Of course, going down the road of military escalation will complicate diplomacy, potentially antagonizing the hoped-for partnership with Russia. But this need not prove fatal. First, the revelation that Moscow recently provided Assad with sophisticated antiship missiles equipped with advanced radar—precisely to boost its capabilities against potential U.S. or NATO naval activity—proves that the Russians recognize the centrality of the military balance on the ground. The U.S. would be naïve not to accept this reality and tilt that balance back in the direction of the opposition. Second, the sine qua non for joint diplomacy over Syria is not full coordination of activities, but rather a U.S.-Russian condominium on what the outcome should look like. Any U.S. military support should be strictly aimed at achieving an outcome that is consistent with the shared American and Russian interest in ending the fighting in Syria without a decisive sectarian winner or loser. In the final analysis, Moscow’s options are also not rosy in Syria, and therefore, pragmatism may rule the day.
As much as he detests the idea, it may be that, like President Clinton in Bosnia, President Obama may end up “owning” some considerable portion of the Syria problem. Better to move forward with the clear lessons from Bosnia in mind, than to use half-measures or delay only to find the options far more constrained down the road.
Edward P. Joseph is a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, who served in the Balkans for over a dozen years, as well as shorter stints in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Elizabeth O’Bagy is a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War who travels frequently to Syria.