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Is Putin Withdrawing From Syria Out Of Strength Or Weakness?

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) hosts Syrian President Bashar Assad during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow. The meeting took place in October, shortly after Russia began a bombing campaign in Syria in support of Assad. Putin abruptly announced Monday that Russia was withdrawing most of its military forces.
Alexey Druzhinin
AFP/Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) hosts Syrian President Bashar Assad during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow. The meeting took place in October, shortly after Russia began a bombing campaign in Syria in support of Assad. Putin abruptly announced Monday that Russia was withdrawing most of its military forces.

Russian President Vladimir Putin just made another shrewd and decisive move with his surprising decision to start withdrawing forces from Syria. Or, the Russian leader was overextended abroad and short of cash at home and was looking for a quick exit.

Putin wants everyone to believe the former, claiming the Russian airstrikes and the Syrian government army have achieved a "fundamental turnaround in the fight against international terrorism."

But some analysts are arguing the latter, saying Putin provided a temporary boost for Syria's embattled president, Bashar Assad, but lacked the power and the will to change the trajectory of the 5-year-old conflict.

"Despite the fact that Assad only gained back 5 percent of Syrian territory [during the Russian campaign], Putin is declaring victory," Andrew Tabler, a Syrian expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told NPR's Morning Edition.

Here's a look at both sides of the question.

The Case For Strength

Simply by intervening, Putin demonstrated Russia is still an influential player in the Middle East. Ever since the Soviet breakup a quarter-century ago, Russia has struggled to project itself as a global power and this was an opportunity to play a prominent role in a major conflict and challenge the U.S. at the same time.

The Russian airstrikes, which began last Sept. 30, allowed Assad and his forces to go on the offensive in the western part of the country, where most of the population and the major cities are. They advanced on several fronts in a war that had largely turned into a stalemate.

"Russia really turned the balance of power. Assad was struggling. Now he's been on the offensive, and the rebels are in chaos," Joshua Landis, head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told NPR's All Things Considered. "There's real depression amongst rebel ranks. So in that sense, the regime is solid."

Syria is particularly important because Moscow has supported Assad, and his father before him, since the 1970s. Syria is Russia's strongest ally in the Arab world.

Russia's intervention also made clear it would defend the Mediterranean naval base it's had since Soviet times, and Russia also added an new air base in the same region. Even as it draws down, Russia plans to keep about 1,000 military personnel at the two bases, according to Russian officials.

Putin's announcement also appeared well timed. A truce, now in its third week, is holding up much better than expected. And Syrian peace talks resumed on Monday in Geneva, highlighting Putin's call for a diplomatic push.

Assad, meanwhile, can argue that he's still in control of Damascus and has been gaining ground in other key parts of the country. This strengthens his case to remain in power, despite all the opposition groups that insist that he must go.

"Saving Assad from defeat and perhaps making him impervious to demands that he step aside are no small feats," Fred Hof, who follows Syria at the Atlantic Council, said of the Russian intervention.

But he added: "On balance, a sizeable drawdown could mean that Russian President Putin calculates he has gotten his maximum military bang for the buck in Syria, and that anything further would encounter diminishing returns."

Which leads to ...

The Case For Weakness

While Assad does have some breathing space, there's no military victory in sight. The Syrian leader still faces opponents on all sides, from the Islamic State, which hold nearly half the Syrian territory, to moderate rebels backed by the United States.

And nothing has been decided politically. Russia says Assad should remain as president, but all the forces opposing him, including the U.S., say they will never agree to a peace deal that allows Assad to stay.

"Looking at this in any way you want, there is no way conceivable that Assad's writ will ever extend throughout the country again," Brett McGurk, President Obama's special envoy for countering ISIS, recently told The New Yorker. "It's just not realistic after everything that's happened. So we have to find the formula for that transition."

Russia's bill for the Syrian intervention has been relatively low-cost, but far from cost-free. Syria did not become the quagmire some had predicted, but Russia is mired in recession at a time when it's involved militarily in Syria and has also been supporting rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Russia has taken hits on other fronts as well. Assad and his government are dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Russia's military backing has alienated the Sunni Muslim majority in Syria as well as the Sunni powers in the region, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which back the rebels.

Turkey shot down a Russian fighter plane in November along the Syria-Turkey border, escalating tensions between two countries with strong trade ties.

And shortly after Russia began bombing in Syria, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for bringing down a Russian commercial plane full of vacationers over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.

"Russia played a weak hand, at least in terms of Assad's domestic standing, very, very well," says Tabler. "But the war in Syria is far from over. I don't think the Assad regime expected this, and it puts a lot of the military burden back on the Assad regime and its allies to keep their head above water."

Greg Myre is the international editor of NPR.org. Follow him @gregmyre1.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.