Syria: First Test of a U.S.-Russia Partnership?

Vladimir Putin meets meeting with Defense Ministry officials.

This could be the turning point for U.S.-Russia relations.

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump asked whether a strategic partnership between the United States and Russia could emerge for solving the Syrian Civil War and containing and destroying the threat of the Islamic State. Translating campaign statements into governing policy is not an automatic or easy process, which raises the question: could this proposal actually take shape as a viable strategic concept?

Where U.S. Policy Currently Stands

The Obama administration based its approach to Syria on three core assumptions: that the regime of Bashar al-Assad would fall quickly and be replaced by a broad, pro-democratic coalition; that success in Syria would not require much effort or investment on the part of the United States, because U.S. allies in the region would be prepared to take the lead in doing the “heavy lifting” of assisting Assad’s ouster and in reconstructing a post-Assad Syria; and that Russia would not be prepared to expend resources to prop up Assad in Syria, because the Kremlin did not have any vital interests in his survival. None of these assumptions have stood the test of time. Indeed, the U.S. position in the Middle East has been damaged as radical Islamist groups have used the chaos of the Syrian Civil War to gain bases that allow them to destabilize the entire region, while Russian action—first to forestall U.S. military action over Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in 2013, and then to intervene directly in 2015 to turn the tide of the war in Assad’s favor—has created the impression, not only in the Middle East but around the world, that the United States is feckless and in decline while Russia is a resurging global power.

The Trump administration has inherited a U.S. policy on Syria that is characterized by a series of contradictions. While the United States is unwilling to become directly involved in the fight against Assad, it continues to provide aid and assistance to opposition groups seeking his overthrow. It is asking U.S. allies and U.S.-backed groups in Syria to focus more attention on combating more extreme jihadi elements, such as Islamic State and the Nusra Front, rather than joining with them in the fight against Assad. It continues to try to persuade Iran and Russia to abandon Assad and to encourage him to give up power, and to get every outside actor in Syria—from the Gulf emirates, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to Russia and Iran—to focus their efforts on combating the Islamic State as the first priority. None of these efforts is particularly successful, especially since the other players in Syria, as well as the Syrian government itself, know that the United States is not prepared to undertake any sort of major action in order to push its preferred outcomes.

There is no low-cost, no-risk approach that will achieve the entire U.S. wish list for Syria: no Assad, no Islamic State, no Russian or Iranian presence, no conflict between different Syrian factions and their outside sponsors, no more refugees, no more terrorism, and a pro-American democratic regime taking power. There is no magical force of moderates capable of simultaneously destroying the Islamic State and overthrowing Assad, who can also then reconstruct an effective state that will be secular, democratic and pro-American. There is also no foolproof plan that can insert U.S. military forces into the region and guarantee that there will be no unacceptable losses or risks of major escalation that could lead to unpleasant second- and third-order effects. If the United States is not willing to intervene on a massive scale in order to impose its own will, it must decide whether the fight against Islamic State or Assad’s overthrow is more important, and whether it can live with a Syria where U.S. adversaries, starting with Iran, may still be able to exercise influence.  It must acknowledge that if the United States is not going to risk large amounts of its own blood and treasure to change the outcome of events in Syria, it becomes necessary to find solutions that can win the support of other stakeholders in the outcome of the Syria conflict.  Russia is among the most important of these interlocutors.

Russian Interests and Approaches on Syria

It must be recognized that the United States seriously misread Russian interest and intentions in Syria, and miscalculated the extent to which Vladimir Putin would risk taking losses to ensure that Bashar al-Assad did not fall. This derived, in part, from continuing to ignore signals from Vladimir Putin that he would be prepared to take more assertive action to secure the regime’s internal independence to run Russia, defend the Russian position in the Eurasian space and ensure that Moscow’s “voice and veto” would be respected by Washington when it came to other global issues. When it became clear to the Kremlin that the Obama administration “reset,” like the Bush administration’s outreach, was not going to lead to U.S. acquiescence to these demands, Moscow looked for ways to limit U.S. freedom of action around the world.

When it came to Syria, three broad streams of Russian interests have been at play in the decision to support Assad.