President Vladimir Putin’s order to withdraw the bulk of Russian forces from Syria, a process that the Defense Ministry said it began on Tuesday, seemingly caught Washington in between off guard.
Putin on Monday declared that "the tasks put before the defense ministry have been completed over all,” adding that he had ordered that "the main part" of Russian forces in Syria would be withdrawn.
White House officials were left scrambling, with press secretary Josh Earnest punting on questions during the briefing and others trying to quickly gather information. “We have seen reports that President Putin has announced a planned withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria. We expect to learn more about this in the coming hours,” said one senior administration official on Monday afternoon.
A speedy Russian exit from Syria confounds President Obama's talking point that Putin had walked into a "quagmire" in that country's civil war that he would come to regret.
But even as Russian servicemen were departing Syria, some limits on the withdrawal were already taking shape. Russia plans to leave its powerful S-400 surface-to-air missile systems in place in Syria, a senior Russian official said. That means that Russia will continue to control Syrian airspace, a powerful deterrent to nations such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia — and the United States — that might contemplate instituting no-fly zones over parts of Syrian territory.
The high-tech antiaircraft system significantly alters the balance of the power in Syria and gives Russia a major foothold in the Middle East. Senior Kremlin leaders said Tuesday that the Russian pullout did not spell an end to their nation’s activities in the region.
“Russia does not want to fight for Assad as such,” said Aleksei V. Makarkin, the deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. “If Russia continued, that would make it more dependent on Mr. Assad and would make it clash with other players directly.”
Analysts noted that Mr. Putin had achieved most, if not all, of his goals.
First, to thwart another Western attempt to push for leadership change in Syria and to fight the very idea of outside governments forcing political shifts.
Second, to show that Moscow is a more reliable ally than Washington, given that the Obama administration had abandoned long-term allies like former President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt when they faced political upheaval.
Third, to restore to Russia the role it had in the Soviet era as an important actor in the Middle East and as a global problem solver, and to force respect for Mr. Putin as a world leader.
Fourth, to shatter the isolation that Washington had tried to impose on Moscow after the U.S.-backed crisis in Ukraine, forging a dialogue with the United States and Europe.
Fifth, to show off the effectiveness of a new generation of weaponry from Russia, the biggest arms exporter in the world.