As quickly and unexpectedly as Russia’s Syrian campaign began, so too does it end, or at least wind down.
On March 14 President Vladimir Putin ordered the withdrawal of the main contingent of Russian military, declaring the mission largely accomplished – the mission of course being little more than a thinly-veiled plot to assert its status as a global power via its support of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Many parts are still in motion however, and it’s safe to assume the dust is far from settled.
For the Assad regime – and Russian viewers at home – Russia’s accomplishments are tangible. According to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Syrian troops with the support of Russian aircraft liberated 400 settlements and more than 10,000 square kilometers of key western and northern territory. Additionally, Russian forces destroyed more than 200 rebel- and terrorist-held oil production and fuel transfer facilities, and nearly 3000 means of petroleum products delivery. And, most importantly, Putin delivered much needed time and leverage. To be sure, the country is no closer to a long-term future under Assad; his grip on power – while revived – is just as tenuous as it was when Russia’s aerial campaign began.
As Moscow sees it, Russia laid the groundwork for the February 27 ceasefire, reengaged western governments, deflected from Ukraine, and secured a role in all future paths to peace, all the while demonstrating its restored and more remote military capabilities in a limited-risk environment. And, for the most part, these are largely unassailable claims. Mission accomplished.
As the warring parties sit for another round of UN-supported negotiations, Russia’s influence is undeniable. The sudden, partial withdrawal curbs Assad’s confidence and extorts greater cooperation out of his camp. Similarly, the military pullback may force concessions from the High Negotiations Committee. Ideally for Putin, and disregarding the possibility of an outright win for Damascus, this is it. Russia’s influence leads to a degree of compromise heretofore unseen, producing a federal solution – a series of statelets with already existing sway in Assad’s Mediterranean-bordering western territories and the Kurdish-controlled north.
This Plan B of sorts ensures Russia retains unbroken control of its air and sea bases in Latakia and Tartus respectively, and thus the ability to project power far outside its sphere of influence. Russian companies stay on the inside track to develop Syria’s admittedly dreamy offshore oil reserves. And, competing potential natural gas pipeline projects to Europe from Qatar and Iran virtually evaporate – not that they were ever much of a concern.
Of course, the convoluted talks are more likely to fail than produce the above, but Russia – considering its non-linear approach – maintains options. Russian jets are at the ready and Putin can quickly scale up forces to resume the aerial bombardment. Rinse and repeat. A scenario of continued war is likely to produce fragmented rump states anyway. Moreover, in its defense of Assad, Russia further endears itself to other regional quasi-dictatorships a la Egypt, who have significant strategic and economic value to Moscow; Russia has your back.
Assad is yet dispensable too. If the Syrian president continues to rebuff compromise, Putin may be inclined to double down on diplomacy vis-à-vis the Americans and pursue Geneva’s constitutional arrangement if given a role in choosing the successor. A unilateral victory was probably never in the cards, but some form of multilateral power brokerage is just as much of a prize and far less costly.
Whatever the path, Russia has a say, and even some ability to direct. Just what that entails – sanctions relief, production concessions, etc. – is anyone’s guess, but Russia’s grander, albeit slightly improvisational plan has more to reveal.
First published at Oilprice.com