Russia recently announced its plan to pull out of Syria militarily, putting the reigns of leadership back into Bashar al-Assad’s “capable” hands. While the Kremlin announce that this is not a complete withdraw, the message is clear: the job is done.1 But why now? What changed since Moscow began its bombing campaign in Syria almost a year ago.
Well several factors are different. Assad has more territory than he did before and his enemies are substantially weaker. Unless foreign powers become more involved supporting the rebels, it is unlikely they can mount a successful assault to oust the long-time dictator. However, Assad also lacks the firepower to remove them completely leaving the whole situation in a tenuous ceasefire. Compromises will have to be made if Assad wants to maintain power, even as a behind-the-scenes puppeteer. Further problems manifest in the form of future international sanctions for the mistreatment of his own people.2
So yes, Assad is on much more manageable ground. But was that really why Russia felt the need to pull out at this point? Economically, it made little sense to stay in Syria. The Russian economy has taken a nose-dive given the oil glut, and until these barrel prices can be stabilized, Moscow will burn through its monetary reserves. Also, Russo-Turkish relations were bordering on a precarious edge. The downing of the Russians fighter planes last November set off a chain of interactions that did not boost Putin's image. In response to a blatant military attack, he accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of providing ISIS with resources and surface-level sanctions placed against Turkey. Some might deem this a weak comeback from someone who annexed a country the year before.
But despite having to endure this minor blight on Russian pride, Putin accomplished seemingly everything he wanted in Syria. The Russians protected an ally’s sovereignty by securing a position for Assad at the bargaining table, proved its military capabilities through multiple bombing campaigns, and returned to Russia with minimal losses to their personnel.
While this short-term goal has been achieved, the long-term effects of sanctions against Russia should be considered. They will likely struggle economically in the future from their intervention in Syria. Additionally, Assad’s next moves should be deliberate ones unless he wants to recreate the whole debacle again through poor negotiations. The band-aid that has been applied to Syria is not a strong one and the wound will likely open up in the foreseeable future.