How Much Did Russia 'Win' in Syria?
Russia's announcement that it is pulling troops out of Syria has been met with surprise from the Obama administration and a fair amount of clucking from pundits who see it as a vindication of Vladimir Putin's strategy in the region. It is also proof, many of those same pundits argue, that the Russian leader out-maneuvered U.S. President Barack Obama. Alexander Titov has a good rundown of the prospective gains that Russia will supposedly reap from its adventure in Syria, including the preservation of the Bashar Assad regime and Putin's ability to have a seat at the table for future negotiations.
But how much did Russia actually win in Syria?
First, it's important to emphasize that Russia hasn't actually withdrawn from Syria. They've merely announced their intention to do so. As the New York Times notes, they've pulled out about 10 planes and no sizeable number of troops. The United States should be acutely cautious about politicians claiming 'mission accomplished' before fully extricating themselves from a foreign entanglement. Even without frontline forces, Russian military advisers will undoubtedly still remain in the country.
Second, Putin's biggest accomplishment is unquestionably that Russia turned the tide of the war in Assad's favor. With Russia's help, the Assad regime has managed to cut rebel supply lines and reclaim territory in the north and south of the country. Militarily, a regime once reeling is no longer on the ropes.
In other words, instead of having Syria devolve into a totally lawless failed state, it's only now a semi-failed state with a ramshackle government that is still not in full control of its territory and has an Islamist insurgency raging in its borders. Assad's forces are unquestionably better positioned today thanks to Russian help, but Syria is a long way from being a viable, functioning state. Russia's client government is probably an assassination or two away from utter turmoil.
More importantly, what tangible good has propping up Assad done for Russia? Has it boosted the Russian economy? No. By all accounts, the Russian economy is performing poorly. Has it improved the standard of living for ordinary Russians? No, things look pretty bleak on that front too. Has it broken open new markets for Russian enterprises to sell into? Perhaps if Assad gets back on his feet, but not now. Has it gained Russia a powerful geopolitical ally? Even before it was a failed state, Syria was no regional powerhouse.
Meanwhile, Russia was flushing roughly $4 million a day into Syria as of October 2015 -- cheap by the standards of America's extravagant Mideast boondoggles, but costly nonetheless. It's not clear how many Russians have been killed in Syria, in part because Moscow is going to great lengths to obscure those figures, but Russia has seen its share of lives lost as well.
Still, Russia has achieved a limited set of results. It successfully propped up Assad and helped that regime recoup some of its lost territory. It has also ensured that it will be consulted in any negotiations involving the long-term fate of Syria's internal governance. Whether Syria was a prize worth investing in, only time will tell.