Why is Russia pulling out of Syria? Is it because Russia is out of money and the Syrian operation is hurting? Or is something else going on?
There is no doubt Russia’s economy is suffering. Even without sanctions, Russia would have a hard time because of crashing oil prices. Gas and oil exports account for a whopping 68% of Russia’s export earnings that also support its currency, banking and ability to finance government, social and military operations.
But the fact of the matter is that the Syrian operation is not as costly as it might seem at first glance.
The equipment, munitions, and salaries of Russian personnel were paid for before the Russian Air Force was dispatched to Syria. While it will cost money to replace equipment and renew stocks of weapons, all in all, the impact on Russia’s current budget is minimal. One reason for this is that Russia has not been continually engaged in military operations, so it has a reasonable stockpile of munitions, decent equipment, and ancillary supplies including fuel.
Compare that to the United States; We have been fighting wars continuously since 1990 -the time of the First Gulf War. It needed special appropriations (called Supplementals) to finance more than a quarter of a century war-related operations.
Aside from the two Chechnya wars (1994-1996 and 1999-2009), the other significant conflicts that have engaged Russian forces were the brief Russian-Georgian conflict (7 to 12 August 2008), and the Russian military semi-engagement in the Ukraine war (2014 to date). The Ukraine battle has been relatively slow rolling and Russia always denies its troops are engaged there. The Chechnya wars were far more significant and costly, but it was a war entirely on Russian soil. Syria is the first important example of Russian military forces operating on a large scale far from Russia’s territory.
Putin’s decision to pull-out from Syria was not caused by a budget crisis at home but based on political developments. Since Russia will retain its bases in Syria, redeployment in a case of emergency is not only possible, but it can happen in a few days. Indeed, Russia demonstrated it can rapidly move its air force and heavy equipment. It has the necessary transport, and it knows how to set up quickly and coordinate intelligence with military operations.
Russian television and press are emphasizing that the renewed self-confidence of the Syrian regime has sparked interest among many of the combatant groups to seek a political solution, which Russia is backing. Putin has said from the start that he wanted a political solution, but not with terrorists. He has put a great deal of pressure on the insurgents in Syria, backing them into a corner. The proof of this, of course, is the escalation of refugees fleeing Syria. If the rebel-held areas were secure, people would not run. The fact that they are running, and running at an extremely high rate means that the rebels are losing control and either face annihilation or need some political agreement. Russia, for its part, wants a political agreement so it can play peacemaker and demonstrate that it is a responsible international player.
By the same token, Russia is not wedded to Syria’s President Assad, or even to an Alawite-Shia solution. In fact, there is a reason to believe that the Russians and the Saudis have been talking and may have found something that approximates a modus vivendi regarding Syria.
Saudi Arabia’s big dream of a Sunni caliphate under Saudi leadership and control has met up with the reality that so far, at least, all the Saudis have done create a threat of a radical Sunni Islamic movement that could engulf the Saudi regime. For years, the Saudi strategy was to pay off the radicals and keep them occupied killing infidels elsewhere. However, the radical Islamists are likely to bite the Saudi hand that feeds them. And for the Saudis who are preoccupied with Iran, and the loss of their influence in Yemen (where it is fighting its own war), it may be better to make a deal. Adding to Saudi nervousness is the U.S.-Iran agreement that has put billions at the disposal of the regime to modernize its weapons, and what appears as America’s shift in alliances away from Saudi Arabia.
For sure Russia would like to capitalize on American geostrategic errors. It would also like to restore its position in Europe, which is a big customer of Russian oil and gas and critical to Gazprom’s long-term ambitions. At the same time, Russia wants to avoid a potential revitalization of NATO.
Putin’s withdrawal, therefore, can be seen as a tactical move in the framework of what seems to be a strategic objective that, if successful, will strengthen Russia’s economy and give it time to continue the reconstruction of its military capabilities. As a tactical move, it makes sense and is very appealing to Europe, which wants the refugee flow to stop, and to the players in the Middle East that need to contain the religious-ideological struggle that threatens to consume them.
* This commentary has been posted on Science and Technology on March 15, 2016