What does Russia’s Syrian withdrawal mean?

President Vladimir Putin gave an order to begin withdrawing the main part of Russian troops from Syria on March 15, 2016. “We were able to significantly hinder and in some places completely stop resource support for terrorists by intercepting hydrocarbon trade,” said Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. The first observation made by Cyceon was that Putin’s announcement apparently came as a surprise for the West, confirming a possible lack of intelligence about Russia’s intentions. In September 2015, the surprise was quite similar when Putin sent Russian troops into Syria.

Secondly, the Russian withdrawal looks sincere considering that from Moscow’s standpoint, major goals have been achieved. Russia has given NATO and the US evidence that it succeeded in building modernized, more capable and more projectable military forces, far from what they were almost 8 years ago during the Russo-Georgian war in August 2008. Thirdly, sending troops back home is like telling everyone that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s government is able, reinforced enough to take over. This is also a reminder for Assad that though Russia stands by her allies, it doesn’t mean she’s ready to do anything.

Some recent moves by the Syrian government might have been unwelcomed in Moscow, but only Assad and Putin could tell. Fourthly, Putin likely prefers to re-focus on Russia’s economy and repatriate troops home on a “victory note” since he wants to win the next parliamentary elections this fall plus one more presidential mandate in 2018. But make no mistake, Russia’s most significant forces, mostly naval, will remain inside or around Syria; and considering both the regained territory and the facilities which have been built over the last 6 months, the Russian military could be sent back to Syria even faster if needed.