Frederick W. Kagan: What the Russian ‘withdrawal’ from Syria really means

Vladimir Putin is not pulling all of his forces out of Syria or ending his military support to the Assad regime.  His just-announced “withdrawal” serves political, military operational, diplomatic, and possibly strategic purposes, but its actual significance for operations in Syria is minimal.

Its significance for the long-term correlation of forces in the Mediterranean, however, is dire.

The intensity of Russia’s air campaign in Syria dropped markedly after the United Nations sponsored “cessation of hostilities” began on February 27, 2016.  But Russian airstrikes are still hitting opposition groups that have received U.S. support throughout Syria, along with ISIS and Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra. 

These strikes will likely persist for some time, since Russian officials say that “counter-terrorism” operations will continue, and negotiations in Geneva will not end the fighting on the ground.  The Syrian regime is actually readying offensive operations against ISIS-held Palmyra, and Russian airstrikes have begun to hit areas near Palmyra in recent days.

Putin has ordered his military to maintain operations at the naval base of Tartus and an  airbase at Latakia and to defend them against air, sea, and ground threats, according to a transcript of Putin’s meeting with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov published by the Kremlin on March 14.

Putin’s itemization of threats indicates his intention to keep the advanced S-400 air defense system in Syria, something a senior Russian parliamentarian has confirmed.  Those missiles range well into Turkish airspace, allowing Putin to interdict NATO air operations in Turkey without having to use aircraft. 

The language about defenses against seaborne attack suggests Putin may be planning to deploy anti-shipping missiles on the Syrian coast.  Doing so would significantly improve his ability to create an area-denial envelope in the Eastern Mediterranean that would force a fundamental reevaluation of American and European naval and air requirements.

The withdrawal of Russian aircraft from Syria is more like sleight-of-hand. 

Putin has been using a mix of long-range bombers like the Blackjack and Backfire; medium-range fighter-bombers like the Su-30, Su-34, and Su-35; and short-range attack planes like the Su-25.  The long range bombers can hit targets in Syria from bases in Russia.  If they can land, rest, and refuel at Latakia, their ability to operate in Syria is unchanged. 

The Su-30s, Su-34s, and Su-35s can fly unarmed from bases in Russia to Latakia, refuel and load ammunition stored there, and start bombing runs within 24-48 hours. 

The Su-25s  have a shorter range, and might take a little longer to become operational.  But the Russian air force could likely increase airstrikes back to the pre-ceasefire rate within 72 hours in the conditions he is describing.

The withdrawal of Russia’s special forces troops, SPETSNAZ, is superficially more interesting because they are ground forces. But in reality this is not meaningful. 

SPETSNAZ are capable of very rapid deployment.  They can be airdropped into Syria directly from Russia, for example, or rapidly ferried to Latakia and then moved by helicopter.  They could return to the front lines in days, if not hours.

The only systems difficult to move rapidly back into Syria are those Putin is not moving—air defense systems like the S-400 and unmanned aerial vehicles (Defense Minister Shoigu said that Russia had 70 drones operating in Syria).  Putin has a simpler solution: announcing that they are needed both to protect his Syrian bases and to observe and control the ceasefire and the peace process.

There are excellent operational reasons for Putin’s move.  Keeping aircraft and troops at overseas bases is expensive, since fuel, ammunition, spare parts, and provisions have to be moved from Russia to Syria. 

Moving back to home base saves money, and Putin cannot afford to be profligate.  Months of hard flying have probably taken a toll on his aircraft, making it desirable to bring them home  to service and refit them.  The relative lull in air operations during the “cessation of hostilities” is a great opportunity to do so.

This “withdrawal” is therefore eyewash.  It will last exactly as long as the “ceasefire” holds and operations continue at the current levels—or until one or more of the various opposition groups starts to make serious gains against pro-regime forces. 

At that point, Putin will likely declare himself compelled to respond to the provocations of the terrorists and their supporters—meaning the U.S., Turkey, and NATO—and regroup offensively. 

In the meantime, he will still be consolidating Russia’s first permanent air-sea stronghold  in the Mediterranean since the 18th Century. 

The U.S. and the West should be paying far more attention to the geostrategic implications of that reality than to Putin’s withdrawal mirage.

Frederick W. Kagan is the Christopher DeMuth Scholar and the director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.

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