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America’s Putin Problem: Why We Should Look for Cooperation in Syria

With a KGB history, a penchant for repressing criticism at home, and a growing tendency for military aggression abroad, Russia’s president is the West’s perfect bad guy. An archetype of a Cold War-era Bond villain, Vladimir Putin is easy to demonize, as is the Russia that he controls so well.

However, such caricatures can easily distort our understanding of foreign policy; assuming a narrative in which Russia plays the defiant enemy makes it easy to impose that framework on new situations, both discounting whatever valuable perspectives the country might have on new problems and encouraging news coverage that casts all of Russia’s actions as expressions of an ultimate evil plan. This is a cycle that leads to a world in which the West sees Russia as a confrontational opponent whose interests are absolutely irreconcilable with those of the international community and doesn’t bother to fairly evaluate Russia’s potential contributions to international dialogue. Meanwhile, Russia begins to internalize this isolation.

Upon examination, Russian and American responses to war-torn Syria are an effective lens through which we can see how America’s unwillingness to treat Russia maturely is damaging US interests. The Obama administration has approached the Syrian crisis with trepidation since it began in 2011. President Obama’s famous “red line” is evidence of this: Obama said in 2012 that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would make him reconsider intervention in the conflict. The line was crossed, but nothing changed. As put in The National Interest, Obama “may believe that his administration’s ‘no war, no peace’ response to Russia’s intervention in Syria will avoid… two unattractive alternatives.” A noncommittal approach to a humanitarian disaster of this scale not only fails to alleviate the suffering that the crisis has caused, but it also means that the United States does just enough to bother Russia and not enough to appear strong to allies.

The United States has understandably been reluctant to pursue another Middle Eastern war so soon after withdrawing from Iraq and has relied on empty rhetoric to project influence, to little avail. Most importantly, despite holding back from the Syrian civil war in the hope that Assad’s regime would fall on its own, the United States has determined that the defeat of ISIL will require its defeat in Syria. The US is attempting to limit its military involvement, to aid the decimated Syrian populace, to let Assad fall to rebel opposition, and to make rebel groups that are fighting Assad instead fight ISIL.

What this has looked like is millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to the rebels, the CIA providing some weapons to select rebel groups, limited airstrikes, “4 or 5” trained Syrian resistance fighters, and a pledge to host 10,000 refugees. The United States wants Assad removed from power but is not willing make any more substantial contributions to that fight. It wants ISIL gone but has only ended up focusing its resources on programs that rely on the cooperation of rebels with different, sometimes competing, incentives and interests or on efforts to generally prop up the people of the region with supplies.

Russia’s recent airstrikes in the country, on the other hand, have received criticism for targeting the “wrong” rebels — not ISIL but anti-Assad rebels in the east. President Obama warned that Russia was entering a “quagmire…From their perspective, they’re all terrorists, and that’s a recipe for disaster.” He continued, “We are not going to cooperate with a Russian campaign to destroy anti-Assad forces.” There is a tone of superiority in Obama’s words — as if Russia’s decision to conduct airstrikes was not just morally wrong but also strategically ill-advised. And yet such military action might yield positive geopolitical results for Russia. Not only does support for an embattled ally help secure Russia’s only Mediterranean naval base, which is located on the Syrian coast (see here for more), but it also marks Putin as a trustworthy ally of Assad in strong contrast to Obama, thus allowing Russia to fill a power vacuum in the Middle East. The choice of targets is understandable as well. If Russia’s objectives in Syria are to support Assad and to fight ISIL, then a logical first move is to unify Assad’s territory so that his ground forces need only to fight on one front. In other words, to help the Syrian government make future advances, the patches of rebel land inside government territory are natural first targets.

It’s also not exactly true that Russia is exclusively targeting moderate groups instead of ISIL. In fact, the Russian defense ministry has publicized a number of successes against the extremists, reportedly succeeding in the “elimination of the majority of ISIS ammunition, heavy vehicles and equipment” in one region on October 13. While it’s possible that this statement is disingenuous, no one seems to dispute that some of Russia’s attacks have been on ISIL.

Observers also tend to criticize Russia’s support for Assad as out of hand, but there is a defensible logic in this move, too. “Saddam Hussein — hanged. Is Iraq a better place, a safer place?” Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov asked recently. “Qaddafi murdered — you know, in front of viewers. Is Libya a better place? Now we are demonizing Assad. Can we try to draw lessons?” There are clear realist grounds for preferring to deal with the “devil we know.” Recent history in the Middle East has proven emphatically that overthrowing a dictator does not insure peace or the advent of democracy. Of course, aiding Assad and not helping any side substantially are very different, a point Russia may downplay because Lavrov’s simplistic narrative allows it to hide behind a shield of legitimacy. Observers can call this rhetoric disingenuous and may perhaps be right, but they largely ignore the real value hidden in the argument. Alternatively, they can treat this issue as separate and engage with the more urgent problem of managing a succession of power in Syria without repeating earlier mistakes. In the latter case, a productive dialogue is formed and any further resistance they might provide in Syria couldn’t seriously hide behind Lavrov’s logic. No one wins by firing back at Lavrov with accusations.

Russia’s pragmatic goals for Syria are nearly identical to those of the United States. It wants stability. This means defeating ISIL, a goal the United States shares. For Russia, this means supporting Assad, which is not a position the United States has taken. This first motive doesn’t change the strength of the “keep Assad” argument, and it’s also one on which Putin has shown that he’s willing to compromise, even as he was being shut out from dialogue by the United States. Of course, Russia also wants to keep an allied dictator in power, particularly in the absence of a strong, armed American presence, enchanting its own populace with propaganda of Russian power abroad in the meantime. This self-interested behavior, however, is not unique to Russia (it is what has always driven international relations). Russia has simply been able to act upon this motivation now because the United States has chosen to give up some control in the region. Working with Russia is more productive and creates a clear structure for cooperation going forward, making Iran and Russia less likely to balance against US influence, and Russia might even exert a moderating influence on Iran. Having an international plan in this conflict would also establish a standard for Saudi, Turkish, and Qatari aid that might be going to the rebels that the US hopes not to support.

Despite the fact that Putin’s portfolio of interests is not entirely unreasonable and certainly offers common ground for dialogue, which itself could prove very valuable to US interests, President Obama’s public estimation of his move to intervene was that “Mr. Putin had to go into Syria not out of strength but out of weakness.” Putin had his own strong words about the crisis: “I am urged to ask those who created this situation: ‘Do you at least realize now what you’ve done?’ But I’m afraid that this question will remain unanswered, because they have never abandoned their policy, which is based on arrogance, exceptionalism and impunity.” The West seems unwilling to reciprocate and understand Russia’s stance, with little effort exercised to find the potential common ground outlined above, even if opinions on Assad clearly diverge. For the West to move beyond this uncompromising stance and toward a more realistic approach to the Syrian debacle, it will have to come to terms with a few necessities. First, while it may be compelled to isolate Russia for its efforts to destabilize Eastern Europe, this does not mean that Russia should be seen as an absolute enemy on all fronts. Second, the West will have to extricate itself from its rhetorical entrapment in absolute statements on the future of Assad. Some signs of this could be seen at a recent meeting of EU foreign ministers on Syria, where some countries seemed willing to rethink their position toward Assad, noting that “nobody wants another Libya” and that “one has to speak with many actors, among them Assad.”

If our highest officials can’t see beyond a flat stereotype of Russian interests and seriously express the concerns they have while also looking for common ground, it should be no surprise to anyone that Putin is engaging Syria by less-than-orthodox means. Obama hadn’t personally met with Putin for 15 months before a recent discussion about Syria and even after that meeting continued to refuse dialogue. For this unhealthy relationship, the United States shoulders much of the blame. Obama and his administration should look past their expectations of Russia and realize that everyone gains when the wisdom and interests of another formidable power are treated maturely.

About the Author

Austin Rose is a staff writer for the Brown Political Review.