Today came the shock announcement that Putin has ordered the withdrawal of most of the Russian strike force in Syria commencing on March 15, 2016.
In contrast to the weeks before the start of the intervention, when multiple observers including Stratfor observed signs of an imminent intervention, this has come as a complete surprise. Many ill thought out explanations have been rushed out.
(1) The more rhetorical anti-Russian voices in the West and the pro-Western Russian liberal opposition claim that this was on account of Russia’s unwinding economy. No matter that Russia’s budget deficit is at less than 3% of GDP, comes on top of negligible government debt levels, and the mounting evidence its recession has bottomed anyway.
(2) Fervent Assad and SAA supporters of 2015, who the year before had condemned Putin’s “betrayal” of Novorossiya, now rushed to condemn yet another “zrada.”
(3) Maybe Borovoy’s ultimatum to Putin was successful after all? /s
The real reasons that this happened are rather more prosaic.
The most obvious and indeed tautological one is that there is now a ceasefire between the government and the FSA that to considerable surprise is actually being more or less observed.
First off, as The Saker points out, Russia’s goals in Syria were always limited: Not to outright win the war but to “stabilize the legitimate authority and create conditions for a political compromise.” This is a consistent goal that Russia has pursued from the earliest stages of the Syrian conflict, in contrast to Western politicians who have on at three separate points – the start of the uprising itself, the Ghouta false flag chemical weapons attacks, and as recently as the summer of the last year – plotted to lay the grounds for a no fly zone, which in practice translates into Assad’s forcible ouster and the transformation of Syria into either an Islamic State or a patchwork quilt of warlords. Moreover, Russia’s intervention was time-bounded from the outset. The influential Russian politician Alexey Pushkov had cited a figure of three to four months last October, while Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov talked of “not much longer than a few months.” The five and a half months of Russian air strikes fell within these projections, and avoided dragging Russia into a deeper quagmire that its supporters dreaded and its opponents anticipated.
Second, as I anticipated, Russian airpower as well as additional support in the form of training and equipment – for instance, you can observe in conflict videos that the SAA forces now tend to be much better outfitted, including with body armor that was almost universally absent half a year ago – has decisively swung the balance of military power across multiple fronts in favor of the government. Contrary to the pattern of slow retreat and periodic collapses that marked the conflict in prior years, now the SAA is on the advance in many areas and even the occasional local defeat such as the Islamic State’s takeover of the Khanasser road to Aleppo this February was reversed within days, whereas in previous years these sorts of setbacks tended to snowball into collapses across entire fronts. The insurgency has thus been “persuaded” into acknowledging that there is no longer a Final Victory in sight for them and negotiating with Syria’s legitimate authorities as a prerequisite of maintaining their “moderate” status. Considering Russia’s objectives as outlined above, Putin is quite accurate to say that they have been “generally accomplished.”
Otherwise, a tallying of Russia’s strategic gains minus losses reveals its final score to be almost entirely positive.
On the plus side, we have:
(1) The Khmeimim airbase, which will continue to host a few air assets as well as drones to monitor the ceasefire, together with the expanded naval base at Latakia. Should the ceasefire break down, it will be possible to rebase and restock within a few days.
(2) The cost of the Russian intervention was very low. The liberal Russian RBK media network has estimated it at around $2.5+ million per day; defense analyst Jane’s gives an upper bound of $4 million a day. Even taking the latter figure and multiplying it by 180 days yields a total cost of less than $1 billion. Military casualties number firmly in the single digits. For this very reasonable price, the Russian Air Force got the opportunity to practice “live,” show off its toys to potential buyers, and get rid of its surplus bombs US Gulf War-style.
(3) Taking air assets out of Syria removes the potential Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads in the form of the Turkish Air Force and an increasingly unstable Erdogan. Russia never had more than a dozen air superiority fighters in Khmeimim; even if they were one-for-one superior to Turkish F-15Ds, and regardless of the S-400 guarding them and the Moskva cruiser parked off the Syrian coast, they would have stood no chance in the event that Turkey decided to erase Russian airpower in Syria – thus leaving Russia in the unenviable situation of choosing between a humiliating climbdown or escalating to all out war with a powerful NATO country of “of which no one can predict the ultimate consequences” (to paraphrase a contemporary commentator on the Russian Empire stumbling into war against Japan in 1904).
(4) Finally, despite the increasingly demented ravings of neocon trolls such as Michael Weiss to shift the media narrative:
… and of General Breedlove’s (any relation to General Buck Turgidson?) attempts to lay the blame for Merkel’s mishandling of the refugee crisis on Russia’s actions in Syria, Western audiences have become increasingly reluctant to swallow the bait offered up by their elites. After all, most normal people don’t see anything wrong in wrong in dropping bombs on snackbaring fanatics in the desert and have been asking increasingly uncomfortable questions why the neocons seem to be having problems with that (especially once Russia started releasing drone footage of all those trucks ferrying oil from the Islamic State to Turkey).
There are a few negatives to be sure:
(1) The most obvious one is the breakdown of relations with Turkey, with which Russia had previously had good ties, including multiple industrial projects and visa-free travel. But ultimately the economic ties aren’t all that dense and are loaded aganist Turkey. Whereas Russian tourists can always go some other place – why not Crimea? – Turkey gets most of its gas from Russia, and is paying Rosatom to construct its nuclear power plants, so it would suffer far more from a total breakdown in relations than would Russia. In any case, since Turkey and Russia have so many conflicting spheres of interest – the Balkans, Caucasus, Central Asia, and now even Crimea and the Near East – which transcend the particularities of any regime that would conveivably happen to be in power in either Ankara or Moscow, I don’t think any true strategic partnership between the two is possible in principle. There is a reason that the Russian and Ottoman Empires were fighting wars nonstop from the 17th to the 19th centuries.
(2) Some analysts such as Vox’s Max Fisher have claimed that Putin has failed to link his help in resolving the Syrian crisis in return for a “grand bargain” in which Crimea is recognized as part of Russia and sanctions are lifted. Therefore, their argument goes, there is not much use in continuing the charade. The problem is that there is no actual evidence for this hypothesis. Both US and Russian officials have repeatedly excluded that any such considerations exist, plus there is the banal but extremely important fact that the sanctions have been almost entirely negligible in their contribution to Russia’s recession (Reminder: According to Citi Research, they were responsible for only 10% of the decline in output).
On the converse, Russia’s withdrawal from Syria will give it a great deal more leeway in Ukraine (though if the prospect of a surge in tourism to Novorossiya that some Russian pundits are now positing is but a pleasant daydream).
(3) Another “problem” is that Russia’s withdrawal will be painted as a sign of weakness – of conviction, and/or fiscal. Worrying about it is pointless since the Western media will absolutely never treat Russia fairly so long as Russia remains sovereign and certain elites continue to exercise power in the West. Better be thought cowardly and/or insolvent than be actually stupid.
(4) The final issue that people have with this “premature” withdrawal is that it paves the wave for Syria’s partition. This is an issue that deserves to be addressed at length.
The Road to Partition
I appreciate the arguments that perhaps foreigners don’t have all that much business in poking their noses into the constitutional arrangements of other countries. All the more so if said countries belong to different civilizations and cultural traditions.
To the contrary, it is worth stressing that more than 70% of Syrians themselves oppose the division of their country across territories held by the government, the opposition, and even Islamic State (though this falls to 50% in YPG-held areas).
That said, the poll that revealed this didn’t feature a critical addendum: Would any of those groups still have been so deadset against division assuming that a faction they dislike was in charge of the central government? Hypothetically, if continued unity meant being ruled by the top dog from Idlib (to say nothing of Raqqa), I assume that support for a unified Syrian state amongst the cosmopolitan Alawites of Latakia would plummet to near 0%.
This is why I ultimately end up agreeing with former USN Admiral and NATO supreme commander James Stavridis that it is time to seriously consider partitioning Syria.
From the outset, I will reveal a dirty secret: Neither Turkey nor the Saudis actually want a partition of Syria.
If there is a de facto partition now, the Turks and Saudis will be left with a vast desert wasteland – poor, rural, backwards, heavily inbred and IQ-depressed even before the war; now utterly destroyed and teeming with dozens of warlords and tens of thousands of Islamist fanatics. Refugee outflows from Desert Syria will continue, or intensify further if the rebels now proceed to turn on each other. Should Far Right parties continue to consolidate their gains in Europe, that particular relief valve will be turned off, thus turning up the pressure on Syria’s more immediate neighbors. With a population that is now a quarter refugee and strongly influenced by Wahhabi sentiment, Jordan would be the next country primed for blowup. Turkey would be faced with the spectre of an independent Kurdish state abutting its restive Kurdish provinces. Like the Chaos Wastes, this benighted region will become the spawning grounds for new forcefully bred generations of Salafi militants. If Peter Lee is correct, Libya will be the location of choice to where they will now be “laundered,” but puppets do sometimes cut their strings and should Saudi Arabia see increasing domestic unrest as its oil money reserves dwindle then Islamic State might suddenly seem far too close for comfort.
In contrast, the areas currently controlled by the government can be built up into a reasonably well functioning and cohesive state. According to opinion polls, more than half of the population in all the governorates held by the government support Assad, but this figure falls to 39% in Aleppo, 27% in Raqqa, and a mere 9% in Idlib. Moreover, the government held areas have been far less ravaged by war, and though its demographic losses due to conscription and poor military performance have been very considerable, they are dwarfed by the scale of the horrors that have been inflicted upon areas held by the opposition, which have borne the brunt of the fighting, and the Islamic State, with its indifference to military casualties and inability to maintain basic infrastructure. Although the rebel held areas only account for about a third of Syria’s population, they have produced two thirds of its refugees.
This Coastal Syria will be small but politically stable, immutable to Wahhabi infiltration by virtue of a predominantly Shi’ite-Christian ethnic makeup that it could easily maintain by refusing to accept the repatriation of those refugees hailing from areas held by the opposition and Islamic State. Since repatriating them to Desert Syria will not be an option either, the infrastructure there being unable to support even the populations still residing there, they will instead wreck their havoc in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Western Europe – in a fit of poetic justice, precisely those countries most responsible for wrecking Syria in the first place. Coastal Syria will pursue close ties with Iran and Hezbollah and will seek to pepper itself with Russian and (perhaps, eventually) Chinese bases to further secure itself against Turkish, Israeli, and Western encroachment.
However, if Assad were to regain full control of Syria, this would be a poisoned chalice. The cost of repairing all the destroyed infractructure, rooting out radicalism, and providing welfare for millions more displaced people will be an unbearable strain on its already heavily beleagured finances, causing resentment in the Alawite heartlands and buying no love amongst people who will come to think of their defeated forebears as having pursued a noble Lost Cause. Most critically, there is absolutely nothing stopping the Saudis and the Turks from once again trying to topple a Syrian government strained from the costs of reconstruction, Sunni refugee repatriation, and demographically dominated by Sunnis in another 10-20 years time.
These are the reasons why for the Saudis and the Turks, the fundamental choice is about either Damascus or nothing. Preferably they would like to topple Assad outright and replace his government with some kind of Nusrastan – sharia with shopping malls – a full Assad victory is a clear second best. This, ultimately, is why they have refrained from directly wading into the conflict themselves, despite their obvious frustration with the entire situation. I suspect the Russians who advise Putin realize this and have no desire to play to Turkey’s and Saudi Arabia’s interests. Assad might not; from both his life story (an apolitical doctor promoted to the throne by the chance death of his elder brother) and his interviews, he strikes me as very straightforward character: Honest, civilized, not unintelligent, but not really cut out for the cynicism, deviousness, and paradoxes of geopolitics.
In this respect, the Russian withdrawal is if anything doing him and Syria a favor.