With the BBC reporting that Russian forces invested in aiding Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria beginning their egress starting with Russia’s carrier group in what I’m guessing is the Black Sea (though strategic information on the position of Russian ships is naturally pretty restricted), it becomes obvious that the Russian Federation is planning for its next step in the geopolitical arena.
The major thing to keep in mind when it comes to the geopolitical movements of the Russian Federation and Russian President Vladimir Putin himself is that they remain thoroughly invested in geopolitics as a way of maintaining balance and leverage in order to further national interests.
Conservative statesmanship is the order of the day, and therefore no move that Russia and its military makes should be analyzed without asking oneself what, exactly, might they be attempting to accomplish which will enhance Russia’s position in the world?
The first thing about this withdrawal to consider is that, if it’s not common knowledge by now, the United States military has been funding and arming the anti-government forces in Syria with the United State’s own relatively liberal form of geopolitics. The United States conceives of geopolitics as a way of spreading its own principles across the world, convinced that potential conflict lessens with the spread of democracy—which explains why it attempts to topple autocratic governments like that of Syria, and recently of Libya, Iraq, Vietnam and Cuba which ironically spawns conflict.
However, the urge to attempt to spread these principles, held in the heart of the military and political apparatus in the United States (and which is such a driving force behind the military industrial complex) has been tempered by repeated failures, massive national debt, war casualties and the general perception by its public that such means are not effective to their purpose.
For this among many reasons (which also include a cartoon frog) that public has elected populist Donald Trump, who takes office January 20th, 2017. Mr. Trump has already cited that his foreign affairs platform is essentially non-interventionist, and is quoted as being skeptical of the American methodology in the conflict in Syria in particular as being problematic.
My belief in this case is that President Putin is predicting that with Trump’s inauguration, the United States military will cease its backing of rebels, with the end result of both superpowers having exfiltrated the conflict zone.
This is important for the Russians for two reasons. First, they are immediately exiting the zone after having just brokered a ceasefire between the rebels and the loyalist forces. From that point forward, should the ceasefire collapse (and it will), the Russians can hold up their hands, claim they did their best and condemningly wag their fingers at whoever it is takes the first shot to end the peace. It’s a political gain, as the Russians look as though they were genuinely concerned with ending the conflict, and it also represents a regional, peace-first UN-style interference by a regional superpower to halt conflict.
Secondly, Russian withdrawal from the combat zone lessens tensions with Turkey, as the opportunity for Turkey to shoot down Russian planes is greatly reduced with the absence of Russian planes. A Russian conflict with Turkey, loosely allied with the West through a series of mutual defense treaties, would be disastrous for the entire world if all interested parties follow through on their obligations; which is, admittedly, rare.
At the very least, such a conflict would probably result in further economic sanctions against the Russian Federation, in addition to the ones currently being levied by the West as a consequence of the annexation of the Crimea and subsequent brush war in the Ukraine.
As I will hypothesize, fomenting tension with the West is exactly the opposite of the Russian goal in this case—and probably in most cases.
With Putin betting on the United States to cease its involvement, and with Russia both scoring a political coup on the international stage and moving to reduce tensions between itself and Turkey (as well as any other Muslim factions which it may currently be antagonising both foreign and domestic), the Russians are making a play to improve their bargaining position as a responsible world superpower and a regional security-maker while moving to de-escalate tension with the United States.
What are the Russians hoping to get out of this? Knowing that there’s no way to win a war in the nuclear age, the Russians are attempting to further their position non-militarily instead—rather, the Russians are trying to enhance their economic footprint. As the oil market begins to recover and OPEC begins to drop production in order to raise price-per-barrel, and with Russian oil being a huge factor with many pipelines feeding Western Europe, Putin naturally sees this as a critical point in the country’s future well-being.
Anything he can do or get to drop overhead or raise profits is something he will do, unless it means giving back the Crimea which is now not only politically unfeasible, but also demographic suicide for a rapidly declining Russian population.
Now, the other reason to withdraw from the Middle East (and this is purely speculative, based only on what I’m seeing and reading right now) the fractious nature of Muslim politics is also an enormous factor. Keep in mind that Muslim governments currently control OPEC, which is a massive factor in terms of those self-same oil prices—they don’t call it a cartel for nothing.
With both superpowers backing out (and I have a sneaking suspicion that if Trump does indeed cut spending in the Middle-East, he’ll have an eerily similar thought process as Putin’s, but in terms of American shale oil profits) of the Syrian conflict zone, and with al-Assad’s Alawite Shia government in charge of a massive Sunni population, both Iran and Turkey have significant interests in either propping up or overthrowing al-Assad’s regime.
Putin might have gotten, at some point, to wondering what might happen if both those relative Muslim heavyweights were forced into the conflict in the place of Russia and the United States, and what that might do to OPEC’s unity and control of oil prices.
If destabilisation occurs, and if oil production is somehow affected, it’s only good for Russian and American oil prices which can be counted as a potential economic bonus and incentive for nationa-interest-concerned Russia.
Therefore, I believe the Russian Federation is backing out of Syria for purely economic reasons, and in order to improve its position in the world order as a corollary.