Putin's Balance of Power Strategy in Syria

Syria - Aleppo
Syria - Aleppo

With the Syrian cease fire tenuously holding, and UN-brokered negotiations underway in Geneva, President Putin's surprise partial withdrawal of forces makes it clear that the Russian establishment has not forgotten the lessons of the Afghanistan quagmire. After almost six months of heavy bombardment, the rebels are weakened and government forces have regained the upper hand. But Moscow understands the continuing deployment of hardware comes with heavy costs, and in the complicated swamp of the Middle East soft power costs less and offers greater potential benefits.

The Russian establishment, witnessing President Obama promulgate policy based on diplomatic engagement rather than military engagement, is well aware that the Syrian civil war is fueled by complex ethnic and sectarian divisions involving several regional players, and that an external actor like the Russian Air Force cannot end it without negotiations. Military intervention is also costly, putting further stress on Russia's already weak economy, and could not be sustained indefinitely. So when Assad declares his intention to retake total control of Syria, Russia lets him know that he cannot rely on Russian air power forever, warning against attempts to achieve total victory. UN Ambassador Churkin: "If they proceed on the basis that no ceasefire is necessary and they need to fight to a victorious end, then this conflict will last a very long time and that is terrifying to imagine."

Still a Major Player

Geopolitically, Russia may no longer be even a mini Soviet Union; but Russian military might have stymied the opposition, prevented the Syrian regime's defeat, and rid some areas of rebels and terrorists. By partially withdrawing its air forces now, while keeping its military bases and maintaining its commitment against Da'esh (ISIS) and Nusra Front (al-Qaeda's Syrian franchise), Russia forces both the regime in Damascus and the rebels to take the Geneva negotiations seriously. It puts pressure on Saudi Arabia and Turkey (which act through their rebel proxies) and also on Iran (which supports the Syrian government) to negotiate, while Russia's tactical alliance with Iran remains intact. Moreover, in making itself available for anti-terrorist collaboration with the US while still supplying weapons and training to Syrian military personal, Russia reaffirms its continuing support for the regime, and by keeping its bases shows it could return if necessary.

All options remain open: Although the Iranian Foreign Minister declared a federated Syria with its implication of redrawn borders could mean a possible "Armageddon" and another thirty years of war, Russian representatives have nevertheless prospected even the idea of a Syrian federation, including the need for elections after a new constitution is written. Russia and Turkey Russia's staunch support for the Syrian regime has effectively ended the Turkish project of establishing a dependent state within Syria. Moreover, by sustaining the idea of a federal Syria, Russia has met the aspiration of Syrian Kurds for autonomy, sticking another thorn in Turkey's side. With the downing of a Russian jet by Turkey, relations between the two countries deteriorated drastically. Yet for security and economic reasons, Russia needs better relations with neighboring Turkey. Having solidified alliances with both the Syrian establishment and Syrian Kurds, Putin would be now ready to negotiate with Turkey, where Erdogan has isolated Turkey by his policy of support for extremists in Syria, using the migrants as a tool to pressure Europe, and distancing Turkey from European norms of civil rights and freedom of the press.

Russia and Saudi Arabia Russia's bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia have hit rock-bottom. Russia's main problem with Saudi Arabia regards security and the Saudis' financial and ideological connections with extremists in Syria and elsewhere. Yet Russia needs Saudi collaboration to withstand the blows to its economy from the oil price crash. Although the multiple conflicts in the Middle East and adjoining region spring from geopolitical competition and are not inherently religious in nature, still sectarian divisions are used as levers. Russia would improve its image with Sunni Muslims; even though the majority of Russian Muslims are aligned with and loyal to the Kremlin, they are always prone to influence by the Wahhabist ideology emanating from Saudi Arabia. Anti-Russian groups inside the territory of the former Soviet Union (especially in the Caucasus and Central Asia) are usually linked to Saudi Arabia, which considers them as a geopolitical tool. Putin clearly opposes ideological extremism and its related non-state proponents.

Russia and Iran Russia is Iran's tactical ally, but beyond the fight against terrorism of Daesh (ISIS, IS) and similar groups their interests in Syria could diverge. Putin sees Iran under President Rouhani improving relations with the west, specifically after the nuclear agreement (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). As the Russian Middle East expert Georgy Mirsky told The Washington Post: "A few years back, I heard one of our diplomats say: 'A pro-American Iran is more dangerous for us than a nuclear Iran'." This unofficial mindset of many in the Kremlin is increasing as Washington and Tehran begin to improve relations. Certainly the Russian establishment knows the democratic soul of Iran looks westward, and fears it. Russia also sees that on the Syrian battle field Iran and the militias linked to Iran, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah, are very effective in supporting the Syrian Arab Army. By holding open the door toward Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Putin lets Tehran know it aware that its alliance with Iran is a marriage of opportunity.

A Skilled Geopolitical Gambler Russian intervention in Syria has already yielded some important results. Putin moved when the Syrian rebels supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia were on the verge of reversing the balance of power. Da'esh (ISIS) and like-minded extremist groups were hitting their peak of expansion, despite the bombing by the international coalition headed by the US. Europeans feared terrorism and the wave of refugees flooding in. The international community generally welcomed the Russian intervention, hoping the US-led coalition and the Russian-led coalition (Iran, Iraq, Syria) could collaborate to halt the tornado of terror that they saw spreading around the world: Sinai, Paris, San Bernardino, Ankara.

By playing the role of indispensable partner in the fight against terrorism as well as guarantor of security, Putin has also distracted attention from his Ukraine problem. For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was able to flex its muscles, deploy and test major new hardware on air, sea, and land, launch missiles from the Caspian Sea and the Mediterranean, and deploy the latest generation of fighters and experimental new tanks.

For Putin, who considers the collapse of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century, the invitation by the Syrian regime was an opportunity to demonstrate Russia's strength without violating international legal norms. It sent a message to Russia's competitors and, by demonstrating the effectiveness of new weaponry, to his arms clients. Moreover, Russia has kept all its competitors, including Iran, from the rich European oil and gas market, preserving its position of quasi-monopoly, using energy as a geopolitical tool. The intervention boosted Putin's popularity at home, overshadowing any potential opposition. It also gratified Putin's ambition to have a say on international stability and security. Indeed, the Syrian cease fire was agreed on and imposed by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. There was even a kind of selective US-Russian collaboration, with the US acting in East Syria and Russia acting in West Syria. As Mr. Lavrov declared on March 14, 2016: "We are ready to coordinate our actions with the Americans, because Raqqa is in the eastern part of Syria, and the American coalition is mainly ... acting there".

The Balance of Power Principle Despite the collapse of the former Soviet empire and despite its weakened economy, Russia still covers a broad territory with vast underground riches and a large military arsenal. Putin likes to remind the international community of these factors, to underscore Russia's indispensable role for the maintenance of world order and security. So Czar Putin of the glacial eyes and coldly calculating mind, after re-establishing the balance of power in Syria, protecting Assad but forcing him to negotiate, now makes it clear to all players and competitors that in the framework of these new realities he, statesmanlike, would promote negotiations with the final end of ensuring Russian national interests. This is skillful diplomacy that for the sake of international stability and security even Obama could appreciate.

Yet Russia is also acutely aware of its reduced geopolitical status. Its economy, based essentially on exports of oil and gas and weakened as the prices of these products declined, simply could not sustain the burden of a lengthy military intervention. Better to turn to the old Byzantine Balance of Power principle - a principle which permitted the weaker Byzantine Empire to survive a thousand years longer than the more powerful Roman Empire.