The Need for U.S.-Russian Cooperation in Syria Is Growing

Image: “President Barack Obama of the United States and President Vladimir Putin of Russia prepare to shake hands for the cameras following statements to the press at the 39th G8 Summit at Lough Erne, County Fermanagh in Ireland on 17 June 2013.” White House photo.

Both sides have strong, building reasons to work together.

The talks on possible cooperation in Syria between the United States and Russia seem to be never-ending, and they are still to produce significant results. The fragile ceasefire of spring 2016 was not a product of direct U.S.-Russian common action; rather, it came about after each Washington and Moscow each used their leverage to force participants of the Syrian civil war to adhere to the ceasefire. Now, the question stands whether both powers can act in concert to address the terrorism threat. Chances for such development are higher than one could suppose while analyzing the general state of U.S.–Russian relations. To understand this, it is necessary to assess the strategic frameworks for Washington’s and Moscow’s policies in the region.

The American Framework

A recent Washington Post investigation on what went wrong with the U.S. policy towards Iraq after the withdrawal of its troops is a must-read for anybody trying to prepare such an assessment for American actions. On the face of it, the investigation is more concerned with Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and her legacy as a Secretary of State. However, it is impossible not to notice that America’s problems in Iraq can be traced back to general shortcomings of both American foreign-policy decisionmaking and its strategy toward the Middle East or, rather, the lack of the latter.

On the level of foreign-policy decisionmaking, the Washington Post wrote about the difficulties in dealing with the consequences of pulling the American troops out of Iraq and the lack of cooperation between the executive branch and the Congress. The article provokes even more important thoughts about America’s policy towards the region. First, it points out the obvious: the American attempts of state-building in the region result only in a waste of resources and, very likely, a deterioration of the security situation. Second, any moves in the Middle East should be based on a long-term strategy considering the region as a whole. With no understanding of how the destinies of Middle Eastern countries are intertwined, Band-Aid “solutions” are a direct route to trouble.

Syria looms large in both considerations. Its civil war was a factor in destabilizing Iraq. As it has been formulated in the Washington Post article: “The terrorist predecessors of the Islamic State began gaining strength across Iraq, aided by the worsening sectarian tensions as well as the fighting next door in Syria, where the civil war gave jihadist leaders a cause and a safe haven in which to rebuild”. When this was happening, the United States was conducting the “Assad must go” policy, hardly helping to end the Syrian civil war. From this perspective it is difficult to speak of a working American strategy addressing region’s security challenges.

At this point, it is a thankless job to predict anything about the situation in Syria, but, let’s imagine, that anti-Assad forces win. Considering American state-building problems in the region, one can wonder whether Washington will engage in state-building in Syria after Assad. Or, will the United States watch its Middle Eastern partners fulfill this job? In the latter case, how democratic will be new Syria? Watching the atrocities of the “moderate” opposition in Syria, often supported by the same American partners, one can doubt that the American regional allies can build an exemplary modern democratic state in Syria, where human rights are protected and the population prospers.

Or, if only security issues and the fight against ISIS are important to Washington, why should Assad go? Whatever somebody thinks of him and his regime, it is very difficult to argue that he remains the strongest player in Syria, enjoying the effective support of Iran and, especially, Russia. Among other things, cooperation with Russia would offer the United States a chance to contribute to Syria’s stabilization and the fight against Islamic extremism without direct engagement with Assad.

Of course, ideas of a deeper cooperation with Russia remain toxic in Washington. After years of ideological foreign policy and international grandstanding, the United States has reduced its space for international actions and closed many options for resolving problems negatively affecting American security interests. For American decision-makers, it is very difficult to assess possibilities of cooperation with Russia in Syria avoiding the negative influence of geopolitical showdown of recent years.