is best left to local players.
- Saudi pressure. The KSA has been saber rattling about sending in ground troops to help the Sunni cause for some time.
- Israeli pressure. Netanyahu is belligerent and has huge military power. He cannot be happy with the way the Russian presence has enhanced Hezbollah.
- Inadequacies in Russia’s military. They really aren’t that good and even the small Syrian involvement stretched them. Certainly they will have run out of some vital supplies.
- Collapsed oil price. Russia is in immense financial trouble and cannot afford the basics, never mind an expensive vanity project in Syria.
- A step on the road to getting sanctions lifted. Russia is an international pariah and is being hurt by the sanctions the world has imposed on them. Putin would love to get these lifted if he can do so without appearing to be weak.
- Realisation of diminishing returns. Maybe his military commanders told him that they had reached the limit of what they could achieve without large scale Russian ground troop deployment.
- Part of a grand settlement with Obama to resolve several of the world’s problems in one go. Benefiting all.
As you can see there are many reasons to get out and the ceasefire has provided a convenient excuse. Certainly Russian involvement has exposed a number of Russian military weaknesses and has given the West an intelligence goldmine. And whilst Putin’s involvement in Syria was stupid he has managed it far better than any Western involvement in the region has been in recent years.