How to Work with Russia on Syria

January 7, 2013 Topic: Global Governance Region: RussiaSyria

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?

The “Russia can’t” argument assumes limited Russian leverage in Damascus and is typified by the assertion in a December Washington Post editorial that “Mr. Assad himself seems prepared to fight to the death, and it’s doubtful Russia could sway him even if it tried.” This is a stronger argument than “Russia won’t” and might even be correct with respect to Assad personally, particularly taking into account the Syrian leader’s latest speech rejecting calls for him to step down. But this thinking ignores the difference between Assad as an individual and the Syrian government and military as a whole. Moscow might be able to convince key officials and generals that their only hope is to deal rather than to die fighting for a doomed man—but only if it has something to offer, in the form of an interim arrangement that would provide roles for some of the less objectionable figures in the current regime.

Can Russia offer this? Asking the question makes clear that the tougher arguments against a negotiated solution in Syria have less to do with Putin and Russia than with the Obama administration and the United States—“America can’t” and “America won’t.” For example, whether the administration could rally international support to persuade Syria’s rebels to accept a negotiated transition, after encouraging them to pursue maximalist objectives for well over a year, is indeed not certain and is a lesson in the value of thinking ahead in formulating policy. From this point of view, it may be more convenient for some administration officials to pin the responsibility for the lack of a deal on Moscow than to ask hard questions about U.S. choices so far and their likely consequences.

What exactly do senior U.S. officials expect to happen in Syria if the rebels indeed triumph and Syria’s government abruptly falls? Many outside experts consider the most likely outcome to be a sectarian bloodbath. The U.S. experience in Iraq has already demonstrated that the months and years after such a “victory” can be considerably more costly for all concerned than the conflict itself. And there are many other hard questions. Which rebel groups do administration officials expect to dominate a government backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar? How do U.S. leaders think Syria will establish a system of internal checks and balances to contain its radicals without a negotiated settlement that provides a degree of power to the Alawites and others?

In the end, the real question is whether the administration can set aside the narcissistic pseudo-moralism and perceived domestic political benefits of a total military victory that probably won’t end the violence in Syria—and might in fact produce a heavily armed and deeply divided failed state on Israel’s border—in favor of a transitional power-sharing arrangement that truly saves lives by stopping the fighting and creating a basis for sustainable peace inside the country. Few would dispute that Russia’s domestic and international conduct is often troubling and its relationship with the United States is in decline. Nevertheless, Moscow might be willing and able to work with America to find a negotiated solution to Syria’s civil war. This outcome would be better for U.S. interests, and for U.S. values, than ongoing violence that creates a failed state, a terrorist haven, extremist Islamist regime—or all three—in Syria. Shouldn’t we give it a try?

Paul J. Saunders is executive director of The Center for the National Interest and associate publisher of The National Interest. He served in the State Department from 2003 to 2005.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY 3.0.