by Mark N. Katz
Just as it does for the Bashar al-Assad regime and its internal opponents, Russia’s announced drawdown of forces from Syria raises uncertainties for regional powers with stakes in the ongoing conflict there. Some in Saudi Arabia and Qatar may see the drawdown as an opportunity to weaken the Assad regime, while other Gulf Arabs may see it as an opportunity to engage Russia. For different reasons, Turkey, Israel, and Iran are likely to see the Russian drawdown as posing problems for each of them. Russia’s announced drawdown serves to restrain the Assad regime while its retention of naval and air bases in Syria serves to protect the Assad regime: through this combination, Moscow may hope that regional actors will see the Russian-American-sponsored peace process as the best means for resolving the Syrian conflict.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s drawdown announcement will have different effects on regional actors with stakes in the Syrian conflict.
Gulf Arab Debate
Those in Saudi Arabia and Qatar most determined to bring about the downfall of a regime allied to Iran in Syria will see the Russian drawdown announcement as an opportunity to increase support for the Sunni Arab opposition there. It may also increase the willingness of Syrian security service elements to overthrow Assad as well as cut a deal with the Saudi-backed opposition. But those in the Gulf monarchies more concerned that Riyadh and its allies are already overextended in Yemen and may become so in Syria will argue that the Russian drawdown is an opportunity to pursue the ongoing peace process. There are also Gulf Arabs looking for an opportunity to pry Moscow away from its close relationship with Tehran. Iran’s refusal to go along with the Saudi and Russian (as well as Qatari and Venezuelan) call to freeze oil production in order to bolster oil prices has opened the door to this possibility. Assuming that Tehran would remain as determined as before to support Assad, differences in the Russian and Iranian approaches to Syria may open this door even further.
To the extent that the Russian drawdown decision signals Putin’s unwillingness to support Assad’s efforts to regain control over all of Syria, then Moscow is effectively signaling its acquiescence to Kurdish aspirations for autonomy over the areas they control in northern Syria along the border with Turkey. Tensions between Russia and Turkey have increased since the Turkish shootdown of a Russian military aircraft in the vicinity of the Turkish-Syrian border in November 2015 as well as Turkish neuralgia about PKK activity in Turkey and belief that the Kurdish opposition in Syria is linked to it. As such, Ankara is likely to view Putin’s drawdown announcement with grave misgivings.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin met with Putin in Moscow to seek reassurances that the Russian drawdown announcement would not negatively affect Israel. Rivlin reportedly expressed concern that a reduced Russian presence in Syria meant that Moscow would no longer be able to restrain Iran’s and Hezbollah’s actions vis-à-vis the Jewish state. This suggests that Moscow elicited a relatively accommodating Israeli attitude toward the Russian intervention that began in September 2015 by reassuring Israel that it would restrain Iran and Hezbollah. If Israel perceives either or both of them as behaving more threateningly toward the Jewish state, it can be expected to launch attacks on their forces in Syria.
Although Moscow and Tehran pursued common interests such as support for the Assad regime, their bilateral relationship has long been characterized by differences and mistrust. A few months ago, irritation was expressed in the Russian press about how Moscow’s intervention in Syria was followed by Iran drawing down its forces there. Tehran apparently saw the influx of Russian forces as an opportunity to shift the burden of supporting Assad onto Moscow. The announced Russian drawdown, in turn, may result in Moscow shifting some of that burden back onto Tehran. If nothing else, the Russian drawdown will give Tehran less opportunity to further reduce its commitment to Assad. Tehran, though, cannot afford to allow its relations with Moscow to deteriorate much over this issue. After all, Iran is dependent on Russia for the weaponry it wishes to buy with the extra money Tehran is now receiving as a result of the reduction of international economic sanctions that were part of the Iranian nuclear accord.
Moscow’s force reduction in Syria limits the prospects for success of those who want to defeat the Assad regime’s opponents and restore Damascus’s rule throughout Syria. Yet at the same time, Moscow’s retention of its naval and air bases, as well as its ability to reintroduce withdrawn forces back into Syria, limits the prospects for success of those who want to oust Assad from power. With the West already in favor of pursuing the peace process—especially as a means for ending the exodus of people fleeing the war in Syria to Europe—Moscow may calculate that its partial withdrawal from Syria may push regional actors to regard the negotiating table as a better venue than the battlefield for protecting their interests in Syria. But if regional actors—as well as the local ones inside Syria—do not cooperate, Moscow will have to choose between renewing its intervention or allowing regional actors to take the initiative in pursuing their conflicting aims in Syria.