It is a Tactical Move With A Strategic Rationale
by Stephen Bryen***
The big question is why Russia is 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 be having a hard time since oil prices crashed. Oil and gas exports account for a whopping 68% of Russia’s export earnings, and oil and gas income supports Russia’s currency, its banking, and Russia’s 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. In short for over a quarter of a century the United States has been engaged in war-related activity, meaning that for the US to sustain its operations it has needed special appropriations (called Supplementals) to finance these operations. Aside from the two Chechnya wars (1994-1996 and 1999-2009) the other significant conflicts that have engaged Russian forces was 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 and far from Russia’s territory.
It is hard to see that Russia’s pull out is caused by a budget crisis. A good case can be made that Russia’s decision is much more based on political developments. As Russia will retain its bases in Syria, redeployment in case of any emergency is not only possible, but it can happen in a few days. One of the things the US military learned is that Russia 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 is emphasizing that the renewed self-confidence of the Syrian regime has sparked a strong 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 really 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 President Assad of Syria or even to an Alawite-Sh’ia solution. In fact, there is reason to believe that the Russians and the Saudi Arabians 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 is create a threat of a radical Sunni Islamic movement that could easily engulf the Saudi regime. For years the Saudi strategy was to pay off the radicals and keep them occupied killing infidels elsewhere. But there is always a moment when the dog bites the hand that feeds it, and for the Saudis -preoccupied with Iran and the loss of its influence in Yemen (where it is fighting its own war), it may be better to make a deal. Adding to Saudi nervousness is the US-Iran agreement that has put billions at the disposal of the Iranian government which will help Iran modernize its weapons and what seems like 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 and avoid a potential revitalization of NATO, as unlikely as that may seem since Europe is a big customer for Russian oil and gas, and in the long term critical to Gazprom’s ambitions.
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.
***Dr. Stephen Bryen is author of the new book, Technology Security and National Power: Winners and Losers (Transaction Publishers).