I will never forget the noise. The round-the-clock roar of fighter jets storming down the runway and powering into the air.
That was Hmeimim airbase last November, when the Russian air force was carrying out dozens of sorties a day over Syria.
Earlier this month I returned to Hmeimim. The Russian base was quieter. The bombers and fighter jets (minus their pilots) were parked in rows at the end of the runway.
The cessation of hostilities negotiated by Moscow and Washington was holding. Russia said it had significantly reduced the number of airstrikes.
The Russian military claimed its focus was shifting from war to peace. On the base the Russians had set up a Reconciliation Co-ordination Centre, to assist the nascent peace process.
Local villages and Syrian opposition figures were being encouraged to accept dialogue with the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
Despite all the talk of peace, there was no hint that the Kremlin was about to order a major troop withdrawal from Syria.
So, when Vladimir Putin announced the pullout of most Russian forces this week, he seemed to take everyone here by surprise – politicians, pundits and the Russian public.
His decision sparked feverish speculation among Russia-watchers.
Was the withdrawal a sign of Russia’s strength or weakness? Was it the tactics of a master politician or a forced retreat? Had Russia run out of targets? Or run out of patience with Assad? Or run out of cash?
This was not about the money.
Russia’s operation was conceived as a limited air campaign in support of the Syrian army.
Moscow was determined to avoid a protracted military operation that might compel it to deploy ground troops. Memories of the Soviet Union’s bloody war in Afghanistan are still strong. Russia did not want Syria to be a second Afghanistan.
The Kremlin may have calculated that, with the cessation of hostilities and a peace process in place, now was the moment to reduce its military contingent and cut the risk of getting sucked into a longer conflict.
As things stand, the Russian authorities can argue that they have achieved many of their objectives. These included:
- Boosting Russian national security by fighting “international terrorism” (the Russian army claims to have killed 2,000 “terrorists” in Syria of Russian descent)
- “Stabilising the legally-elected government” of President Assad
- “Creating the conditions for political compromise”
Moscow has also achieved another objective, though one not so publicly stated: to ease Moscow’s international isolation.
Before the Syria operation, the West shunned Vladimir Putin over his annexation of Crimea in 2014 and his support for pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Since Russia began its air campaign in Syria, world leaders have been in regular contact with the Kremlin. It is recognition of Russia’s key role in the conflict.
By announcing a troop withdrawal now, Russia is presenting itself as international peacemaker, rather than pariah.
That is good for Russia’s image on the world stage. But it does not mean the West is rushing to cancel the sanctions it placed on Russia over Ukraine.
There is another reason why President Putin may be reducing troop numbers: to exert a degree of pressure on President Assad, ensuring the Syrian government plays a constructive role in UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva.
But keep in mind this is only a partial withdrawal. Russian TV may be trumpeting it as “Operation Return” with live coverage of bombers leaving Syria and emotional homecomings for the Russian pilots. But Moscow is not pulling out all its forces.
Some Russian troops and military hardware will remain in Syria – at Hmeimim and at the Russian naval facility in Tartus. Moscow has said it will continue to launch airstrikes in Syria against “terrorist targets”.
And if Moscow decides to boost its force in the future, it can do so easily.
Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda believes “it would take a maximum of two days” to fly everyone back.