“Vladimir Putin’s decision to pull much of his forces and air power out of Syria took the world by surprise. But it really should not have.
He has done exactly what he said he would do when he staged his surprise intervention nearly six months ago.
At that time, he said he had two goals: To stabilise the situation of the Syrian government, and to prepare the way for a “compromise political settlement” of a crisis that is now five years old.”
Vladimir Putin’s pledge to withdraw at least part of his forces from the Syrian conflict has been taken by many as a hopeful sign. The logic is simple enough: Putin has stabilized the situation for the Syrian government and now he wants to extract himself from a messy conflict while demonstrating to the world that Russia still has clout by delivering his Syrian client to the bargaining table. Without Russian support, the argument continues, the Assad regime will realize it cannot win and therefore accept a settlement.
Maybe this will happen, maybe not. There are two problems with the argument. First, the Syrian opposition is still demanding a transitional process which involves guarantees that Bashar Assad will step down. This is probably something Assad will only do as an absolute last resort. Second, Putin may not have as much leverage as he thinks. While the Russians can credibly tell Assad that they have no intention of helping him retake the entire country, it is clear that Moscow is committed to the regime’s survival. Knowing this, Assad may feel that he can hold out for the deal he wants, one where he gets to stay in power. While Putin may not like it, the costs of turning his back on the regime now would be too high.
So far, this seems to be the calculation Assad is making. The Syrian government has already announced that it will not participate in direct talks with the opposition. (see: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-35820823)
The situation as it stands, demonstrates the often complex power dynamics between patron states and their clients. Even if the patron is much more powerful and much richer, and even if the client is really desperate, if the patron is committed to the survival of the client they may not have that much influence over its actions.