The Buzz

Syria and Russian National Interests

Timothy Garton Ash appears to be a humanitarian by temperament. But the Oxford don nonetheless gives realist considerations a fair hearing.

In a recent column for the Guardian on Syria, Garton Ash begins by listing the undeniably horrific atrocities committed by Bashar al-Assad's regime. Who isn't moved by reports that the army has used children as human shields? Garton Ash understands the impulse of those who call for intervention (including the self-styled Tocqueville of our times, French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy), but concludes that they cannot demonstrate that a war's benefits would outweigh its pitfalls. This, Garton Ash says, is a requirement even of the vaunted doctrine of "Responsibility to Protect": "On an informed judgment of probabilities, a feasible intervention must be more likely to make things better rather than worse in the country concerned."

Garton Ash finds that the current situation doesn't meet this test. There are simply too many regional variables that make the proposed war far more complicated than past humanitarian interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo or Libya. Not to mention the intractable position of Russia.

But when it comes to how to deal with Moscow's position on Syria, Garton Ash suggests that U.S. officials may not be helping their position by increasing their public denunciations of Putin's government. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently charged that Russia had "dramatically" escalated the conflict by providing military helicopters to the Assad regime. (There was subsequent confusion over whether or not the helicopters were sold before the current hostilities began.)

Garton Ash appears to agree with the substance of Clinton's condemnations, concluding that the "Russian position on Syria is shocking, mendacious and indefensible." But he concludes that a more shrewd U.S. administration and its allies might try less shaming of Russia—and instead focus more on influencing Moscow's perception of Syria as a foreign-policy priority. Might Russia have "other national interests, which might eventually outweigh this one?"

The implication of Garton Ash's observations—that effective U.S. diplomacy must be about more than claiming the moral high ground—makes this a notable piece.