russian troops withdraw
Peace talks comes amid fragile ceasefire
02:47 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Russia abruptly announces a major withdrawal of military forces

Analysts tell CNN this is likely a bargaining position being struck by Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russians, who have bolstered Assad's position, could also force him to step down

CNN  — 

In the end, Russia’s military involvement in Syria finished as abruptly as it began.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the unexpected withdrawal of troops and a marked reduction in its air campaign in the beleaguered country.

The announcement came five years since the war started and the same day talks to broker a peaceful resolution to a Syrian conflict begin in Geneva.

With at least 300,000 lives lost and 11 million ordinary Syrians forced from their homes, it has never been more important that talks between the Assad regime and rebel groups, brokered by Russia and the West, succeed.

So what will this sudden withdrawal mean for the Geneva talks and, ultimately, Syria’s future?

Why did Russia pull out now?

The benefits of Russia staying in Syria no longer outweighed the costs, says James Gelvin, a Professor of History at the University of California Los Angeles

Putin couldn’t have expected to regain all the territory ceded to ISIS and the various rebel groups vying for primacy in Syria, says Gelvin, but he added that Russia has made headway on behalf of government forces.

“Russia went in (to Syria) at the point at which the government of Syria was losing and on the defensive. (Russia was) able to turn tide and the government now has wind at their back, where Putin wants them to be.”

But, it comes at a price, and Gelvin feels that the move is an astute bargaining ploy by Putin as the Geneva talks begin.

“He withdrew troops so Assad knew (Syria) was on its own and would have to negotiate.”

CNN Moscow correspondent Matthew Chance says that Putin is declaring victory and getting out before it turns messy.

“The Russians can say they’ve made and achieved military objectives, brought partners to the table, supported their Middle East ally Bashar Al Assad, all with minimal Russian cost,” says Chance.

Putin has ordered the withdrawal of the “main part of our military factions from the Syrian Arab Republic,” but Russia will maintain a long-term presence in the country with bases in Latakia and Tartus.

Faces of Syria: The survivors

Whose hand has been strengthened by the pullout?

CNN military analyst Rick Francona says Russia’s intervention has put Assad in a stronger bargaining position than the rebel groups with whom he is vying for control.

Ahead of the talks in Geneva “The regime in a much better shape, (along with) the Russians of course.”