Many have praised the Russian policy towards the Syrian regime, and they have even pointed out that Moscow was re-establishing its status as a superpower while using Bashar al-Assad.
President Vladimir Putin is seeking to restore Russia’s former status. However, it is worth thinking about the financial burden that Russia will have to shoulder by supporting a regime that may stay or may be overthrown in a geopolitical quagmire named the Syrian civil war. Moscow will not have any alternative other than increasing its military spending in the region if it intends to rehabilitate Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
According to Putin, Russia spent between September 2015 and March 2016, around $484 million on the Syrian operation. Of course, this is nothing compared to what the US has spent on its war in Afghanistan ($33 billion) and its first year in the war in Iraq ($51 billion). However, the economic situation in the two countries is very different.
The question here is whether Russia will continue to play its role as the strong ally that can help Assad rule all of Syria, or whether the financial burden of fighting Syria’s opposition groups, re-empowering Assad and rebuilding Syrian institutions will be a big burden for Moscow?
There is no doubt that the financial costs will rise with Putin trying to revive Assad’s power. If Russia limits its activity to supporting unstable Assad on the military level, the financial and geopolitical costs will remain enormous. The Syrian civil war will cost Russia billions of dollars for a decadeHuda al Husseini
When the United States fought its war in Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of September 2001, NATO stood by it. The US at that time also received the support of allies in the region.
In the case of Russia and its intervention in Syria, there are just a few allies, and even more, the return of the rule of Assad is not accepted by the majority of the countries in the Middle East.
Iran and its agents are the only ally for Russia, and thus this puts a heavy burden on the Russian commitment, making the restructuring of Assad’s government a very expensive affair. Moreover, it is highly expected that the Syrian government and its Russian support will run into increasing difficulties in maintaining the reins of power later on.
The war is still raging in Syria, and the economic blockade on Iran and Hezbollah will double. The mistake Washington made after overthrowing Saddam Hussein in Iraq, creating a void filled by Iran, will not be repeated.
Now with the escalation of the attacks on ISIS, Iran and Hezbollah will not be allowed to fill that void, and Moscow agrees on this.
The Russian General Staff of the Armed Forces and the Russian Federal Security Service indicated that there are about 4,000 regular Russian soldiers and about 5,000 armed men from former Soviet republics in Syria.
However, if we look at the US experience, Russia will need to increase its forces in the future to help Syria move from war to a possibly stable government. If Russia’s goal is to form a sustainable government under Assad’s leadership, it is still in the early stages of achieving this goal. Russia is helping the Syrian government recover many of the major cities from the hands of those whom the regime considers as rebel groups and terrorist organizations.
Last week, Russian soldiers were supervising the evacuation of people and fighters in al-Waar’s neighborhood in Homs to go to al-Bab region in the east of Syria.
There is no doubt that the financial costs will rise with Putin trying to revive Assad’s power. If Russia limits its activity to supporting unstable Assad on the military level, the financial and geopolitical costs will remain enormous. The Syrian civil war will cost Russia billions of dollars for a decade. To keep Assad in power, Russia will need to repress minorities, and tackle terrorist organizations and insurgent groups. It will also have to deal with massive support operations inside Syria undertaken by several Gulf states, Turkey and the United States, as well as with Israeli raids. All the countries consider Assad as a threat to geopolitical interests in the region (especially that he has now surrendered to Iranian and Russian interests).
One of the observers told me: “If we review the US spending schedule in both Afghanistan and Iraq, we should not be surprised if Moscow spends more than $50 billion in the next decade to defend Assad.”
“Of course, this does not compare to the $744 billion that the US spent in Afghanistan and the $821 billion spent in Iraq over a period of 15 years.”
The observer said that the two most important factors hindering Russian support for Assad and his regime will be the future military spending plans and the local economy.
In 2010, President Putin announced a $343 billion military development project to upgrade and modernize Russian military equipment by 2020. To achieve this goal, Russia’s defense budget will need a 10 percent increase starting 2016. However, due to lower oil prices and the sanctions imposed on the Russian economy, and due to the devaluation of the ruble, the country is struggling a lot in order to maintain its current defense budget.
The other main obstacle to the growth plan and the upgrading of the military apparatus, is the dependence of the state on natural resources, specifically on oil and its derivatives.
In 2013, 54 percent of the total export sales in Russia were from oil and its derivatives.
With an economy that depends on oil exports, there is a danger in using other key oil exporters in the region strategically or use them as a geopolitical weapon against Russia’s negative influence in Syria.
The same observer told me: “Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest oil exporter in the world. Riyadh and the Gulf countries are not convinced that after seven years of bloodshed and the displacement of half of the Syrian population, Assad can still remain in power.”
“Saudi oil production is the least expensive and this is what makes Saudi Arabia more capable of maintaining current oil prices,” he added.
He believes that Saudi Arabia may not significantly increase the production to reduce oil prices, but it will maintain sufficient production to keep oil prices around $50 a barrel, which would prevent the Russian ambition of military expansion and the increase of the country’s defense budget, making it very difficult for Moscow to expand its influence in Syria, and to support the Assad regime.
In the midst of this crisis, huge demonstrations against corruption took place on Sunday in many Russian cities. They also called for the resignation, trial and imprisonment of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. The standards of living have been declining in Russia for the past two years and more, but this has not prevented some from continuing to benefit from the country’s wealth for their own interests and it is hard to see them stop exploiting their positions.
These demonstrations coincided with the arrival of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to Moscow. Rouhani wants to reach a trade agreement between Iran and the countries of Eurasia, but what matters to Iran is the Russian military sector, as well as the nuclear expertise and materials. It also wants to lure Russia to invest in the oil sector in Iran.
It is widely known that Russia has a long history of selling arms to Iran, but when sanctions were imposed on Tehran, Moscow reluctantly refrained from selling the S-300 missile systems to Tehran at the request of Washington. With the US threat to review sanctions on Iran and with the European willingness to impose sanctions on Russia, the two countries seem to want to raise Western concerns about the desire to build military ties. Nevertheless, Russia needs pre-paid deals and Iran needs post-paid ones.
For many countries, it is interesting to see Russia re-engaging in the Middle East and its geopolitical issues. However, Russia is still not a current superpower. In 1990, it was the third largest economy in the world, but in 2015 it ranked sixth on the basis of the GDP.
The Russian situation does not seem to be getting any better.
This feature first appeared in Asharq Al-Awsat