Just six months after shaking up the strategic calculus of the Middle East, Russian president Vladimir Putin has yet again shown his capacity to do the unexpected, ordering most of his troops out of Syria.
Details are still thin. But Putin’s main justification for diving into the five-year-old Syrian conflict in September was to save his main Middle East ally, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The pullout means either that Putin thinks that Assad’s rule is no longer threatened, no longer believes the Syrian ruler can maintain his grip on the fractured country, or doesn’t care if Assad falls.
Assad’s government, Syrian opposition groups, and other regional players are currently engaged in United Nations-led peace negotiations. Opposition groups are demanding that Assad’s departure is a precondition to any truce, and the UN says it working toward new Syrian elections.
“The Russian intervention turned the tide in Assad’s favor and allowed the Kremlin to cut a favorable deal with the West,” Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Center, told Quartz. “Putin can always order the troops back into Syria—in a single dramatic gesture or gradually—in response to an alleged breach of the deal by the West or its allies.”
Putin said that Russia’s air base and port in Syria would remain. He has already made a consequential point with his intervention: Two decades after the Soviet collapse, Moscow remains capable of projecting power thousands of miles from its borders.
Putin also has underlined his contention that Russia is a force in the most important foreign theaters—and he certainly has shown he can keep the world guessing.