Understanding Russia’s Syria pull-out

Understanding Russia’s Syria pull-out

By GRI Analyst Nicolas Jenny and Senior Analyst Madeleine Moreau.

Russia’s announcement this week that it “achieved its goals” in Syria came as a shock to the international community, as world leaders questioned the timing and motives for Russia’s withdrawal. Here are the possible economic and geopolitical factors contributing to Russia’s decision, and its overall impact on Syrian peace talks this week in Geneva. 

To much surprise, Russia has announced a “reduction” in its military forces on the ground in Syria. While the majority of Russian troops are expected to leave, Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov said Russia would “continue carrying out strikes on terrorist facilities.”

The decision came as a shock to the international community, as Russia has played a major, albeit controversial, role in the conflict thus far. In a press statement, Putin said Russian forces will be leaving Syria because “the objectives set before the Defence Ministry and the Armed Forces have on the whole been achieved.”

Aside from alleged military successes, economic and geopolitical motives are also likely to have played a role in influencing Russia’s recent decision.

Struggling economy at home

While economic factors may not be the sole driving force in Russia’ decision to pull out of Syria, expensive military operations in both Syria and Ukraine, coupled with falling oil prices, have placed a strain on Russia’s economic growth outlook.

In 2015, Moscow claims that GDP fell 3.7%, while others say that, realistically, it was closer to a 9% drop.

The war in Syria is believed to cost Moscow $4 million a day. This is a small chunk of change compared with Russia’s annual defence budget, currently estimated at around $50 billion. Nevertheless, low oil prices have forced the Kremlin to cut back its military budget by 5% in 2016, a move Putin still has to approve.

Additionally, consumer confidence is low, as real disposable incomes are reportedly down significantly, and nominal wages — recalculated in dollars at current exchange rates — are below where they were in 2005.

Moreover, there is little to show that sanctions against Russia will be lifted with Russia’s withdrawal. EU leaders have consistently argued that, “The fight against terrorists and resolving the Syrian conflict should not take place at the expense of Ukraine.” Sanctions are also likely to continue placing a strain on Russia’s economy, having an impact on defence spending.

Regional geopolitical and military strategy

Perhaps more importantly, geopolitical and regional power ambitions may have had an impact on Russia’s withdrawal decision.

To understand why Russia put troops on the ground in Syria in the first place, it is important to note Russian alliances and interests in the region, particularly in the context of US power and influence, which Russia often sees as a threat. While the US has military bases in several Middle East nations, Russia only has overseas bases in one country – Syria.

Thus, from the beginning of the Syrian conflict, Russia has held a strategic interest in seeing the Assad regime succeed so as to safeguard Russian interests and maintain influence in Syria. Ignoring Syria would have reduced Russia’s power to influence the conflict and power politics in the region.

At this stage, it is clear that Russia has so far achieved these goals on the ground. Regime forces have recaptured more than 4,000 miles of territory in Syria, primarily in the north. Backed by Russian airstrikes, Assad’s troops have also made strategic advances against opposition strongholds in Aleppo, as well as advances against ISIS’s militants outside of Palmyra in the east.

Yet, Russia’s withdrawal also suggests that its support for the Assad regime only goes so far. While Russia has achieved its alleged goals, the Syrian regime still faces an uphill battle in its attempt to “win the war.” Russia’s exit does not signal an end to the violence on the ground. The start of the peace negotiations may have been the perfect moment for Putin to bring the troops home, without looking weak.

Implications for Syria peace talks

Looking forward to peace talks this week in Geneva, Russia’s withdraw of support could be seen as a move to place more pressure on the regime to engage in political talks.

The timing is certainly ripe in this regard. Russia has helped boost Assad’s position at the negotiating table. Having succeeded on the ground in Syria, Assad has more sway and opposition forces are more vulnerable to the regime’s military might.

Likewise, by proving the effectiveness of its military operations, Russia also comes into the negotiations as a major player likely to have strong influence over the outcome of the talks.

Syrian opposition groups have also welcomed Russia’s withdrawal, saying the exit of Russian troops may actually help the peace process. Salem al-Muslet, chief spokesman for the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee, says the pullout ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin is “a positive step which will help to move forward the negotiations.”

Despite this however, the likelihood that a political solution will be reached this week in Geneva remains a distant prospect. Russia is likely to push the regime towards reaching an agreement with the opposition, but it is unclear how successful this venture may prove to be.

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