Since it began almost a year ago, Russia’s "special operation" in Ukraine has been compared with its actions in Syria. Experts have compared Russian hybrid methods in Ukraine and Syria, identified common tactics, offered potential scenarios, and concluded that the Ukraine conflict is becoming more and more like Syria. With the one-year anniversary of the Ukraine war approaching on 24 February 2023, this article aims to examine whether Russia will withdraw from Syria because of its involvement in the Ukraine war. A second, perhaps related, question is whether Ukraine will follow the Syrian model, where 15 March 2023 will mark almost 12 years of civil war following the original protests, although Russia’s involvement did not begin until late 2015.
Syria was immediately impacted by the Ukraine war. The latter, which has been termed "the commander-in-chief’s favorite war," led quickly to speculation that Russia would withdraw from Syria. According to Carter Center/ACLED data, Russian armed activity in Syria declined significantly in the first weeks of its operations in Ukraine, and reports emerged regarding an immediate reduction of Russian’s military presence in Syria. In fact, these reports were conjecture, since Russia’s involvement in the Syrian war has been the crucial milestone of its comeback as a great power in the Middle East—at least based on hard power resources—and, by April, Russia’s airstrikes in Syria had returned to pre-Ukrainian war levels. Further, as Omar Abu Layla explains, "While Russia initially saw formal involvement Syria as a means to defend its interests in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean, it is now using its presence in Syria to defend its interests in Europe as well." Geopolitically, Syria has been crucial to Russia regaining its status as a great military power, and in the current reality Russia seeks to further defend this status strategically at the broader geopolitical scale.
Nevertheless, questions arise, the first one concerning manpower. In April 2022, Russia reportedly transferred a contingent of Syrian recruits north to join the fighting in Ukraine. In June, reports circulated on social media suggesting that militias linked with pro-and anti-government forces in Syria showed a strong desire to go to Russia or Ukraine to fight. Other reports indicated that Russia was prepared to draft over 40,000 Syrian soldiers linked to regime forces to fight in Ukraine. In January 2023, Kiev claimed that Russia was set to mobilise another 500,000 conscripts in addition to the 300,000 it called up in October 2022. This potential "second wave" of mobilization would mean that new forces could be sent to Ukraine, allowing the remaining forces to continue their presence in Syria, given its strategic importance.
Another issue is the cost of the war or, in this case, the resources consumed by two wars. Despite the economic sanctions imposed by Western countries, and their severe anticipated impact on the economy (around 15-20%), in October 2022, the IMF predicted that Russia’s economy would decline by only 3% in 2022. It was primarily the rise in oil prices in 2022 (which increased in the first half of the year before subsequently decreasing) that offered Russia supplementary revenues. Oil prices are an essential factor for future developments on both fronts, given that Russia’s economy is primarily energy-based.
Although it will still be challenging for Russia to maintain its eight-year long presence in Syria, the proactive role of regional actors (Jordan, Iran, Turkey, Israel, the Syrian government, and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces), the war in Ukraine, and the possibility of NATO expansion (Sweden, Finland, and Turkey) or support for Russia from Belarus, China, or Iran, will further complicate any efforts to find peace, rebuild, and find economic and diplomatic solutions.
Finally, Russia’s presence in Syria clearly depends on the outcomes of the Ukraine war. Improving its position would increase its status in Syria and the Middle East, while losing Ukraine might also suggest losing Syria and the Middle East in the mid-term. The two wars are interconnected, while sharing a similar destiny. The latest reports, such as Russia’s announcement that its defense budget in 2023 will be $84 billion—40% higher than initially expected—and the West’s ongoing offer of military resources to Ukraine (such as Germany and the US announcing deals to send tanks), seem only to prove the argument.