While Russia appears to have prevailed in its latest showdown with Turkey in Syria—helping Damascus to blunt Turkey’s operations around Idlib and securing an advantageous cease-fire afterward—Moscow’s longer-term strategy for Syria has become murkier after the crisis. This uncertainty is primarily due to Russia’s new oil price war with Saudi Arabia, which seems to strike at one of the pillars of Moscow’s approach by undermining the prospects for Saudi financial support for Syrian reconstruction and raises new questions about the Kremlin’s motives and objectives.
Western analysts have long generally believed that Russia’s goal in Syria has been to force a political settlement to the fighting that would guarantee President Bashar al-Assad’s continued rule, at least for the time being. This view builds upon Moscow’s known view that at present—and despite his shortcomings—Assad is the only leader who can keep Syria together, ensure that Damascus delivers on its commitments to Moscow, and suppress extremists. U.S. experts see some tension between Russia and Syria (and, for that matter, Iran), in that Russia appears more comfortable with a political settlement sooner rather than later, perhaps without securing Assad’s full control of the country, while Damascus and Tehran appear more committed to a complete military victory.
Turkey’s intervention in northern Syria clearly complicated any effort by Damascus to reestablish authority throughout all Syria’s territory. Yet, one could view it as broadly helpful to Moscow’s position (so long as all avoid dangerous escalation) by raising the costs of a total military victory and therefore encouraging Assad to consider some sort of deal. Within this narrow framework, one could see the cease-fire as a successful Russian effort to prevent Turkey from inflicting too much damage after allowing Ankara to cause some trouble. There is some logic to this, even if most Americans and Europeans are deeply uncomfortable with the outcomes—especially civilian casualties and new refugee flows.
What appears less logical is Russia’s decision to launch an oil price war with Saudi Arabia in the immediate aftermath of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s negotiations with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Some press reports suggest that Moscow sought to enlist the Saudis in an effort to permit oil prices to fall as a way to put pressure on American shale oil producers. Whether or not U.S. producers were the principal target, however, a Rosneft spokesperson seems to expect them to suffer.
Even so, let us set aside whether this is Russia’s strategy and also whether it is likely to have any sustained impact on U.S. shale oil production. Since we are thinking here about Syria, let us instead consider the implications of a Russian-Saudi oil price war for Russia’s strategy there.
Russia’s ultimate success in Syria requires not merely helping Assad to reestablish control over Syria’s territory, but also helping Syria to get back on its feet economically so that Syria can remain stable. Moreover, rebuilding infrastructure, hospitals, and schools will be expensive. Creating jobs will be difficult and costly too. Yet absent these measures, Syria could all too quickly face renewed protests—and even violence—from citizens disappointed that their peacetime lives are no more comfortable than their wartime lives. Precisely as the country becomes more stable and peaceful, its citizens will develop increasing expectations and thus greater disappointments if the Assad government fails to revitalize the economy and improve their day-to-day lives. If Assad doesn’t deliver, he may well face new and serious protests soon after his the military victory that many now expect.
Who will pay to rebuild Syria? The United States and its allies will not do so if Bashar al-Assad still leads the country. Western parliamentarians simply cannot vote to rebuild a Syria under Assad when their citizens see him as a brutal dictator. Rising Western populism, which some believe that Moscow has encouraged, makes such votes only more unlikely since ordinary people want investment at home, not elsewhere. America’s allies in East Asia—such as Japan and South Korea—are similarly unlikely to support such an effort, especially if Washington discourages it. China has no track record of supporting nationwide post-conflict reconstruction efforts (particularly not with grants rather than loans) and usually attaches strings to its development assistance that could limit Russia’s economic opportunities in postwar Syria.
In the past, Russian experts have regularly told their American counterparts that Moscow will persuade the Persian Gulf monarchies to pay to rebuild Syria. That was dubious in the past, as the United States would probably try to block this. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and others are eager for Washington’s leadership in confronting Tehran—one part of the U.S. role in the Middle East that the Kremlin is demonstrably unwilling to take from the White House—and would probably defer to American preferences. The fact that a revitalized Syria would be a stronger Iranian ally made such assistance unlikely too. For its part, Qatar still wants U.S. support in its ongoing dispute with the Saudis and the UAE and would be reluctant to cross Washington by helping Moscow to aid Assad.
Adding a Russian-Saudi oil price war to this complex environment appears to sink hopes for a Gulf bailout of the post-war Syrian economy. Or perhaps it marks recognition that this aspiration was never realistic to start. Either way, even if the Gulf monarchies don’t resent Russia’s role in collapsing oil prices at a time when they need revenue, and further limit their cooperation with Moscow as a result, they may spend substantial reserves weathering the period of low prices. That would leave even willing governments in a weaker position to help. On top of all of this, Iran—with an already weak economy struggling under domestic mismanagement, expanding U.S. sanctions, and pressure from a coronavirus outbreak among the world’s most severe—may be among the biggest victims of falling oil prices. Depending on the duration of the price war, this might even affect Tehran’s ongoing military assistance to Syria.
This logic raises several questions. Who do Russian leaders expect to rebuild Syria? If they don’t expect anyone to do that, how do they expect Assad to maintain stability after the fighting subsides? Does Moscow hope that somehow, in some way, everything will work out? Or do Russian leaders expect Syrian military and economic elites to work out the math themselves and find a leader that someone outside Moscow and Tehran is willing to help? Finally, if Assad falls despite achieving a military victory with Russia’s support, what impact could this have on Moscow’s newly strengthened role in the Middle East? These are big questions—and the more successful Syria and its allies are on the battlefield, the bigger they will become. The answers are far from clear.
Paul J. Saunders is a senior fellow at the Center for the National Interest.