The Rationale Behind Russia’s Withdrawal From Syria

By Robert Berke, an energy financial analyst with experience as a government consultant to the State of Alaska. Originally published at OilPrice

As reported around the world, Russia’s decision to greatly reduce its military presence in Syria, coming as it did with little warning, has left the world struggling for explanations.

After having rescued the Syrian Government’s position in Syria from certain defeat and securing a partial truce along with the onset of an imminent peace conference, the partial withdrawal is seen by many as a message to the Assad government to not take Russia’s military aid for granted, and to be more flexible in the upcoming peace negotiations.

If we assume that all wars are essentially trade wars grown large, and in the Middle East, they almost always involve energy, then the Russian gambit in Syria can be viewed from a different perspective. Russia’s economy is currently in recession, partly as a result of western sanctions, but much more seriously hurt by the crashing of energy prices.

Russia’s warming relations with Saudi Arabia has helped to bring about an OPEC-Russian sponsored freeze in oil production, with only Iran refusing to comply. With the Syrian withdrawal, Russia has tempered a major political feud with the Saudis over Russia’s support for Assad, a move that at once increases the prospects for a Russian-Saudi agreement on oil production cutbacks.

There are also many who think that Russia is also increasing pressure on its allies to be more flexible, not only in peace talks but also oil production cuts. With the withdrawal of the Russian protective air shield, Iran and Hezbollah’s ground forces in Syria are suddenly exposed to the threat of Saudi and Turkish air attacks. Will the threat of a looming military catastrophe in Syria force Iran to comply with production cuts?

Many oil insiders believe that after decades of punishing western sanctions, Iran’s oil industry is in no condition to meet its avowed quota for production, so that an agreement on cuts might cause little sacrifice.

Russia’s actions may well have staved off other threats to its business. Recall that Robert Kennedy Jr., the nephew of the slain U.S. President, recently published an article in Sputnik, claiming that the major reason for the west’s attempt to overthrow the Assad government was to build a natural gas pipeline from Qatar that traversed Syria, capturing its newly discovered offshore reserves, and continued on through Turkey to the EU, as a major competitor to Russia’s Gazprom.

By re-establishing the Assad government in Syria, and permanently placing its forces at Syrian bases, the Russian’s have placed an impenetrable obstacle to the development of the Qatar gas pipeline. Russia has also placed itself at the nexus point of other new offshore gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean, including Israel, Cyprus, and Greece.

It’s not hard to imagine a new Russian pipeline to Europe serving these new partners. Could easing of sanctions also lead to the implementation of the long-stalled plans of Gazprom for a second pipeline under the Baltic Sea to Germany for Russia and its partners, Royal Dutch Shell, Germany’s E.ON, and Austria’s OMV?

If so, we can be assured that the U.S. will be in fierce opposition to any such plans. As George Friedman, founder of Stratfor has stated, the American’s worst European nightmare is an alliance between Germany and Russia.

The timing of the Russian withdrawal could not be more fortuitous, as it occurs at the very pinnacle of the European refugee crisis, a crisis that was caused by Europe’s backing of the Saudi-Turkish attempt to overthrow Assad. For the first time in four years, the truce in Syria offers respite for Syrian refugees, fleeing from constant bombardment and attacks, and raises prospects for increasing security within their homeland.

Is this part of the Russian Syrian gambit? Is Russia gambling on receiving some modicum of European gratitude for helping to stem the flight of refugees to its borders, with the pay-off in terms of easing sanction and enabling its long stalled pipeline projects to be completed.

No, Putin could not possibly be so calculating, could he?

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  1. tony

    While improved relations with Europe would certainly benefit Russia, I’m not quite sure that Putin wants the sanctions eased quite yet. Putin’s popularity is extremely high and the West-aligned neoliberals are vulnerable. The costs of the sanctions were front-loaded and now Russia has the opportunity to develop domestic industry and food production. Meanwhile European industry and food production suffer.

    Putin has the opportunity to get his own house in order. Meanwhile the sanctions weaken the popular support for the neoliberals hostile to Russia. At the moment, I think the sanctions weaken European negotiation position and strenghten Russia.

  2. makedoanmend

    “No, Putin could not possibly be so calculating, could he?”

    Maybe Putin isn’t but maybe Russia is. Calculating that is. Putin maybe supremo and current chess thumper but, of course, he has to deal with several internal and diverse constituencies as well. The external factors were summed up quite beautifully in the article, if I may be so bold.

    The long term question seems to be: is Russia still assuming it’s a sovereign nation-state with its politicos acting in the interest of said state in the broadest tems – i.e. in the interests of sustaining its population? Afterall, there is quite a neolib strain at work within Russia as well. And if “Russia” still thinks the auld fashioned way, will single nation-states model be able to withstand the austero-neolib globilisation onslaught?

    In the same way Cameron and his new feudal-party system must avoid an independent Scotland that might use a social democratic economic model that would offer an alternative to neo-Feudalism, the Euro-Amero philosophy does not allow for alternatives. Capital is always awake and alert. Disaster is opportunity. Chess thumping may not work in the long run. Too much lucre to consolidate. Why play games when Alexander’s sharp sword can cut gordian knots.

    Bigger question: who can use neo-new more?

  3. Steve H.

    Odd article. Pipeline politics always has some truth to it, but Russia sent a message after the invasion of Georgia by dropping its deepest bombs a few meters south of a pipeline without damaging it. No mention of military objectives in a military exercise. No mention of western-sponsored jihadis controlling territory a couple of hundred miles from Russian borders.

    “Is Russia gambling on receiving some modicum of European gratitude” Laughable.

    1. susan the other

      Actually last Fall the French were agonizing about imposing sanctions on Russia because it was not appropriate that the French and Germans should ask Russia to do their bombing and ISIS-killing in Syria for the Europeans and then impose economic sanctions. One of those comments that immediately gets scrubbed from the news. I think it slipped thru on France24.

  4. Steve H.

    To my immoderate comment about European gratitude: I was too snide.

    After all, they did give back Crimea.

  5. Peter Pan

    With the withdrawal of the Russian protective air shield, Iran and Hezbollah’s ground forces in Syria are suddenly exposed to the threat of Saudi and Turkish air attacks.

    The Russian protective air shield has not been withdrawn. A Russian air base with Russian fighter aircraft will remain. Additionally, there is a land based S-400 surface to air battery that remains along with a sea based S-300 surface to air battery just off shore. The Russian naval base will also remain.

    I don’t think that Iran or Hezbollah will feel threatened in any way by the air forces of Turkey or Saudi Arabia. If Iran chooses to reduce oil output, it will do so based on it’s own best interest, perhaps with some persuasive diplomacy (not inferred threats) from Russia.

  6. LeitrimNYC

    There is a massive glaring error in this post, “With the withdrawal of the Russian protective air shield, Iran and Hezbollah’s ground forces in Syria are suddenly exposed to the threat of Saudi and Turkish air attacks. Will the threat of a looming military catastrophe in Syria force Iran to comply with production cuts?”

    That is not happening at all, the S-400 anti-aircraft system is staying in Latakia, making any Turkish or Saudi incursion a suicide mission. Also, Russia is keeping its air superiority fighters in Syria, there with the express purpose of controlling Syrian airspace and stopping any unapproved aircraft from entering it. They are withdrawing tactical bombers and ground troops needed to protect its bases while there was still a Jihadist threat present in Latakia. They are leaving enough bombers to allow air strikes to continue but not at the same rate as at present.

    Also, the claim about Assad being overthrown to build a Qatari pipeline is years old news, why is the author referencing it like its some new revelation?

    Aside from the speculation about refugee flows, this is not a great piece.

    1. susan the other

      I think the plot to overthrow Assad is alive and well and the ‘peace’ negotiations are very chaotic. Syria’s representative has a terrified face that tells it all – Assad is going, going, gone. Even tho’ he refuses to go. The elections the Russians demanded will happen, if they can rustle up enuf voters, and Assad will lose. Some other Syrian will be elected to take his place so it seems ok.

      1. susan the other

        Also, wouldn’t it make more sense to send the Qatari pipeline in the opposite direction? Isn’t India a bigger market than Europe?

        1. PlutoniumKun

          India is just too far for a pipeline and goes through too many countries who would probably want to tap it. India has only quite a modest gas infrastructure – it has some domestic supplies. There is a proposal for a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan, but one from Qatar is just too much. The reason why a pipeline to Europe from Qatar is attractive to Europe is that it provides an alternative to Russian gas – which of course the Russians are unhappy about.

        2. Tom in AZ

          From what I have read from several sources, if elections were held today in Syria, Assad would be re-elected easily. Hence our constant harping on how Assad must go first, then elections can be held to reflect the ‘true’ (read US) wishes of the Syrian people. All the terrorist groups including the ‘moderate’ AQ and ISIS affiliates that the DOD and CIA fund and train will NOT install a sectarian government as is required by UN’s votes and declarations.

  7. Ranger Rick

    There’s been talk of secret Russia-Saudi dealmaking in the background. Oil money is probably involved, but at what level is anyone’s guess.

    Not a snowball’s chance in hell for a Germany-Russia alliance though. They remember the Cold War all too well.

  8. Shh

    I’m always disappointed at the writing coming from OilPrice. Too myopic, too prone to omit key details when arriving at predetermined conclusions.

    Westerners (esp. “journalists” [cackles]) trying to suss out Putin’s motives suffer from a lack of perspective, far too much propaganda and a surfeit of ignorance that prevents meaningful analysis.

    I suspect Putin simply wants to keep the initiative given the utter incompetence of Western “leadership” (more cackles) in every sphere expect rentier extraction from their own economic base. He has no motive to play by Western expectations and everything to gain by thwarting the short-term mediocrity of NATO and US “strategic planning.” (guffaws)

    If you consider that the West has lost nearly all tradition of meaningful diplomacy and the disgust Russia feels towards the consistent US hypocrisy and untrustworthiness, it’s conceivable that Putin’s playing a long game that people trained to quarterly results simply cannot fathom.

    1. jsn

      I agree. Russia is playing to a world audience about effectiveness. If US, Turkish or Saudi actions require Russian action, Russia will respond with in all likelihood another demonstration of brute effectiveness and real measurable results.

      As populists come out of the woodwork in the entire NATO block, as they now are, the radicalness of the real can reimpose itself against convention and expectations anywhere.

      So many facets of global systems are so fragile, and this includes Russia and China, not just the stunningly politically dysfunctional west, much more is possible than anyone in power anywhere wants to entertain. I can’t decide if its 1988 and we’re the USSR or if its 1913 and we’re the UK, or better, the Ottomans.

    2. Tom in AZ

      Putin and Russia are far from alone in feeling disgusted ‘towards the consistent US hypocrisy and untrustworthiness’.

  9. susan the other

    This article is accurate but not really in enough depth. The Dutch just banned all arms (bombers?) to SA because of their human rights abuses in Yemen. Good timing? If SA can’t buy equipment they can’t cause much harm. (ZH today). It’s a war for control of natgas so SA is already on the way out. Before Russia “went in” to help Assad, dear old Netanyaju jetted off to Moscow to talk spoils with Putin. The prize is no longer oil but the natgas fields in the eastern mediterranean and Israel wants to be a player, so does France. It’s harder to see how SA thinks it can muscle its way in unless there has been a concrete agreement to leave their oil in the ground as soon as natgas is flowing. That’s possible. This leaves Iran out in the cold because the market for oil will be destroyed.

  10. Steven

    Analogizing this to giving away a pawn is probably overstating the case. It doesn’t sound like Putin is giving away anything. In any event this game is way over the heads of the low lifes inhabiting the US Congress. It pains me to give Obama credit for anything. But I’ve got to do it for pushing the deal with Iran through so it could be used to keep Russian Saudi deal making and particularly Saudi ambitions and pretensions in check.

    Putin obviously knows what he is doing but I have to wonder about his dealing with the devil in Riyadh. I’d like to know how much of the Saudis’ reputed antagonism towards Russia is real (i.e. just business) and how much is just following orders. If the ultimate goal here is to subjugate Russia to the Western financial and banking systems – AKA neo-cons, needless to say, he needs to tread lightly.

    In so far and ‘fair and reasonable’ have anything to do with it, I can’t help wondering if some sort of agreement wherein the European / Saudi / ? ability to build and operate a pipeline that would offer an alternative to being completely at the whim of Russian energy supplies might offer a way to end the murderous proxy war being waged in Syria by Saudi Arabia?, the U.S.? all the above and more? Call it a ‘line in the sand’ that Russia could help maintain but if it ever crossed (i.e. impaired or destroyed) would be a real justification for all the Putin / Russia baiting in which the Western press has been engaged.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      While I have no doubt there has been some sort of rapprochement behind the scenes between Russia and SA, the reality is that Iran has been a much firmer ally of Russia, so I doubt if they have made any deal which would seriously harm the Iranians, I don’t see where the benefit to the Russians is for this. Apart from anything else, they are getting a lot of money in from arms sales to Iran.

    2. Tom in AZ

      Other than cutting off Ukraine for stealing billions from the Russia to Europe pipeline, has there been one instance of Russia turning off EU oil? Even while they have been imposing the sanctions the US imposed outside of the UN? More than selling that fear, there is a faction of the US government that wants to destroy Russia again, so they can go back to looting as we did in the 90s.

  11. Roland

    1. The flexibility of air force deployments allows the Russians to make a worthy gesture at a low level of strategic risk.

    2. Russia hesitated a long time before directly intervening in the Syrian War. Russia was also very reluctant to supply the Syrians with more recent weapons. Russia intervened only after it was plain that previous mediation efforts had failed. Russia supplied the Syrians with T-90’s only after Saudis and Qataris had provided later-generation AT weapons to Nusra.

    3. This Russian gesture is a test of other parties’ good faith. If, for example, Western powers rush to establish a “no-fly” zone in Syria, then the Russian gov’t would have, for their own purposes, final proof of Western ill-will.

    4. Bashar al-Assad is not going to step down after having waged a very dangerous civil war for nearly four years. For one thing, he didn’t lose the war. Second, there is no way that, at this point, he would let down those who have followed him in the darkest of times. Third, given what has recently happened to other Arab leaders opposed by Western interests, there is no way that Assad would ever trust any Western-made promise made to him or his followers. Bashar is only going to step down on his own terms, or when he dies amidst the rubble of the capital.

    5. One might say that the Russians relieved pressure on Bashar, but it is also true that Bashar’s tenacity and strength-of-will gave the Russians time and space in which to craft a more muscular foreign policy.

  12. Knute Rife

    Unlike a certain other nuclear superpower, Russia isn’t interested in “nation building.” Pick a side, go in, kick the other side’s butt, leave and tell your ally to take it from there.

  13. Fiver

    As all the Syrian ‘ISIS’ fighters ditched the uniforms and everything else associated with the cover story of the phony ‘caliphate’ project and turned back into ‘moderate rebels’ (Free Syrian Army, etc.) in order to first, escape with their lives, and second, participate in whatever ‘democratic’ process will unfold, Russia’s limited withdrawal is perfectly reasonable.

    We have to place this in the larger context, though, of the remarkable rebound in oil/asset prices, the obviously coordinated Central Bank ‘easing’ (BoJ, ECB, Fed on hold) and another round of China stimulus. I’ve argued for years now that the global economy was being seriously undercut by the US neocon/neoliberal alliance hell-bent on advancing US global hegemony via serial regime change using terrorists as proxies in a number of Muslim countries, the lunatic coup in Ukraine as part of the on-going encircling of Russia and China, and the utter contempt with which not just the global (and American) public were treated, but global investors and business opinion with respect to the resulting pervasive sense of uncertainty. And of course, there was the Saudi (US) oil move, with its perverse calculus.

    Something clearly gave. It had become too dangerous all around to continue – too dangerous in terms of a war, too dangerous in terms of a financial/economic crisis (be it US shale debt, Russian or Chinese corporate debt in US $$, extreme currency disruptions, etc.) too dangerous politically in the US for TPTB if their desire to ensconce HC was to succeed. All the major players were very highly ‘incented’ to deal – and they did.

    Did Putin ‘win’? Well, as now: Erdogan certainly lost; the Saudis certainly lost; Iran certainly won; the Kurds live to fight another day; Hezbollah retains its position; Iraq certainly lost; Syria is utterly destroyed; Assad is vindicated insofar as real history and avoiding a hopelessly hypocritical International War Crimes Tribunal are concerned; US shale lives; Canadian tar sands lives (these are both losses in the larger scheme); and the US has the opportunity to demonstrate to the world for the first time since 9/11 that it is capable of negotiating a deal – and keeping its side of the bargain, at least so long as Obama is in Office.

    1. Tom in AZ

      I think you are right on, Fiver. Though I certainly be very watchful if I was on the other side of a US deal.

  14. Epeen

    By coming to the diplomatic table now after several months of actually fighting ISIS, Russia have shown themselves to be truly seeking peace in the region rather than the US style of peace and diplomacy that comes with overthrowing “dictators”.

    I have heard hints that this could be an attempt to convince other countries that going along with and aiding the USA will lead to eternal war and suffering.

    If this is indeed the case then this was a wise move.

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