Syria withdrawal: Stakes high in Putin’s game of Russian roulette

One must admit — Russian President Vladimir Putin knows how to make an entrance.

He confirmed his passion for theater once again yesterday by announcing a withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria. It was a move that struck like a thunderbolt out of a clear blue sky. The event was prepared in such secrecy that even Russia’s main news outlets were stunned and caught flat-footed. They made a brief announcement about the decision and offered no commentary for almost two hours.

russian-roulette-imageOn the face of it, Putin’s withdrawal order makes no sense. He explained the pull back saying that “Russian troops in Syria have accomplished their mission.” But the fact is that ISIS still occupies key parts of Syrian territory. And in spite of a truce, Syria’s opposition still doesn’t want to have anything to do with President Assad. Nor do they want to agree to any transitional institutions while Assad is in power. So what mission have Russian troops accomplished?

It’s impossible to say what was going on in Putin’s mind when he decided to make a decision that stunned everyone — including the US. However, let us consider several circumstances that may have influenced his decision.

Economy weighed

First of all, the serious economic crisis in Russia almost surely contributed to the president’s decision. Despite cheerful and nearly weekly assurances from his cabinet that the “crisis has finally hit the bottom,” Russia’s economy continues to get worse. Regardless of what the Kremlin says, the negative effects of western sanctions are becoming more visible by the day — especially in the financial sector.

Russian troops in Syria

Russian troops in Syria

A recent effort to place Russian bonds on the global financial markets for the first time since the annexation of Crimea failed because the US and the EU asked their financial institutions not to participate. To make a long story short, Putin can’t afford to prosecute a war in Syria anymore.

There’s also a feeling of deep disappointment with the Syria adventure. When Putin began his Syrian gamble in September 2015, according to some well-informed sources, the master plan was to create major political opportunities for Russia. Moscow’s military operations were aimed not only at saving the sinking regime of President Assad, but also at establishing closer cooperation with the US and its allies. It also was supposed to break Russia’s diplomatic and economic isolation following its annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, with the further goal of eliminating international sanctions.

Currently, Putin has only been partly successful in attaining these goals. The US and its coalition allies have been forced to take into account the “Russian factor” in Syria and make Moscow a key player in the negotiation process. But coordination between these various players has been very limited. Russia’s diplomatic isolation continues and the sanctions remain in place. To reiterate the earlier point: It has become very expensive for Russia to be in Syria.

Russia-Saudi understanding on Assad, oil?

Rumors floating in circles pretty close to the Kremlin add a juicier angle. They can’t be confirmed. But the gist is that there have been recent, active and quiet contacts between Moscow and Saudi Arabia. This has produced a sort of gentleman’s agreement: Russia agrees to remove Assad after a transition period with Riyadh’s approval. The Saudis then agree to consider oil production cuts and to influence its Persian Gulf partners to do so as well — benefiting Russia which desperately needs an oil-price boost. Given the importance of oil revenue to Russia’s economy, such an agreement may have taken place.

As for Assad and Russian pledges of support, Russia, the direct successor of the Soviet Union, has a long history of betraying its closest allies. One only has to recall the fate of the Afghan President Najibullah. He was basically thrown to the wolves after the Soviets withdrew their troops from Afghanistan in 1988-1989.

There are other rumors that Moscow managed to forge “pretty close working contacts” with moderate Syrian opposition leaders and the Syrian Kurds. These Syrian groups and the Kurds allegedly guaranteed that Russian interests in Syria “will be preserved and respected” after a government of “national unity” comes into being in Damascus.

Putin

Putin

Putin well understands that by exiting Syria now, he will not be able to return with the same mission at some future date. It would be devastating for Russia’s prestige and Putin’s personal reputation. At the same time, Russia will be leaving behind trappings of essential military support in Syria that will prolong Assad’s days for a while.

So in the end, what has Moscow achieved from its Syrian gambit? The answer is not much. It’s temporarily prolonged the life of the Assad regime — but not for long. The Syrian president’s tenure is still likely to be very short. Moscow has become an important part of the international negotiating process, partly breaking its diplomatic isolation. But it has also spoiled its relations with closest neighbor and economic partner — Turkey — almost to the point of no repair.

In what was likely the most important accomplishment, Russia proved that within a relatively short time, it was able to create and field a modern, well-equipped, well-trained, and potent armed forces. Moscow explicitly showed that it can project military might far beyond its borders and is ready to do so if necessary.

Where will Putin’s soldiers go?

So Putin is going home. But there’s another interesting and important issue that needs to be closely watched: Where will the returning forces from Syria be deployed?

With economic hardships making the regime less stable and the specter of open civil discontent in Russia by fall if things don’t turn around, Putin might opt for a diversion. The tested Russian way to do this is by uniting the people against an external enemy. If he is desperate enough and at a point where he feels he has nothing to lose, would Putin try to use his returning forces to resolve the “Ukrainian problem” once and for all?

I cannot answer that question. But one thing is clear: Putin is isolated, frustrated and well-armed – and this is why he’s dangerous.

Jim Davis is a political analyst and president of South Shore Consultants.

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