If Russia Wants the Syria Mess, Let Them Have It
Relations between Moscow and Washington continue to deteriorate over a variety of issues. Contrary to the expectations of Americans who favor a more conciliatory policy toward Russia (and contrary to the fears of those who believe that a confrontational stance is necessary), the frigid bilateral relationship during Barack Obama’s administration has not warmed under Donald Trump. The new president retreated from indications he gave during the 2016 presidential election campaign that he would reconsider the economic sanctions that his predecessor imposed following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s support for separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.
Beyond the administration’s policy retreat, Congress is in a militant, anti-Russia mood. The Senate just voted 98-2 to impose additional sanctions on Moscow in retaliation to the Putin government’s alleged interference in America’s 2016 elections. An avalanche of vitriolic denunciations of Vladimir Putin and Russian behavior in general preceded that vote and have been a staple of the media for months. Russian officials are reacting with growing resentment and anger to Washington’s mounting displays of hostility.
On one issue, Syria, bilateral tensions especially are flaring to an alarming extent. That animosity has been building for years. Obama administration officials openly backed the Sunni-dominated insurgency that has waged a war for nearly six years to oust Bashar al-Assad’s religious-minority (Alawite, Druze and Christian) regime. Moscow deeply resented the U.S. position, since the Assad family has been a long-time Russian geopolitical client. After seething for more than four years about Washington’s intrusion into a country that the Kremlin regards as part of Russia’s rightful sphere of influence, Putin deployed military forces in 2015 to back the beleaguered Assad government. With U.S. military personnel already operating in Syria to assist selected rebel factions, that move created an inherently dangerous situation.
Matters have grown increasingly ominous. The most recent incident occurred just days ago when a U.S plane shot down a Syrian government fighter jet that was attacking U.S.-backed insurgents. Moscow responded with an announcement that it will now track coalition aircraft, including American planes, operating in Syrian airspace. That move was just one step short of threatening to shoot down any planes that seemed to be threatening Russian forces or their Syrian allies. The danger of a direct military clash between the United States and Russia over Syria is no longer the stuff of paranoid fantasies.
There are now two dueling policies regarding the bloody Syrian civil war. Moscow’s agenda is rather straightforward, if somewhat cold-blooded. The decision to send Russian forces into the conflict confirmed a determination to prop up Assad’s government. The Russians are concerned about two dangers if their besieged client falls from power. One risk is that Washington would become the leading outside player in Syria and move to eradicate Russian influence there and throughout the Middle East. The other well-founded worry is that radical Islamic elements will dominate any post-Assad government. That development would enhance the overall terrorist threat and boost hostile Muslim factions in Russia’s near abroad (especially the Caucasus and Central Asia) and even inside Russia itself.