On Monday Reuters reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin had announced "out of the blue" that the main part of Russia's forces would begin the withdraw from Syria, baffling anti-Assad opposition forces with their spokesperson being quoted as stating "Nobody knows what is in Putin's mind."
According to reports Putin had informed Syrian President Bashar Assad that there would be a reduction in Russian forces, asserting that Russia's military intervention in the Syrian war had largely achieved objectives."
"The task assigned to the Ministry of Defense and the Armed Forces as a whole has been largely accomplished, so I order the minister of defense to begin withdrawing the main part of our military factions of the Syrian Arab Republic tomorrow," Putin said, according to Russian news agency Interfax.
For the United states the objectives in Syria started in 2011 when the U.S. started supplying aid to the "moderate" Syrian rebels in order to overthrow Assad, then in 2014 the bombing campaign started against ISIS in Syria, so the objectives were two-fold... destroy ISIS and oust the President of Syria.
For Russia, there were also multiple objectives that could be achieved by stepping in and obstensibly bombing ISIS, the most important of which was pushing back against America's intervention by bolstering Assad's position, which means many of Russia's targets were anti-Assad opposition forces, which the U.S. was backing. Another objective of Putin's was to assert Russia's power, specifically in a region where the U.S. has been a dominant force for decades.
Putin achieved his objective, Obama did not. Even more embarassing for Obama is that he has been working toward his objective since the first non-lethal aid was provided to the Syrian rebels in 2011, nearly 5 years, while Putin achieved his in just five months, leaving himself with the ability to quickly return should the tides turn against Assad since Russia is not giving up the aitbase in Latakia.
Politicians tend to find it easier to start wars than to end them, to escalate rather than to withdraw. For a leader who clearly relishes his macho image and who has been articulating a very aggressive foreign policy in recent years to opt for such a stand-down is a striking act of statesmanship.
That said, Putin’s announcement that “the objectives given to the Defense Ministry and the Armed Forces as a whole have largely been accomplished” is probably accurate.
This intervention was, after all, never about “winning” the war in Syria: even the most starry-eyed optimist would not expect a relative handful of aircraft and ground forces to end this bloody and complex conflict. Nor was it primarily to save Bashar al-Assad’s skin and position.
Rather, it had three main objectives. Firstly, to assert Russia’s role in the region and its claim to a say in the future of Syria. Secondly, to protect Moscow’s last client in the Middle East, ideally by preserving Assad, but if need be by replacing him with some other suitable client. Thirdly, to force the West, and primarily Washington, to stop efforts diplomatically to isolate Moscow. For the moment, at least, all three have indeed been accomplished.
At a White House news conference in October 2015, after Russia started their bombing campaign in Syria, Barack Obama predicted "An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won't work."
Not only did Putin achieve his goals, but in the process he just made Obama eat his own words.
Josh Cohen encompasses just how much of a chump Obama looks like on the word stage, via Reuters, in a piece titled "Why — and how — Russia won in Syria":
Russia entered Syria with one overriding objective: Preserve the Assad regime. To avoid another Afghanistan-style quagmire, Russia relies on fighters from its Shi’ite allies, including Assad, Hezbollah and Iran. By picking a clear and achievable goal and then ensuring that Moscow and its allies all rowed in one direction, Putin enacted a textbook proxy strategy.
Washington’s Syrian policy, meanwhile, remains a hopeless muddle. At various points the Obama administration insisted that “Assad must go” — and that Assad can stay. Its objectives have been to degrade and destroy Islamic State, reject broader cooperation with Moscow and partner in peace talks with Moscow.
Other headlines spawned by this surprise action on Putin's part include Wall Street Journal with "So Much for Putin’s Syria ‘Quagmire’ and Politico with "Did Putin once again outfox Obama?"