On 15 March 2016, Russia began to withdraw its forces from Syria, just six months after it entered Syria’s five-year-long civil war and one day after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Russia’s exit from Syria. This withdrawal took the West by almost complete surprise and was almost immediately followed by a chorus of “of courses” from scholars, pundits, and journalists around the world. “Of course Russia is` withdrawing from Syria, after all.”
Russia’s latest move came less than three weeks after a “ceasefire” in Syria was announced at the Vienna peace talks. That a ceasefire was declared was itself a surprise to many observers; though it seemed clear that the participants, and the United States in particular, were not going to walk away without declaring victory. Yet the answer to the question, “Is there a ceasefire in Syria?” really depends on the definition of “ceasefire” “actual” and “existence,” and probably also of “on” and “of.” Nevertheless, for now it seems that the level of violence has decreased in Syria.
Russia’s withdrawal brings with it some interesting questions, not least of which is, “Why did Russia withdraw?” And to answer that question we should briefly examine why it entered Syria in the first place. The conventional wisdom is that Russia entered Syria, at least in part, to ensure the survival of the Assad regime -- and the conventional wisdom is correct. Assad had held on for years past when many thought his time was up, but his position was getting gradually more precarious.
After the invasion of Ukraine, Russia found itself with few friends and was loathe to see one of its very few allies be eliminated. Now, six months later, Assad’s position is much more secure militarily, and much more importantly, it is secure diplomatically. The United States position has gone from zero tolerance for Assad to effective tacit agreement that he will stay in power for some, undetermined, length of time -- and, by the way, forever is also a length of time. That shift started before Russia’s entrance to the conflict, but Russia, and the Russia-Iran coalition, made itself indispensable in solving the conflict, and to make any progress towards peace in Syria the U.S. had to acknowledge the reality that Assad wasn’t going anywhere.
The other reason why Russia entered Syria is because it saw an opportunity to expand its sphere of influence in the Middle East. The Syrian Civil War and the lack of U.S. response to the war, combined with the (right or wrong, it doesn’t matter) perception that America is withdrawing from the Middle East more generally, created an opportunity for Russia to enter a region that it had long ceded to Western powers. Now, Russia has announced that it will maintain a permanent airbase and missile defense system in Syria. Russia is an expansionist, limit-testing power -- that it is no longer driven by ideology does not make that fact less true. This base (adding to an existing, Soviet-era, naval refueling, supply and logistics station) is a big victory for Putin.
Russia has also succeeded in reasserting itself on the global stage in a way that goes beyond invading UN member states and boundary-testing NATO and its allies. It has actually managed to play a role in solving a conflict that it did not start-- and has shown itself to be a state that cannot be ignored.
These are all sound reasons for Russia to withdraw; but there is another important reason that cannot be ignored. War is expensive. For everyone. It is especially expensive when your economy is under a sanctions regime that, while flawed and imperfect, is having more of a negative effect on Russia and its people than perhaps we realize in the West. And it is extra especially expensive when the price of oil has been catering for months. The cost of war made Putin reevaluate the necessity of Russia’s involvement in Syria. And in that reevaluation Russia could see that their goals had been achieved. That Russia has achieved its goals in Syria is not face-saving or propaganda, it is the truth.
The most interesting question about Russian involvement in Syria, and one that will surely be studied and examined in more depth and over a long period of time, is why didn’t “we” see this coming? I would argue (and not only “would” I, but I actually am arguing it right now) that the idea of a short war in the Middle East, with limited goals, narrowly focused on our own national interest, is something that seems to be outside our range of perception. After more than a decade in Iraq, for what became increasingly amorphous and unattainable goals, I believe that, in the American imagination, war in the Middle East is necessarily endless, infinite, futile, and pointless. And so, how and why could or would a great power engage in a short, successful war -- if we can’t do it, how can anyone else? Yet if U.S. goals in Afghanistan and Iraq had simply been to topple the existing regimes and install more friendly regimes, the U.S. would likely have achieved those goals long ago. Instead, the U.S. allowed itself to be caught up in moralistic “democracy building” and set impossibly high bars for success for itself.
In the end, despite the best attempts of the Obama Administration to spin it differently, the Russian-led coalition has emerged as the clear winner in Syria. It has achieved its goals, forced the U.S. to accede to its key demand of keeping Assad in power, and reasserted itself on the world stage. Putin has, quite literally, gotten away with murder and outmaneuvered an Obama administration that is increasingly good at making excuses for itself and its shortcomings. Secretary of State John Kerry has made a yeoman’s effort to achieve peace and stability across multiple fronts in the Middle East. Yet, ultimately, when the cease-fire falls apart, it will be Russia that is in a better place to (again) intervene.
Of course Russia is withdrawing from Syria, after all, Vladimir Putin has a coherent strategic vision and is sticking to it ruthlessly and relentlessly, and he knows to quit when Russia’s ahead. Personally, I only wish the U.S. had an Administration that would prevent Russia from being ahead quite so often.
Cover Image: Pixabay
What is your opinion on the security dynamics in the Middle East and in Syria, and how international interventions affect domestic and international crises and conflicts? What are the roles of the US, Russia, and other external actors in the protracted civil war in Syria? Leave your comments in the discussion box below.