Why Syria Won't Save U.S.-Russia Relations

A bit of success in the war-torn country does not beget success in other areas.

Many of those who seek a more functional U.S.-Russia relationship—in both Washington and Moscow—have hoped that cooperation in stabilizing Syria and combating the so-called Islamic State could provide an important new opportunity to stabilize U.S.-Russia ties as well. Unfortunately, this is likely to be considerably more difficult than some may expect. And even the optimists recognize that rebuilding U.S.-Russia relations will be quite challenging.

The view that working together on Syria could help elsewhere derives from traditional thinking about international diplomacy. From this perspective, success in implementing the partial and tentative “cessation of hostilities” in Syria could help to restore communication and even a degree of mutual trust between the United States and Russia, facilitating efforts to tackle bigger problems, including sharp differences over Ukraine.

At the same time, some believe that a success in Syria would demonstrate that the two countries can work together to address serious international problems despite their other differences. This latter view is probably more widely held among Moscow’s foreign policy elite, where engagement with the United States validates Russian aspirations for an acknowledged role as a major power. Recognizing the asymmetries between America’s and Russia’s economies and militaries, U.S. elites are thus far not similarly tempted. It is notable that the thin slice of American experts focused on nuclear weapons—perhaps the area of greatest symmetry and one of great consequence—has been among the most motivated to engage with Moscow.

The flaw in the success-begets-success approach is that it ignores political realities among elites in both countries. In brief, an initial success is unlikely to contribute to future successes if it is domestically controversial; for a success to be a success requires not only the two governments, but also their respective political elites, to see it as such. Thus, for U.S.-Russian cooperation in Syria to stimulate sustainable improvements in U.S.-Russia relations, it will require broader political support than it so far appears to have, especially in the United States. Because Washington and Moscow elites generally have profoundly divergent zero-sum views of the central issue in Syria, namely President Bashar al-Assad’s future, satisfying political elites in America and Russia at the same time would require a combination of creative diplomacy and courageous and skillful politics that has been rather rare.

Indeed, success-begets-success has already failed twice in recent years. The first failure was the Obama administration’s Reset policy, which foundered in no small part because the administration was unable to persuade congressional Republicans that its policies had produced benefits for the United States. Rather than appreciating Moscow’s assistance to the U.S. military in Afghanistan, many Republicans resented that Russia was not doing more and harbored suspicions of the Kremlin’s aims in Central Asia. Likewise, instead of celebrating the New START arms control treaty, many Republicans were angered by the administration’s heavy-handed effort to secure ratification of what they viewed as a weak and disadvantageous agreement. This further politicized the Reset, which crumbled soon thereafter as domestic political processes inside both countries drove America and Russia apart.

The second failure was the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In that case, like current hopes surrounding the Syria talks, those pursuing the success-begets-success model were predominantly in Moscow rather than Washington, where deep skepticism about U.S.-Russia relations has reigned since Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. Thus, while the Iran agreement might be the best deal that the Obama administration could have reached, few Republicans saw it as the best deal that America could have reached. On the contrary, not unlike the New START agreement, many viewed it as the undesirable product of an effort to secure a diplomatic settlement at almost any cost. As a result, it looked more like a success for Iranian and Russian diplomacy than for U.S.-Russia cooperation.

Lest anyone think that America’s Republicans are the principal obstacle to a better U.S.-Russia relationship—which is far from the truth, especially in view of Russia’s increasingly assertive foreign policy and its unattractive domestic practices—it is important to recognize that if the Obama administration had extracted more from Moscow in order to satisfy them, America could have faced different, but still real, problems in dealing with Russia anyway.

Seeing this requires looking back to the 1990s, when the Clinton administration squeezed a much weaker Russia into acquiescing to NATO enlargement and to NATO interventions in the former Yugoslavia. Those moves dramatically reoriented the Russian political elite’s (and public’s) views of the United States and its foreign policy goals, creating one pillar of the widespread domestic support that Russian President Vladimir Putin enjoys today. Having no New START or JCPOA, or conversely, somehow maneuvering Moscow (and, in the latter case, Tehran) into accepting terms that would have won broad support in the United States, would probably have reinforced Russia’s existing resentments and could also have removed or lessened Russia’s self-imposed constraints on its conduct.