What did Russia's six-month intervention in Syria accomplish?

After helping defend the Assad regime, Moscow is now looking to exert its influence on peace talks in Geneva. The Syrian conflict entered its sixth year on Tuesday.

Courtesy of Russian Ministry of Defense/Reuters
Russian and Syrian servicemen line up during a ceremony dedicated to the withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria at Hmeymim airbase on Tuesday.

Russian troops began packing up and leaving Syria Tuesday, just hours after President Vladimir Putin declared "mission accomplished" for a six-month military intervention that changed the conversation about the conflict-wracked country.

In Mr. Putin's signature style, the lightning move caught most world leaders off guard.

The Kremlin had always described its intervention as limited in its goals and timeframe. But what long remained unclear – at least to Western observers – were Russia's priorities. Did Putin want to defeat the self-described Islamic State and other extremist militant groups, or ensure the survival of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime?

In a conversation with his defense and foreign ministers, Putin indicated his objective had been to end all expectation that Mr. Assad might eventually be forced out by the rebellion. He also suggested that he wanted to compel Western-backed rebels to come to the bargaining table and negotiate a settlement on the regime's terms while branding all opposition forces that refuse to take part in the peace process as "terrorists" who will be fought to the end.

Putin has good reason to be pleased with the intervention's results, as they reflected Moscow's diplomatic and military muscle, analysts say. But the defeat of the Islamic State and other extremist groups, which Moscow often suggested was a top priority, is nowhere near being accomplished.

Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist for the liberal Moscow daily Kommersant, says now that Moscow has helped secure Assad's position, it has positioned itself to play a key role in peace talks in Geneva.

"Putin has a bigger agenda, which does not involve endless fighting against jihadists in the deserts of eastern Syria," Mr. Strokan says. "He wants to restore relations with the West on Russia's terms, end sanctions, and put Russia back at the center of world affairs."

The abrupt Russian pullout may also be a warning to Assad, who has been balking at compromise now that his once-beleaguered forces are on the offensive, that he may find himself all alone if he doesn't follow Moscow's lead in the Geneva talks.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied Tuesday that Moscow was pressuring Assad, while a Syrian spokesperson insisted that the troop drawdown was a "joint" idea.

The cost of intervention

Russia's six-month air campaign involved 9,000 combat sorties carried out by about 40 aircraft from the Syrian port city of Latakia, according to the Russian Defense Ministry.

About 2,000 fighters from Russia and the former Soviet Union were killed during the campaign. With Russian air support, Syrian forces retook 3,860 square miles of territory and 400 population centers. Russian warplanes also destroyed vast amounts of infrastructure held by armed opposition groups, including more than 200 oil production facilities and thousands of tanker trucks.

The Defense Ministry offered no estimate of civilian casualties, which international humanitarian groups say numbered 1,000 or higher.

Most observers say that Russia's relatively small military contingent performed far above expectations and significantly changed the game in Syria. Yet persistent opinion polls show that Russians have been far more wary of military involvement in Syria than they were about actions closer to home, such as the 2008 war with Georgia or the annexation of Crimea two years ago.

Though it's too soon for opinion polls, analysts say there's little doubt the Syria withdrawal will be a popular move domestically, if only because it suggests there will be no long and agonizing "quagmire" such as the Soviet Union experienced in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Yet they also point out that Moscow may yet get dragged back into the Syrian maelstrom. About 1,000 Russian personnel will remain behind as advisers to the Syrian military and to protect Russia's naval base at Tartus and the new airbase in Latakia. That suggests that the door will remain open for a swift return, should Moscow deem it necessary.

"We have invested a lot, and we are certainly not giving up our sea and air bases in Syria. We may be there for quite awhile," says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the international affairs committee of the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament. "But we've accomplished the goals for now, so people and planes are coming home."

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