Russia withdrawing from Syria. What is going on? Part 2

by omouggos

Why is Vladimir Putin withdrawing his forces from Syria? (image from themoscowtimes.com)

According to the Russian military within a few days most of their forces will be withdrawn from Syria.[1] This rapid and abrupt pullout has caught nearly all observers by surprise and, if we are to believe Putin, is occurring because all of his objectives have been “generally accomplished” in Syria.

In part 1 of this series of posts, it was discussed how Putin did in fact achieve most of his objectives, however the risks associated with the withdrawal suggest that their are other factors motivating Putin’s actions.[2] In this post we will discuss what these other factors could be.

It is interesting to note that the Russian withdrawal from Syria was foreshadowed in an interview given by Russian political analyst Sergei Karagonov. Talking about the Syrian Civil War he said, “despite clear military and diplomatic successes, this war can’t be won. We must be prepared to leave Syria at any moment. And the people must be prepared in advance for this scenario.[3]

In an article Karagonov reiterated his views writing, “I keep repeating that the Middle East crisis will remain unresolved for decades to come. We must be extremely careful not to get bogged down in this quagmire, something many would desire. We should also have the courage to withdraw quickly if such a danger appears and to prepare [our] society for such a possibility.[4]

Karagonov’s pragmatism and caution was also shared by Putin (I am not sure if the former is known or consulted by Putin). When speaking to fellow government members on the day that Russia’s intervention in Syria commenced, Putin said, “we naturally have no intention of getting deeply entangled in this conflict. We will act strictly in accordance with our set mission. … our support will have a limited timeframe and will continue only while the Syrian army conducts its anti-terrorist offensive.[5]

So Putin was quite clear that Russia never wanted to get bogged down in the Syrian Civil War and that their intervention would as such be temporally limited. As an aside I sometimes wonder if people actually listen to what Putin says, instead of the propaganda spewed by the Western media, which is intended to portray him as a bully warmongering thug. Contrary to this distorted view Putin is a highly intelligent and thoughtful person, as evinced by his concern for getting bogged down in Syria.

Difference among allies

Taking into account the Russian desire to avoid getting stuck in a Syrian quagmire, it appears that one factor motivating the Russian withdrawal was a divergence in strategy between Putin and his allies Assad and Iran. One of the first inklings of this divergence was when Assad commented that he would retake all Syrian territory. A Russian diplomat, Vitaly Churkin, responded that Assad’s vow was “not in accord with the diplomatic efforts that Russia is making.[6]

According to DEBKAfile Russia’s “diplomatic efforts” involving the US did not please the Iranians and the difference between the two allies came to a head during a meeting in Moscow between Russian officials and Iranian Defense Minister Gen. Hossein Dehghan.[7] Ultimately Assad and Iran wanted to intensify the prosecution of the war against the rebels, while the Russians were instead open to a ceasefire agreement.

Following the announcement of Russia’s withdrawal there were some interesting comments made in the Russia press.[8] Russia-Direct, a Kremlin funded media outlet, suggested that the withdrawal was a “wake-up call” to the “over-confident” Assad regime that “Russian air support is not limitless.” However, Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, countered such claims basically saying Russia was not unhappy with the Assad regime.

Another potential divergence in policy between Russia and her allies was that the former has become open to the partitioning or federalization of Syria, something Assad and Iran are obviously against. Previously, when John Kerry proposed a Plan B for Syria, involving the partitioning of Syria, Sergei Lavrov flatly rejected it.[9] As recently as one week ago Russian officials were reiterating their policy of an intact Syria.[10]

However, according to DEBKAfile, Russia is now backing a semi-autonomous Kurdish state in northern Syria.[11] This change in Russian policy is not surprising, as it has been reported that Russia is cooperating with the YPD, a Kurdish militia group operating in northern Syria.[12]

Based on these developments it appears that a divergence of goals and tactics has occurred between the Russians and their allies. This does not mean that Putin has abandoned Assad, although he may be willing to replace Assad with a new government, but that he is mainly concerned with securing the interests of his own nation and not others, even if they are allies. In other words Putin is not going to get bogged down in a quagmire, just because Assad wants to go on the offensive.

Dangers of escalation

Thus far Russia’s military intervention in Syria has gone rather smoothly. They have achieved most of their objectives and have had minimal casualties, losing only one Su-24 bomber and having three personnel killed (although the actual number of casualties may be significantly higher).[13] So one could ask why is Russia so afraid of getting stuck in a quagmire in Syria?

The problem is that Russia is likely concerned that the Syrian Civil War could further escalate and they could become embroiled in a serious and dangerous conflict involving Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and in the worst case scenario NATO as well. While Putin is seen as a strongman of sorts, he is not a warmonger recklessly seeking intractable conflicts for his nation. He is too pragmatic for such lunacy.

Now what could lead Putin to be concerned of escalation in Syria? The answer is Turkey’s and Saudi Arabia’s recent bellicose posturing. Both nations have expressed their willingness to deploy troops to Syria and both have undertaken rather foreboding actions.

Recently, for almost a week, the Turks shelled YPD positions in northern Syria.[14] Lavrov has also stated he had evidence Turkish troops were being stationed in Syrian territory.[15] Interestingly, DEBKAfile’s sources have confirmed that Turkish troops are stationed a few hundred meters within the Syrian province of Idlib.[16]

As for the Saudis they have recently considered arming Syrian rebels with surface-to-air missiles, which their foreign minister claims would “change the balance of power on the ground.[17] They have also just concluded a massive military drill named North Thunder in which 350,000 soldiers from 20 Sunni nations participated and have sent at least four F-15E warplanes to the Turkish Incirlik airbase.[18,19] One wonders what the purpose of such a military drill and the deployment of warplanes to Turkey were. Possibly a preparation for military intervention in Syria?

Following Lavrov’s revelation that Turkish troops are in Syria, shortly thereafter Russia commenced withdrawing the majority of their own forces from the country. Maybe this is a meaningless coincidence, but it could also be of some significance. The timing of events suggests that Russia suspects Turkey and Saudi Arabia could be up to something in Syria and is keen to avoid any conflict with these nations.

Obviously after the downing of the Su-24, the Russians no longer trust Turkey and its leader Erdoğan. As Karagonov has said, Turkey “stabbed us in the back.”[3] If Erdoğan is crazy and treacherous enough to shoot down an aircraft for transiently violating his airspace then he is more than capable of other, more serious, provocations relating to Syria.

Now one could argue that Russia has been speaking rather strongly, maybe even provocatively, with respect to foreign intervention in Syria. Russian officials have warned of “permanent war” and the use of tactical nukes.[20] With such talk why would Russia back down now from possible future confrontations?

However, while the Russians may talk tough to dissuade potentially hostile nations from intervening in Syria, it is highly unlikely Putin wants to partake in a “permanent war” or one involving tactical nukes, unless absolutely necessary. With the Russians understanding first hand the volatile nature of Erdoğan, coupled to Turkey’s and Saudi Arabia’s recent movements in the region, and a desire to avoid a serious, it makes perfect sense for Putin to withdraw from Syria before the situation gets out of hand.

Putin could very well see the peace process as being a safer way of maintaining his objectives in Syria, while at the same time avoiding a serious confrontation with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and NATO.  As well, his recent warming to a semi-autonomous Kurdish state in northern Syria could be seen as a necessary ploy to counter Turkey.

Other factors influencing Putin

Another possible factor motivating Putin is simple economics. The Russian economy has been hard hit by low oil prices and Western sanctions. Waging a modern bombing campaign in an environment such as Syria is costly. Initially the cost of Russian intervention in Syria was estimated to be around $4 million per day, but more recent estimates (for the period when Russia intensified its bombing campaign) have the daily cost at $8 million.[21] Just using the lower daily cost estimate, the total cost of the five month long Russia intervention is at least $600 million.

So if Russia intervention continued then the yearly cost could be $2 to $4 billion. This may not seem like that much money, especially compared to the US which runs yearly deficits in the hundreds of billions of dollars, but such costs during a period of economic difficulty, like the one Russia is currently experiencing, are economically harmful.

It is obvious that the Russian government is attempting to rein in spending as evinced by their recent slashing of the space program budget by 30% (almost $9 billion).[22] It is not too far fetched to presume that the withdrawal from Syria was partially motivated by a desire to control governmental spending.

Related to Russia’s economic woes is the low price of oil. During an interview with Alex Jones, Jerome Corsi said that one of the reasons that Russia had pulled out of Syria was because they had struck a deal with Saudi Arabia.[23] In exchange for Russia’s withdrawal, Saudi Arabia has agreed to ‘increase’ the price of oil.

Whether or not such a deal has in fact been struck between Saudi Arabia and Russia, about a month ago the two nations agreed to freeze oil production, which has caused a rally in the price of oil.[24] It could be that the timing of the production freeze agreement and Putin’s withdrawal from Syria are coincidental, or, as Corsi states, the two are related.

Another possibility, one suggested by the Russia news agency RIA Novosti, is that the Russian withdrawal from Syria could be used as leverage in future negotiations to remove European and US backed sanctions on Russia.[8] However, the US has stated that the sanctions will remain on Russia until the Crimea is handed over to Ukraine.[25]

Conclusion

In closing there are many factors influencing Putin’s decision to withdraw his forces from Syria. Firstly, as discussed in part 1 he was able to achieve nearly all of his objectives and with respect to the only one that was not completely achieved, the elimination of terrorist groups, he was still able to greatly weaken these groups (ISIL, Jabat al-Nusra, etc.)

Given the success of Russia’s intervention, when placed in the context of divergences of interests and strategy between Russia and her allies Iran and Syria, the potential for further military escalation involving Turkey, Saudi Arabia and NATO, and the economic problems besetting Russia, now is probably as excellent a time as any for Putin to commence the scale back of his intervention in Syria. Furthermore, it could be possible that the withdrawal is also being used as a negotiation tactic, to either help increase oil prices or to get sanctions lifted.

It should also be realized that while Putin is pulling his forces out of Syria, he is not withdrawing all of them. Russian forces will remain at the port of Tartus and the airbase at Hmeymim, while the skies of Syria will be protected by the advanced S-400 surface-to-air missile system. There are also reports that Russia is supporting Assad’s current advance on the strategic city of Palmyra–held by ISIL–with aircraft and artillery.[26]

So in spite of the withdrawal Russia is still playing an important role in backing up Assad’s forces. As well we should not forgot, as Putin has already mentioned, that Russian forces could return to Syria at a moments notice, if the need arises.

Ultimately the situation in Syria is not crystal clear as to the extent of the Russian pullout and what Putin hopes to achieve with it. It does appear that Putin does view the negotiation of a stable and fair (i.e. promoting his interests) peace agreement as an important avenue to deal with and resolve the Syrian Civil War.

Regardless of what happens in Syria and what Putin’s next move is, he has shown himself to be a flexible and pragmatic geostrategist, who can geopolitically maneuvre on a dime. In Syria Putin appears to be in the driver seat, forging his own path, while everyone else, his allies, his enemies, experts and observers are a step behind vainly trying to keep up.

O Mouggos

References

[1] http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2016/03/17/Russia-to-complete-withdrawing-most-of-Syria-force-in-coming-days.html

[2] See Part 1

[3] http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/9052.htm

[4] http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/9071.htm

[5] http://orientalreview.org/2016/03/16/russian-air-mission-in-syria-completed-reasons-and-implications/

[6] http://news.yahoo.com/russia-warns-assad-vow-retake-syria-080119489.html

[7] http://web.debka.com/article/25296/Putin-to-Assad-Tehran-You-want-to-carry-on-fighting-Count-me-out

[8] http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/9074.htm

[9] http://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2016/02/23/451950/Kerry-Syria-Assad-Truce , http://presstv.ir/Detail/2016/02/25/452280/Russia-US-Syria-Plan-B

[10] https://www.rt.com/news/335384-syria-ceasefire-federalization-partition/

[11] http://www.debka.com/article/25306/Russia-backs-self-ruling-Kurdish-buffer-state-at-Turkey%E2%80%99s-back-door

[12] http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/us-observes-russia-ypg-cooperation.aspx?pageID=238&nID=96248&NewsCatID=352 , http://presstv.ir/Detail/2016/03/05/454035/syria-russia-ceasefire-daesh-protection

[13] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/russia/11944277/First-Russia-casualties-killed-fighting-alongside-government-forces-in-Syria.html , http://news.sky.com/story/1610413/russia-hiding-syria-conflict-death-toll , http://syrianobserver.com/EN/News/30005/Russia_Struggles_Hide_Casualties_Syria

[14] http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkish-military-continues-shelling-pyd-targets-in-northern-syria.aspx?pageID=238&nID=95417&NewsCatID=352 , http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkish-military-again-retaliates-to-pyd-fire-in-northern-syria.aspx?pageID=238&nID=95340&NewsCatID=352

[15] http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2016/03/13/Russia-claims-Turkish-troops-are-on-Syrian-soil.html

[16] http://web.debka.com/article/25298/Russia-to-keep-S-400-in-Syria-until-Saudi-warplanes-leave-Turkey

[17] http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2016-02-22/what-could-go-wrong-saudis-want-give-surface-air-missiles-syrian-rebels

[18] http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2016/02/28/-North-Thunder-military-drill-begins-in-Saudi-Arabia.html , http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/saudi-arabia-embarks-massive-military-drill-2500-warplanes-20000-tanks-1543841

[19] http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/saudi-warplanes-arrive-at-turkeys-incirlik-for-isil-fight.aspx?pageID=238&nID=95745&NewsCatID=352

[20] http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/russia-raises-possibility-of-world-war-if-syria-talks-fail.aspx?pageID=238&nID=95131&NewsCatID=352 , http://www.infowars.com/report-putin-threatens-turkey-with-tactical-nukes/

[21] http://www.cnbc.com/2015/10/21/this-is-how-much-russias-war-in-syria-costs.html , http://www.ibtimes.com/amid-airstrikes-syria-us-officials-admire-russias-cost-effective-military-campaign-2241363 , http://www.dailysabah.com/syrian-crisis/2015/12/23/syria-campaign-costs-russia-8-million-per-day

[22] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-space-idUSKCN0WJ1YJ

[23] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BxRtvCCy1-4 @ 24:50 mark

[24] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-02-16/saudi-arabia-and-russia-agree-oil-output-freeze-in-qatar-talks

[25] http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/russian-sanctions-to-remain-until-crimea-returned-to-ukraine–us/562635.html

[26] http://www.debka.com/newsupdatepopup/15525/Russian-air-force-backs-major-effort-to-wrest-Palmyra-from-ISIS , http://sputniknews.com/middleeast/20160320/1036611451/palmyra-raqqa-syria-daesh.html

 

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