Vladimir Putin's Surprise Withdrawal From Syria

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Bakı, 15 mart 2016 –

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s surprise announcement that he is pulling Russian forces out of Syria will be greeted skeptically by many, and for good reason. I suspect my own reaction – What’s that sneaky guy up to this time? – is not uncommon.

The most superficial explanation is probably the right one. Mr. Putin almost certainly never intended this to be a long military campaign. He has gotten what he wanted, sees no great advantage in making Russia a full party to Syria’s civil war, and may have heard from pollsters and focus groups that the intervention is losing support at home. All in all, then, a smart move.

Still, there are many ways this ''withdrawal'' can play out, and not all of them will be good for Mr. Putin. So let’s admire his caginess but keep in mind that the story is far from over. Suppose, for example:

1. He doesn’t follow through. What Mr. Putin has announced is that he is ordering a withdrawal of the ''main part'' of Russian military personnel and that it will ''begin'' on Tuesday. If the pace turns out to be very slow, or the numbers too small to be meaningful, the failure to make good on his claims would only confirm Mr. Putin’s sketchy reputation. Remember, we’ll hear, he said Russian troops weren’t in Ukraine, but they were. He told European leaders that he would get out of Ukraine, but then he didn’t. Repeating the pattern in Syria will be costly.

2. Bashar al-Assad begins to weaken again. Mr. Putin began this operation last fall when the Syrian regime was on the ropes. He gambled that he could stabilize the situation, and he seems to have accomplished that – and more. But some of the weaknesses that brought Mr. Assad to the brink are still there. If his hold on power begins to weaken, what will Mr. Putin do then? A choice between re-intervening or simply letting Mr. Assad fall will be a hard one. Mr. Putin has miscalculated these matters before. He probably thought that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was a goner in 2008, and he seemed to expect Ukrainian "separatists” would have an easy time expanding their territory in 2014. Both guesses were wrong.

3. Western governments start to do more. Mr. Putin may imagine that he’s done enough to keep the U.S. and its allies from deeper interference in Syria – from trying to establish a NATO-protected ''safe zone,'' for example. That’s not a bad bet, but it’s hardly a certainty. If the next round of Geneva talks goes nowhere, refugee flows continue, Islamic State stays strong, and regime divisions re-emerge, Western debate will resume – perhaps with greater urgency. Has Mr. Putin been promised that the U.S. will not act?

Bottom line: Mr. Putin may be showing himself to be a canny strategist. But watch out for all the ways his plan could still go wrong.

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