Russia/Syria politics: Quick View - Putin announces Russia's withdrawal from Syria

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Economist Intelligence Unit
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Russia, Syria


On December 11th Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, made a brief stop at the Khmeimim airbase in north-western Syria-en route to Egypt and Turkey-to announce that his defence staff had ordered the start of the withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria.


Mr Putin said that in general the fight against the terrorists-a vague term that Mr Putin has used to include most of the rebel opposition in Syria-was completed, although he did not provide details of the numbers of forces to be withdrawn or of their service affiliation. Russia's main contribution has been the use of its air force against rebel forces and, to a lesser extent, Islamic State (IS). A small number of Russian army troops, probably in the hundreds but possibly the thousands, has played a mainly strategic role in the Syrian conflict. Although the Russian government has never acknowledged this, Russian private contractors have at times been deployed to the frontlines, and also to guard oil and gas facilities.

Most of the frontline fighting against rebel forces and IS has been conducted by the Syrian army, militia forces, and members of dozens of Lebanese, Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani militias operating under the command of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The minimal presence of Russian ground troops will therefore make a withdrawal relatively simple, particularly as Russia will keep some forces at its airbase at Khmeimim and the naval base at Tartus. Moreover, the withdrawal announcement offers Mr Putin support for the narrative that Russia has secured a complete military victory against so-called terrorists in Syria.

However, ongoing fighting will probably slow the pace of such a manoeuvre. Mr Putin has already twice promised Russian military withdrawal, but both times he has been forced to maintain and even extend military aid to the regime of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, which remains extremely dependent on Russian and Iranian support. However, this time around Mr Assad is in a far stronger position and has effectively ensured his own survival. Nevertheless, various rebel forces still hold sizeable pockets of territory, and the Kurds control most of the north-east. As such, the fighting will continue-albeit in a more localised and intermittent manner-and Russia will thus probably continue to deploy its air force in the medium term.

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