How to Win Your Hand in Damascus: Russia Proves that it Can Play the Game and Win in Syria
“Veni, vidi, vici,” read the front page headline for a popular Russian weekly report on President Putin’s March 14th announcement of the withdrawal of Russian military forces from Syria. While the words of Julius Caesar and the full-page image of a scowling World War II soldier may seem a tad excessive, the sentiment is not altogether undeserved. In the six months since the start of Russia’s air campaign in Syria, Moscow has achieved what the United States has not managed in almost two decades: it left a military engagement in the Middle East better off than when it went into it.
Russia’s foreign policy in recent years has focused, more than ever, on re-establishing Russian relevance at the international table. Asserting a strong influence in the Middle East, and gaining the support of regional powers such as Syria and Iran, is a critical part of that project. In its air campaign in Syria, Moscow took huge strides in projecting its relevance regionally and internationally. Now, with the announcement of its withdrawal from the country, Russia has set itself up to keep building on the progress that it started.
Going all in…
Putin’s intervention in support of the Assad regime served as a confirmation of Moscow’s loyalty to its regional allies, and is likely to pay dividends in the future. In the past, Putin’s friendly relationship with Iran, even in light of international sanctions, was awarded with Iranian complacency – even support – during Moscow’s 2008 invasion of Georgia. The refusal of Tehran to condemn Russian aggression against another country with a significant Muslim population (Georgia’s population is approximately 10% Muslim), went a long way to lending legitimacy to Moscow’s behavior. This time, Putin has set his sights on the Assad regime. If the government in Damascus survives, Putin will be expecting to cash in on his investment. Continued access to a warm-sea port in Latakia, for instance, would be a valuable prize. However, with tensions still running high in the caucuses, and Moscow’s relationship with the West far from amicable, Putin is bound to have no shortage of opportunities to call in IOUs.
In the meantime, the Syrian intervention gave Russia the chance to flex its military muscles for the West, showing off its warships, flying its new SU-35 fighter jets, and becoming the third country – after the United States and Britain – to deploy submarine-launched sea-to-land cruise missiles. The display of military strength served both as a deterrent against Western expansion eastward, as well as a coercive mechanism to force open the lines of communication that were frozen following Russian aggression in Ukraine. Flying dozens of sorties a day, and brandishing impressive air defense systems, Russia left the United States little choice but to reengage with Moscow – if not to coordinate military objectives in Syria, then to at least avoid a head-on collision in a crowded operational space. As of this week, Russia has hosted Secretary Kerry thrice in the past year, twice since the start of the Russian air campaign, and is co-chairing the International Syrian Support Group. Considering that Russia’s position on Crimea and Ukraine has not shifted, it seems that Moscow has played its hand outstandingly well.
Topping it all off, Syria appears to have doubled as an arms show for Moscow, with sources reporting that Russian companies stand to gain $USD 6-7 billion in military contracts following the display of Russian weaponry in Syria. Algeria, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Pakistan are all reportedly looking to make the switch from American and Chinese aircraft, to Russian-produced Sukhoi fighters and bombers.
…and Knowing When to Fold
President Putin’s announcement of a Russian withdrawal from Syria, far from being a termination of Moscow’s role in the country, is a skillful adjustment of its operations. It will only strengthen Russia’s influence in the resolution of the conflict, and its regional and international role more generally.
It should be noted that Russia’s withdrawal from Syria is a partial one, with critical infrastructure and equipment remaining in Syria, and the Russian military continuing to carry out strikes on ISIL targets in the country. As has been pointed out by Dmitry Gorenburg and Michael Kofman in War on the Rocks, the withdrawal is more of a drawdown to a military presence that could be normalized and sustained in the long run. Nevertheless, the withdrawal announcement has proven to be a valuable political exercise. Without greatly restricting Russia’s ability to keep a military footprint in Syria, images of Russian fighter jets returning to Russian soil have granted Putin the political benefits that come with the optics of a “mission accomplished.”
First, the successful conclusion of the engagement sends a message of a competent leadership to the Russian people, while demonstrating efficiency and reliability to Russian allies in the Middle East. In a region that has spent the better part of two decades on the receiving end of America interventionism, an ally that can carry out a limited engagement, meet its objectives promptly, and not overstay its welcome, is bound to get credit. Certainly, that credit won’t always be due – short-term interventions are inappropriate and damaging in many cases; but the impression that such an operation can leave on intervention-weary leaders in the region is worth noting.
Second, the announcement of a withdrawal has given Moscow the upper hand in the international peace negotiations. As some experts have pointed out, by retreating its support from Damascus, Moscow has gained additional leverage to pressure Assad into a compromise, while regaining flexibility in its own involvement in the conflict. In addition, withdrawing Russian forces from Syria while the United States and its allies continue their military campaign, lets Moscow claim the role of an honest broker, and engage in domestic and international rhetoric flaunting its commitment to a timely and peaceful resolution of the conflict, just as American jets continue to drop bombs on Syria and Iraq.
Suggesting that the United States follow suit and withdraw its own forces from Syria, or that the Pentagon take a page out of the Russian military notebooks would be misguided, at best. Russia’s indiscriminate bombing in Syria is certainly no example to follow, and the role that the United States occupies and wishes to maintain on the world stage does not grant Washington the luxury of washing its hands clean of the Syrian conflict. Russia does not carry the same weight of international expectations, nor does it hold itself up to the same standards of international responsibility – no matter how much rhetoric to the contrary may come out of the Kremlin. Yet, something should be said of Moscow’s skill at having stepped into the chaos that is the Syrian war, and having made the best of its hand. It may be too early to call winners and losers in Syria, but if I were in a betting mood, my chips would be on Moscow.
Darya Dolzikova is an MA candidate in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, and has a BSc in International Studies and Modern Languages from the University of Ottawa. She is a graduate research assistant at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies, working on issues related to U.S. counterterrorism policy, and Iranian national security – including Iran’s nuclear program and the Iran-Russia relationship. She previously worked as a legislative aide in the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa. Her research interests include Russian foreign and defense policy, WMD proliferation, and terrorism. Her Twitter is: @ddolzikova
Editor’s note: In the initial post, Georgia was accidentally listed as a majority-Muslim country. Muslims are actually approximately 10% of the Georgian population.