What will Putin expect for supporting Assad?
It is a not insignificant consideration, as it is beyond dispute that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime would not have survived the last five years without Russian diplomatic, military and economic assistance.
Offering diplomatic support, after pro-democracy protests in Syria that erupted in March 2011 descended into a vicious civil war, Russia used its veto power in the UN Security Council to block attempts to remove Assad from power.
On the economic front, Russia provided the Syrian government with the sinews of war. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reported that Syria’s arms contracts with Russia in 2011 and 2012 were worth $687 million. As the Syrian conflict spiralled into military deadlock, Russia began direct military intervention in the Syrian civil war in September 2015, sending troops, aircraft and warships.
More than any other external factor, this unprecedented show of Russian support for the beleaguered Syrian government allowed it to survive, even as the death toll and refugee flows surged.
This raises the question: What will Russian President Vladimir Putin seek as recompense for his commitment of diplomatic cover, military support and money? Not an altruistic man, Putin has cynically exploited the war for Russia’s own purposes, shoring up Moscow’s only significant Arab ally while using Syrian naval and air bases.
Russian expectations are likely to be twofold — military and economic.
On the military front, Russia will seek permanent use of Tartus as a naval base and probably Hmeimim as an air base; both already host Russian military forces. This would be a development of prime importance for Russia, as it would counter eastern NATO maritime deployments into the Black Sea and the United States’ use of Incirlik air base in Turkey as well.
As for economic benefits, Russia will undoubtedly be invited to help renovate Syria’s battered hydrocarbon infrastructure, which before the civil war was a key component of the country’s economy. Syria’s oil production has decreased from a peak close to 610,000 barrels per day (bpd) in 1995 to approximately 379,000 bpd in 2008.
Following the outbreak of war, many oil fields fell under Islamic State (ISIS) control. By 2015 production had plummeted to 33,000 bpd. Russia is likely to gain a significant foothold in Middle East oil production, a region where foreign partnership has been fraught with difficulties.
The consequences of Russian intervention are not limited to Syria. On December 19th, a 22-year-old Turkish police officer assassinated the Russian ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, at an art exhibition in Ankara, shouting “Allahu akbar,” “Aleppo” and “revenge” before he was killed by security guards. Russia labelled Karlov’s killing “a terrorist act with all its implications”.
Turkey and Russia have been on opposite sides of the conflict in Syria — the Russian government supports Assad and Turkey has been assisting the rebels. Despite this, Turkey and Iran, the major regional players in the Syrian tragedy, have sought to align their policies with Russia’s. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have travelled to Moscow to confer with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
During the past five years, as the Syrian uprising transformed from domestic demonstrations into a major civil war, at least 400,000 Syrians have been killed, 1.9 million wounded and more than half the country’s 23 million population forced to flee their homes.
While the Assad regime with Russian military assistance slowly gains the upper hand, the only certainty seems to be that the killing will continue, from the battlefields of Syria to Russian soft targets beyond the killing fields. Whether Putin regards this as a worthwhile price to pay for increased Russian influence in the Middle East, no one can say.
What is also certain is that, more than any other outside influence, Russian military intervention has been the decisive one leading the Syrian warring factions to return to peace negotiations in Astana on January 23rd.