President Obama is about to add another dismal chapter to his foreign policy record. He may believe that his administration's “no war, no peace” response to Russia’s intervention in Syria will avoid subjecting the United States—or him—to the potential costs of making a choice between two unattractive alternatives. Unfortunately, this posture may well be the most dangerous approach of all for it conveys both weakness to U.S. allies and inflexibility to Moscow, thereby encouraging further assertiveness at America’s expense while allowing Syria’s civil war to rage and ISIL to gain ground.
Before Russia’s intervention in Syria, four years of civil war there had firmly established America’s conventional wisdom: the United States has no good options, a view this president clearly shares. Now, after several days of Russian airstrikes and a few cruise missile attacks, a new conventional wisdom is emerging: standing up to Moscow should serve as Washington’s defining objective in Syria. But this is in essence a sharply negative foreign policy, one that rests, not on forwarding American interests, but on seeking to stymie the Kremlin. Has the administration or outside advocates thought carefully about how the United States might advance its new aims in Syria--or what unintended consequences might ensue?
It is unfortunate, if predictable, that much of Washington’s foreign policy elite would line up behind a confrontation with Russia over Syria. Americans perceive Russian President Vladimir Putin as an autocrat and a bully and are frustrated that he appears to have outmaneuvered the Obama administration. Add in Putin’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and you have more kindling for an emotional bonfire to torch the U.S.-Russia relationship. Moscow’s bogus claims that it is focusing on attacking the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria and that it is not intervening in Ukraine make it only more attractive to cut Putin down to size.
Yet if one considers U.S. key strategic objectives in Syria and globally, a fixation on opposing Putin makes little sense. America’s principal objective in Syria must be to prevent ISIL’s domination of the country or its establishment of a sanctuary there. In either case, ISIL would have a base for attacks in Iraq and even the United States. Washington’s second objective is to oust Assad, who the administration accurately argues has generated far more violent extremists than he has eliminated.
Despite years of effort and billions in expenses, however, the United States and its partners have failed to assemble a credible military force to remove Assad. On the contrary, without ISIL or the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and its wider coalition, Syria’s anti-Assad forces would essentially be impotent. As a practical matter, this means that the only major army available to fight both Assad and ISIL is al-Qaeda’s al-Nusra, which President Obama is appropriately reluctant to support. After the September 11 attacks, that would be a truly remarkable decision. Indeed, despite his butchery and deceit, few have considered Assad a threat to the United States—and he is not responsible for killing 3,000 Americans. Moreover, while Assad’s support for Hezbollah has threatened U.S. ally Israel and indirectly killed Israelis, he is likely a safer neighbor for Jersualem than al-Nusra.
The need to fight both ISIL and al-Nusra is one of the reasons that the Obama administration and most foreign policy experts prefer to avoid dismantling the Syrian government and the Syrian army. Both will be necessary, under different leadership, to fight Syria’s violent extremists. Avoiding the costly consequences of the Bush administration’s mistaken emasculation of the Iraqi government and military is already a component of current U.S. declaratory policy in Syria.
Indeed, from this perspective, Donald Trump is quite right to suggest that if Putin is attacking al-Nusra and ISIL, and helping Assad’s forces to gain ground, this is not in itself contrary to U.S. interests in Syria—though there are two important caveats to his audacious statement.
First, Russian strikes on U.S.-trained or supported groups are a blow to U.S. standing and directly undermine U.S. policy, however ineffective it may be absent such attacks. Allowing Putin to look like the architect of a new Syria, with the United States on the sidelines, would be even worse. Second, Assad’s indefinite hold on power is an insurmountable obstacle to any lasting solution in Syria and destabilizes the whole region.
However, neither of these caveats precludes engaging Moscow in a meaningful dialogue about destroying ISIL and gradually but certainly easing Assad from power. In dealing with the first, Putin has said that Russia would welcome not only targeting suggestions but also information on whom to avoid attacking. The Obama administration should test Moscow--in both areas--stating clearly that we are experimenting and that attacks on identified U.S. partners would gravely breach our trust. There should be ways to start by providing information that Russia and Assad already have in order to avoid potentially delivering intelligence to Damascus.
Second, neither Russia nor Putin is capable of structuring a comprehensive anti-ISIL coalition or an international diplomatic settlement. In this regard, President Obama has been correct to state that Moscow’s actions reflect weakness rather than strength. In fact, Putin himself has said openly that his policy cannot succeed without cooperation with the U.S.-led coalition. Washington can quickly end any speculation to the contrary in Russia by extending judicious assistance to non-extremist rebel forces, including anti-tank missiles but not anti-aircraft missiles.
Finally, Russia’s president and foreign minister have stated that Russia’s commitment is to the Syrian government, not to Bashar al-Assad. Russia’s brash new Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova recently repeated this even more graphically. Putin has also repeatedly said that dialogue and compromise are necessary to a long-term solution. Publicly, Moscow would find it difficult to go much further than this while operating from Syrian bases in cooperation with the Syrian Army. Privately, Russian officials acknowledge that Assad’s departure could be a part of a negotiated transition.
Even Assad himself has said that he might resign if the Syrian people want it. Though it is unclear how Syrians could fairly express their views on Assad’s future during a civil war or that Assad would accept the verdict as calmly as he implies, Syria’s president may be prepared to step down as part of an international agreement that includes Russia and Iran—meaning that Moscow and Tehran would encourage him to do so. That would be particularly likely if America helps the rebels to stall Assad’s Russian-supported offensive.
Looking ahead, Russia’s military presence in Syria and Assad’s growing dependence on Moscow may provide Russia with unprecedented leverage over Assad and the Syrian government in seeking a negotiated transition, especially if Russia does so in collaboration with the United States. Since Washington and its allies have many more cards to play than Putin, this should be possible to do in ways that reflect U.S. interests and preferences and do not sacrifice any fundamental American priorities.
This does not mean creating any formal or informal alliance with Russia, which would be contrary to U.S. interests and unacceptable to most of our allies and partners, from Brussels to Riyadh. Nevertheless, if we could contemplate working with al-Nusra, which some clearly have, we should be able to hold our noses during limited coordination with Russia to explore whether we can reach a solution that serves U.S. strategic aims. After all, as Winston Churchill said of his own willingness to cooperate with Josef Stalin—who was orders of magnitude more dangerous than Putin—“if Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.” George Washington similarly cautioned his fellow citizens to avoid “permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations.”
The lack of credible alternatives only strengthens the argument to test Putin’s seriousness. Otherwise, we face a choice between disengaging from our already limited role in Syria—which means allowing ISIL to consolidate its position there, providing semi-permanent employment to President Assad, and cooperating in our own humiliation by Moscow—or escalating our involvement in ways that make an accidental or deliberate military confrontation with Russia increasingly likely over time. One option would look pusillanimous; the other, reckless. Conversely, if we do test Putin and fail, what does the United States lose? Washington would retain all the options it has today--and would be in a considerably stronger position to implement them after having demonstrably clarified Russia’s intentions.
In refusing to receive a delegation led by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in Washington, the White House seems to have rather casually forgone a chance to advance U.S. strategic objectives in Syria largely in order to reiterate its unwillingness to talk to Moscow. This is an understandable but lamentable disregard of diplomacy. So far, Obama has not demonstrated that by ignoring Putin, who—for likely self-serving reasons—is inviting the United States to have input in his Syrian operations, he can embark upon a road to any satisfactory solutions.
Meanwhile, a variety of neoconservatives and liberal hawks are calling for a no-fly zone or other military options. Some, such as Hillary Clinton, know how risky this could be without Russia’s cooperation—she admitted as much at a campaign event in early October, only to conveniently ignore this reality during the first debate among the Democratic presidential candidates, when she had an opportunity to sound tough before a national audience. Others advocate a no-fly zone without describing what they think U.S. fighter pilots should do if a Russian jet entered the zone. Ignore it? Shoot it down? Either move could in a calamity. And what to do about Russia’s cruise missile on ships and planes capable of striking from Russian territory? Those calling for this approach likewise avoid considering the potential costs outside Syria—starting with Ukraine—if Moscow chose to retaliate. On top of everything else, turning Syria into a battleground between America and Russia would only further harden public opinion in Russia, where 75% of those questioned in a recent survey described the United States and other Western nations as Russia’s opponents. This is not how to help the Russian people hold Putin accountable for his country’s severe economic problems.