Of all the great powers invested in Syria, Russia has the most to lose
International prestige, power projection, and a monopoly over natural gas could all be taken away, if Assad falls.
When Russia notified the US of their intention to intervene in Syria, they did it in typical Russian fashion. On September 30th, 2015, a Russian general was sent to the US Embassy in Iraq. He advised American forces in northern Syria to vacate the airspace, and Russian airstrikes began one hour later. A year and eight months into the intervention, the Assad regime is back on its feet, having regained much of the territory it had lost.
And yet the war continues. Local powers such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have all poured money and resources into seeing Assad removed, for their own various reasons. The US and its allies have intensified efforts to destroy ISIS, while simultaneously letting the terrorist organization do as much damage to the Assad regime as possible. The number of elements opposed to Assad is so diverse that it is almost admirable. The only reason he is still alive is because Russia had enough reasons to save him.
The Russian naval facility in Tartus is the country’s only permanent naval base in the Mediterranean. It allows Russia to repair and refuel some of its ships, while also existing as a hub of Russian power far beyond its borders.
In January of this year, the Syrian and Russian governments extended the lease of the base for another 49 years, as well as allowing Russia to expand its capabilities there. Also signed was a 49-year lease for a permanent Russian airbase in Syria, giving Moscow an unprecedented ability to quickly bomb the shit out of anyone in the Middle East.
If the Russians are forced to retreat from Syria, then they will probably lose both of their military bases there. International diplomacy is heavily based on the potential to inflict damage on other countries, and Russia does not want to see their’s undermined. Russia will seem a lot less intimidating to many in the Middle East, should these bases be abandoned.
In 2009, Assad rejected a proposal from Qatar to build a natural gas pipeline through Syria. His reasoning was based on the fact that it would harm his dear ally Russia, Europe’s current top supplier of natural gas. Moscow frequently uses its natural resources as leverage over European countries, especially those in eastern Europe, who are far more dependent on Russian natural gas.
If Assad falls or submits to the will of the Qataris, a separate pipeline supplying Europe would seriously threaten Russia’s ability to blackmail countries who need its gas. Considering the amount of money Qatar has thrown at various rebel groups, it seems Doha is pretty intent on having Assad removed.
Imagine European countries as a bunch of drug addicts. Russia is their current dealer, but Qatar wants to pass through Syria’s backyard and sell to them directly as well. Like drug gangs, resource-rich countries often do whatever it takes to make sure their supply lines are stable and unrivaled. Retreating from Syria would make that far more difficult for Moscow.
A year and a half before Russia intervened in the Syrian Civil War, Russian forces were busy invading Crimea. Facing an affront to Russian authority in what Moscow sees as its own backyard, the operation provided Putin with a significant boost in domestic popularity.
But it also demonstrated that Russian allies were defecting, and the Kremlin was on the defensive (despite attacking a sovereign nation). The Syrian intervention helped alleviate those concerns — why should we be worried about Ukraine, if we can act so boldly in Syria? Furthermore, it shows to other countries in Russia’s near-abroad that Moscow is prepared to act militarily, in order to secure Russian interests and allies.
Russia’s move in Syria took American pressure off the Ukrainian front. Sure, sanctions against Russia remain in place, but American resources have been redirected. The Russian intervention has complicated the American-led intervention in Syria, which began in September 2014. If Russian forces can’t help keep Syria under their control, the struggle over Ukraine will come back to the forefront of American-Russian affairs.
Russia needs a resolution in the Syrian Civil War. Putin has a lot of resources, but he is vastly outmatched by the collective power of the US and everyone else fighting Assad. Nonetheless, the Russians have so much invested in the conflict that it is currently do-or-die for them. They are unlikely to remove themselves from Syria unless they feel it is absolutely necessary.
Whatever a post-war Syria comes to resemble, Russia wants to keep its military bases, prevent any pipelines from being built, and to have a trustworthy leader in place who guarantees them these things. The conditions are antithetical to every other regional power in the Middle East, but they lack the same resources that Russia and the US can employ.
Therefore, the only way the Syrian Civil War is ending is if Russia and the US can agree on the terms of peace. Considering how badly Russia needs victory, the ball is in America’s court.