In mid-March, Putin announced a withdrawal of most Russian troops and military efforts from Syria. It all looked good – Russia had the opportunity while there to demonstrate several of their new weaponry including long-range cruise missiles and new fighter jets. They also were able to announce they were responsible for killing approximately 2,000 jihadis making the region safer. All that success meant Putin could put a good face on things and get the majority of his people out of the Syrian crisis.
It also meant that along with the Cessation of Hostility agreement on February 22 and the opening of negotiations in Geneva, Russia could show their effectiveness in moving Syria towards a resolution of the conflict. Some might even say, they got the best of both worlds, showing their strengths and taking a bow for world diplomacy by reducing the risks to everyone else and then making a show of pulling out to let the area resolve their own issues.
But the truth is, Russia is far from being removed from the area. Russia has announced they are not abandoning the Mediterranean coast – Tartus naval base, they are also leaving the Hmeinim airbase open. Some of the aircraft such as the fixed-wing flyers, combat helicopters, and air defense systems, including the S-400 missiles, have been removed from the area. But several reports are that Russian Troops continue to enter Syria. And even the television coverage in Russia showed at least one Iskander missile launcher was making its way to Syria. While heavily laden military freighters made their way to Syria and returned riding much higher on the water.
Those Russian military forces have been building near Aleppo, and though Russia denied any responsibility for the April 28th bombing of the civilian hospital in rebel territory, their strength in the area may have given Assad’s local efforts to the impetus to strike.
On May 1, those in negotiations opened them to Aleppo and called for ceasefire and the “regime of calm.” The U.S. and Russia extended the ceasefire to Aleppo and the Syrian military on May 4th, confirming a halt in military operations for two days. And without there being a return to negotiations, Russia remains in Syria.
At this point, it’s more of a spin game from Russia’s view. They are pretty much stuck in Syria and aiding Assad’s efforts, even though they claim to have mostly pulled out, they must continue to fight someone else’s battle while appearing to not be part of the fray.
Putin’s PR has been great for the most part over several years, but even a master at PR sometimes faces an unwinnable fight.