How to Work with Russia on Syria

Muscovite minds are opening to the possibility of a solution.

As Syria’s civil war intensifies and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad looks increasingly grim, some (including this writer) have argued that there is a new window of opportunity for a negotiated solution to the conflict, one that could avoid the instability and bloodshed that might follow a collapse of Assad’s rule. Others have argued against trying to work with Moscow. While reaching agreement on a negotiated solution could be quite difficult, and involving Russia would make the process even harder, it is worth the effort to avoid real dangers to the United States and greater bloodshed in Syria.

The arguments against attempting to work with Russia fall into two broad categories: “Russia won’t” and “Russia can’t.” I will attempt to address each.

One recent articulation of the “Russia won’t” case appeared in the International Herald Tribune and online at The New York Times, where former Obama administration State Department official Samuel Charap argued that Moscow will not back any plan to remove Assad because Russian officials are determinedly opposed to the principle of outside intervention in any nation’s domestic politics and don’t want to legitimize U.S. and Western interference in Russia’s own governance. This line of reasoning has typically been more common among neoconservative commentators skeptical of U.S.-Russia relations in general than with enthusiastic backers of the administration’s reset policy like Charap.

Russian officials are indeed skeptical of intervention and regime change. They have clearly stated both that they will not press Assad to step down and that Syrians themselves should decide on the country’s future government. However, Charap and others who suggest that this will prevent cooperation with Moscow on a negotiated transition are ignoring important distinctions. Most important is the difference between public Kremlin pressure on Assad to step down, on one hand, and Russian support for a negotiating process that would almost inevitably lead to his ouster under current circumstances on the ground, on the other. Russian President Vladimir Putin is indeed exceedingly unlikely to call for Assad’s exit—something that makes his recent statement that “we are not concerned with the fate of Assad’s regime” all the more striking, in that it is about as far as a Russian official could go—but the Kremlin might agree to talks between the Syrian parties that would end up getting rid of him but preserving some elements of the existing regime on a transitional basis.

Earlier in the Syrian conflict, “Russia won’t” arguments tended to focus on international factors, including Moscow’s political and economic interests in Syria and its disillusionment with Washington. One extreme example was Weekly Standard senior editor Lee Smith’s statement in March 2012 that “the Obama administration is putting way too much emphasis on Russia’s calculations” because “the Russians already perceive [Syria’s civil war] as a proxy war” with the United States. Setting aside the “proxy war” idea—Moscow’s actual help to Assad’s regime has been pitiful compared to what it could have done if Russian officials really saw the conflict this way—the changing realities inside Syria have increasingly shifted Russia’s priorities.

A year ago, some Russian officials may well have believed that Assad and his regime could survive and appeared to act on that basis. Today, public statements by senior Russian officials make clear that they no longer assume that Assad or his regime will endure and suggest that they see Syria’s collapse on the horizon, if not nearer. As a result, from Russia’s perspective an international effort to find a negotiated solution to the war is no longer an unnecessary concession to Washington, but rather a path to salvaging what little Moscow can in relations with a post-Assad Syria. It is a matter of pragmatic self-interest. Put most bluntly, if Russia was sufficiently cynical to support a leader like Assad in the first place, why would anyone think that Russia would not be sufficiently cynical to abandon him now that his future appears quite dim?