MOSCOW >> Russia’s war in Syria is slowly fading from view here, even as events on the ground give every indication that Russian forces remain heavily engaged.
President Vladimir Putin, when he talks about it at all, tends to refer to Syria as an accomplished victory, yet hedges a bit. “We did indeed withdraw a substantial portion of our forces,” Putin said in response to a question on his live national call-in show Thursday. “But we made sure that after our withdrawal, the Syrian army would be in a fit state to carry out serious offensives itself, with our remaining forces’ support.”
That support, according to numerous military analysts and diplomatic sources, amounts to virtually the same level of engagement since Russia first deployed in Syria in September. The tenor has changed, however. Syria is gradually becoming another more secretive, hybrid war of the sort that fits into Putin’s comfort zone, they said.
Russia’s agenda in Syria at the moment is a tightrope act. It wants to keep enough forces engaged in Syria to ensure it can influence any political transition, so that Damascus remains a client. Yet, it does not want to become visibly mired in a messy, prolonged war, as U.S. officials predicted it would.
“The level of Russian involvement in Syria is relatively high, and includes a wide range of assistance to the Syrian government forces,” said Mikhail Barabanov, a senior research fellow at the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.
He and others suggested that Russia was providing close air support, including attack helicopters on the battlefield; high-precision strikes with missiles like the short-range Iskander; artillery support; special forces backup; intelligence; targeting; electronic warfare and, as seen recently in Palmyra, mine clearance.
Although the bulk of the fighter jets flew home to great fanfare, they were replaced by attack helicopters that are less susceptible to the sandstorms that blow this time of year.
Noting Russian news reports that private security contractors were replacing regular Russian troops in Syria, Alexander M. Golts, a veteran Russian military analyst and a visiting researcher at Upsala University in Sweden, speculated that the bulk of the force could become some kind of paramilitary organization not directly linked to the government — much like what Russia used to fight in southeastern Ukraine.
Putin explained initially that the decision to deploy the military in Syria was a fight against terrorism, but the Russian military mostly attacked moderate forces opposed to President Bashar Assad. Palmyra changed that perception somewhat.
“Moscow can now ask: ‘We took Palmyra from ISIS, and what have you done?’” Barabanov said.
After the capture of Palmyra, the next target is unclear. Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State, lies 140 miles away, but it is unlikely Russia wants to lead that battle. Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city, is held by a confusing patchwork of forces. Putin called the situation there “complicated.”
Putin has told a number of visiting envoys that he meant to send a dual message with his March 14 announcement that Russian forces would begin withdrawing, but could also ramp up again instantly, according to Arab and Western diplomats.
The first message was to the opposition — that it would remain in Russia’s cross hairs if it did not contribute to a negotiated settlement. Putin has also specified that he signaled to Assad that the Russian commitment was not open-ended.
One question is whether the intervention has gone too far and whether Assad feels emboldened enough to thwart the efforts that resumed Friday in Geneva to negotiate a political settlement under the auspices of the United Nations.
In Russia, events in Syria have been portrayed as a significant political and military victory, with Putin adroitly reclaiming the old Soviet title of global contender.
“The goal since Russia began the operation was just to show that Russia is a great power, that it is again sitting at the Yalta table solving the future of other countries together with America,” Golts said. “Putin needs Assad as a figure in this chess game. Not as a player in himself, not as an actor, but as a figure.”
In that vein, Assad has been lionized in Russian state television reports as a worthy, even noble ally.
Dmitry K. Kiselyov, the television anchorman who presides over the weekly news show “Vesti,” the main Kremlin propaganda vehicle, could barely contain his enthusiasm for the Syrian leader.
“I should note that Bashar Assad is in a great shape for being 50 years old,” he said. “He is a lean and elegant man. His manner of speaking is emotional and, therefore, infectious. He is courageous. His thoughts are deep and elaborate.”
As evidence of Assad’s “courage” Kiselyov noted that he did not demand interview questions in advance, a standard practice in Russia. The piece concluded by describing Assad as “krepki perets,” old Russian slang for “a tough guy.”
In discussions, Putin has made it clear that he will not withdraw his support for the Syrian leader until there is a clear alternative in place. By an alternative, he means a specific figure who the Russian leader can feel confident will control the army and hold together what is left of the existing government, diplomats said.
Removing Assad before that “would lead to the collapse of the secular authoritarian regime in Syria, and, from the Russian point of view, would give power in Syria to ISIS and Al Nusra,” Barabanov said.
That does not mean that Russia intervened in Syria for Assad personally, however, or that it will stick by him.
Russia faces certain risks either way. Its support for Assad has strained its ties with Sunni Arab leaders and risks inflaming passions among its own population of 20 million mostly Sunni Muslims.
Assad also enjoys strong support from Iran, another longtime patron of Syria and Russia’s partner in the battlefield. The Iranians are adamant that Assad stay, and Russia has been trying to build strong military and trade ties with Iran.
Gen. Qasem Suleimani, the mysterious general behind Iran’s Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards, was reportedly in Moscow for talks Friday. His last visit preceded Russia’s intervention in Syria, but lately there have been signs of strains. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, did not meet with the Russian defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, on his most recent visit to Tehran.
If no clear alternative to Assad emerges, diplomats and analysts expect candidates to emerge in an extended transition period, with Assad remaining in place, perhaps with diminished powers. That stage could last through the summer of 2017, the U.N. timetable for the completion of a new constitution and new presidential elections.
Assad would almost surely lose such a vote, the Kremlin expects, leading to what would be a dignified exit, diplomats said.