Of Russia and Missed Opportunities

The conflict in Syria will only be solved through international cooperation. However, the United States should be wary of negotiating away its key interests.

By Pikria Saliashvili
Contributing Writer
January 8, 2016

In the 17th century, composer Jean-Baptiste Lully had an unusual accident. During a concert performance, he inadvertently stabbed his foot with his long conducting staff. He subsequently died of gangrene. Similarly, Russia’s foray into Syria could be a self-inflicted wound with important consequences. Moscow continues to expend unsustainable amounts of military resources in Syria with no end in sight. Genuine cooperation with the United States, however, could act as an antidote to minimize the financial and personnel costs of Russia’s military intervention. In fact, a quick resolution of the conflict is very much in Moscow’s interests. With this in mind, Washington should pursue cooperation, yet not negotiate away its key interests.

Russia’s current strategy in Syria is unsustainable in the long term. Moscow continues to incur financial losses as its forces become enmeshed in an increasingly volatile conflict. According to conservative estimates released in October, Russian military operations in Syria cost $3 million a day, or $1 billion a year. The calculations did not account for ground-based weapons, ramping up of the aerial bombing campaign, or the $36 million price tag of the October 7 cruise missile assault. Furthermore, the October estimates do not take into consideration recent developments. Following the downing of the Russian Su-24 jet by the Turkish Airforce, Russia deployed additional four Su-34 aircraft and other military equipment to the Hmeimim Air Base in Syria. The cost of the Syrian campaign could also double if Russia starts operating out of the newly renovated al-Shayrat Air Base located in western Syria. Quite simply, Moscow’s Syrian campaign is expensive and could quickly become even more expensive.

The price tag becomes significant in light of Russia’s weak economic standing and military overreach in Ukraine. Russia’s economy contracted 4.1 percent in the third quarter of 2015 and forecasts for 2016 indicate further GDP contraction. Russia’s 2016 budget is based on an oil price of $50 per barrel. However, crude oil prices recently fell to below $40 per barrel. Anton Siluanov, Russia’s top finance official, acknowledged that prices will likely remain low into next year. If the trend of low oil prices and a weak ruble persists, Russia might exhaust its Reserve Fund, which covers shortfalls in government revenues, in a year. To add to this, the European Union just renewed sanctions against Russia for another six months. In effect, Russia is not in an economic position to sustain active military engagements in Ukraine and Syria.

As such, an end to open military conflict in Syria falls within Russia’s interests. The Vienna talks in November called for 2017 elections in Syria. While this timeframe is highly unlikely, both Moscow and Washington recognize that only a negotiated settlement will resolve the Syrian conflict. The question is what form the political negotiations will take. Russia now calculates that the current policy to degrade and destroy the Syrian opposition will improve its leverage in future negotiations. This policy underscores the difficulty of any future cooperation.

Differences in strategic goals pose challenges to cooperation. An attempt to reengage with the West, ensure access to the Mediterranean, and guarantee greater influence in the Middle East likely play a part in Russia’s calculus. However, support for the Assad regime served as the principal motivation for President Putin’s opportunistic move in Syria. With or without President Assad, Putin seeks to prop up a regime in Syria that will remain susceptible to Moscow’s influence. This objective contradicts Washington’s strategy to effect a stable and democratic political solution in Syria. Moscow likely underestimated U.S. commitment to moderate Syrian opposition forces. Despite Russian airstrikes against the Syrian opposition forces, Assad’s regime has not made significant territorial gains. In fact, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter made clear that Washington would not allow Moscow to undermine the U.S. counter-ISIL strategy in Syria.

Aside from strategic goals, the sharp disconnect between the political rhetoric from Moscow and the ongoing Russian military strategy in Syria continues to hamper cooperation with the United States. Following the terrorist attacks in Paris, Putin stressed the importance of fighting ISIL. However, the majority of intensified Russian airstrikes that followed on November 16-17 targeted Syrian opposition forces, not ISIL. In effect, Russia continues to attack forces supported by the United States. These attacks represent part of an ongoing objective to neutralize the moderate Syrian opposition forces. This continued difference between rhetoric and action deepens distrust and undermines cooperation.

A key driver in this disconnect is the importance of perception. Maintaining a perception of working with the West has tangible economic and political benefits for Moscow. In November, for instance, news of a possible rapprochement coincided with increased asset purchases in Russia, as investors expected a higher probability of sanctions relief. Additionally, increased calls of collaboration from President Hollande raised Russia’s stature as a global player. Had the Paris attacks not occurred, Moscow would likely not have confirmed on November 17 that a bomb caused the Sinai crash of the Russian charter jet. The swift turnaround in Russia’s political positioning directly followed the Paris attacks and served to promote a narrative of a unified front against a common enemy of ISIL. Yet perception is not reality.

Current collaboration between Russia and the United States remains limited to the most basic of de-confliction procedures. Moving forward, military support could take the form of coordinated strikes against ISIL targets in Syria and increased information sharing. On the political front, Moscow can exert pressure on the Assad regime to force a political solution. However, Washington should not rush into talks and negotiate away its key interests, namely a democratic process for Syria and Assad’s departure. Active military presence raised Russia’s costs associated with the ongoing conflict and thereby weakened Moscow’s negotiating position. As such, Moscow is now directly invested in the end to hostilities.

A lasting political solution will necessitate involvement of a variety of international actors. The participation of Iran and Saudi Arabia in the ongoing Vienna Process underlines the global context of the conflict. In fact, President Obama remains open to Russia’s cooperation in Syria. Moscow could use this opportunity for collaboration in order to extricate itself from a problem of its own making. In effect, cooperation is the antidote for the Syrian conflict.

Pikria Saliashvili recently finished a M.A. in International Affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs. She focuses on international security issues. Her interests include exploring the intersection between business and politics.

Photo taken by the Kremlin and is licensed under CC-BY-2.5.

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