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Both Sides Must Revise Their Red Lines—or Risk War
On March 14, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he is withdrawing “the main part” of the Russian military forces that he had deployed to Syria six months ago. Russia will continue to maintain its capacity to operate from Khmeimim airbase, southeast of Latakia, and from its long-standing naval base in Tartus, both of which Putin has vowed to protect “from land, air, and sea.” It is thus too early to know what the long-term effect of his Syrian drawdown will be. Certainly, Russia has the wherewithal to redeploy its forces to Syria should it choose to do so.
For now, however, Putin has said that he considers “the objectives [that were] set for the Defense Ministry to be generally accomplished” in Syria, and that it’s time for diplomacy to kick in. So what is Putin thinking?
It can’t merely be a money-saving decision—at least not in the short run. The price tag for Moscow’s military operations has not been exorbitant: on the order of $1 or $2 billion per year. Putin could have continued his air campaign for several more months without difficulty. Still, every bit of savings counts given the state of the Russian economy. Russian GDP dropped by 3.7 percent in 2015, the ruble has fallen by 50 percent against the dollar since 2014, and there are signs of discontent in the form of intermittent strikes and protests.
As part of the government’s belt-tightening, Putin had already announced cuts in the defense budget, which the head of the Russian arms conglomerate Rostec, Putin ally Sergei Chemezov, said might amount to 10 percent of weapons acquisitions this coming year. An open-ended war in Syria would have become expensive, and it is far from clear that there would have been cumulative strategic gains. Given Russia’s serious economic difficulties, created by the double whammy of a collapse in oil prices and Western economic sanctions, Putin has every reason to avoid the burden of a long-term war.
Most important, Putin can claim a victory without running the risk of getting bogged down in a Middle Eastern quagmire. The Russian air campaign worked. It averted the collapse of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and enabled him to regain a good bit (close to 4,000 square miles) of the ground that his forces had lost, mainly in Idlib and Aleppo provinces, to the radical Jaish al-Fateh Islamist coalition. Russia has had a strategic stake in Syria dating back to the mid-1950s. Putin’s military intervention ensured that it would not be lost.
Putin’s campaign also forced the Syrian opposition to accept the ceasefire that took effect on February 27 and gained Russia a place at the negotiating table, ensuring that the United States could not ignore its interests. The United States, too, has had to abandon its original position that peace talks were out of the question until Assad quit. Respect and status, especially in the eyes of the United States, is what Russia craves most.
Rather than seeing Putin’s pullout solely as a Russian victory, though, it might be wise to look at it as a potential win–win, especially if the ceasefire holds and lays the groundwork for a political settlement. The cessation of Russian airstrikes is also good news for the Syrian people. They have suffered horrendously from the bombing, which according to Amnesty International was targeting hospitals in opposition-held areas.
A Russian withdrawal could also make the ceasefire more likely to stand. Assad cannot hope to achieve additional territorial gains without Russian air support, his recent boasts notwithstanding. Finally, Putin’s decision—if it sticks—will prevent another military clash between Russia and Turkey, which could escalate quickly.
In political terms, Putin’s decision reminds that, despite the ubiquitous talk of a new Cold War between Russia and the United States, both countries cooperated closely to make the Syrian ceasefire happen. Putin has always placed a premium on Russia’s being treated as great power, particularly by the United States. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought the U.S.–Russian relationship to its lowest point since the end of the Cold War, but on Syria, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov nevertheless worked together—and to good effect so far.
Further, it shows that personal relationships matter. It has been striking to see photographs of Lavrov and Kerry looking happy together in international meetings on Syria, often with an arm slung over each other’s shoulders. Their negotiations have been conducted privately; neither has sought to score points against the other in front of the cameras and microphones. This stands in stark contrast to thefrosty encounter between Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama at last September’s United Nations General Assembly session. Especially in Russia’s system, where politics depends on the informal networks among Putin’s close allies rather than on well-established institutions as in the United States, personal chemistry counts heavily in achieving positive political outcomes. What remains to be seen is whether the bonhomie lasts.
Finally, some critics will doubtless claim that Putin has won yet again, achieved his goals in Syria, and upstaged the United States. They will harp on the weakness of Obama’s foreign policy. But Putin’s Syria decision may yet turn out to be a net plus for the president. What matters for Obama now is whether the Russian withdrawal contributes to a lasting ceasefire in Syria and enables negotiations that eventually end a war that has killed more than 300,000 people and turned close to five million people—not counting those internally displaced—into refugees. In light of these terrible realities, if diplomacy finally works in Syria—and many things could yet go wrong—it will count as a major achievement, a win for all.