Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Monday, September 28, 2015

What Does Russia's Larger Role in Syria Mean For the US?

Russian SU-25 jets on runway at al-Assad airbase in Syria last week (Telegraph)
Russian jets at a Syrian air force base in mid-September. Photo: Telegraph.

Russia has upped its military assistance to Syria, sending troops, tanks, and aircraft in recent weeks, all in an attempt to shore up the government's defense against various anti-Assad groups. The US isn't happy, at least publicly. It disagrees with the idea and practice of propping up Assad, believing that “it is the Assad regime that has been a magnet for extremists inside Syria,” according to State Department Spokesman John Kirby. In other words, Assad is the root of the problem; he must go, either today or in the near-future.

Moreover, the US wants to be kept abreast and consulted on Russian moves in and plans for in Syria, and it hasn’t. In fact, at this point, the US isn’t totally sure what Russian President Putin has up his sleeve and was caught off-guard at the rapid deployment of force in Syria.

What should America make of all this? And how does Russia's deployments impact US policy? My analysis below shows that these events are at best a mixed bag for the US.

The Good

The good part is that Russia might own the Syria problem, getting Team Obama off the hook. After all, it’s readily apparent that Barack Obama doesn’t want anything to do with the conflict, fearing that any involvement with military force is a trap that would eventually, drip by drip, suck the US further into the conflict and violence.

Also, keep in mind that air strikes have done almost nothing to slow the tide of ISIS. Plus, the arming and training of the so-called Syrian moderates has translated to less than a handful of troops ready to enter the battle against ISIS—a multi-billion dollar disaster for The White House. Why not let someone else deal with that mess? Who cares if it’s Russia, America’s current foe?

Does Russia’s assertiveness circumscribe, or even limit, Iran’s nefarious role in Syria? It’s something to think about. It’s possible that Putin is communicating to Iran and its proxies that Syria is Russia’s battleground, that it rules the roost there, not them. And at this point, it does certainly seem like any military and political solution goes first and primarily through Russia, rather than Iran.

Syria, after all, is Russia’s last foreign military outpost beyond the post-Soviet space and is very protective and territorial about what happens there—not only concerned about America’s infringement on its self-declared turf but also about regional meddlers as well. In the end, a watered-down role for Iran in Syria, if it comes to pass, is probably a good thing for regional stability.

Plus, the added benefit is that if Russia gets dragged into a prolonged war in Syria, it will become weakened and distracted over time—thereby putting a noose around Putin’s global ambitions. Syria could potentially become its Afghanistan, which bled the Soviets dry in the 1980s. And consider this: even if its adventures in Syria aren’t sky-high costly, they could still greatly impact Russia. After all, though things are quiet there now, Russia is still engaged in a low-intensity, churning struggle in Ukraine. Can Moscow really fight two protracted limited wars (Ukraine and Syria) simultaneously? Putin should ask George W. Bush how such grandiose, ambitious military escapades turn out.

And finally, maybe, just maybe, however unlikely, Putin might even help to put a dent in the ISIS/AQ networks—which would serve to benefit US interests.

The Bad

Unfortunately, Russian intervention probably only prolongs the violence in Syria, and by extension Iraq. That’s what the literature on civil wars indicates. External assistance and intervention lengthens the shelf-life of these wars—keeping them in motion when they would otherwise fizzle out or end decisively.

Russian force reinforces Assad’s grip on power—something that the US doesn’t really want to see. It’s for years called for the ouster of Assad, and failing that, a managed transition to democracy with Assad overseeing its implementation. Russian moves clearly muck up US policy on Syria, shredding years of strategizing, training and equipping, and billions of dollars.

What happens to the moderates? These are the guys and gals who the US hopes will one day replace Assad atop the throne. There’s speculation that Russian power will be used to target ISIS as well as US-trained soldiers, because anyone and everyone who opposes Assad is the enemy in the eyes of Russia. Without moderates being an active part of the plan in Syria going forward, where does that leave the country? And how will US allies look at America if it allows its friends in Syria to get annihilated?

The US shouldn't be surprised that others are stepping up to the plate at this point, given how little it's done over the years. In fact, that's a risk the US took by adopting an extreme low-cost strategy. Power abhors a vacuum, as the saying goes, and that’s what we’re seeing right now. Team Obama has acted as if all the major players would wait for it to get its act together, but that’s simply not happening. Instead, Iran, Iraq, Assad, and Russia are starting to coordinate with each other on politics and security affairs in Syria, with Russia taking the leadership mantle. And that, in turn, raises the prospect of the US getting squeezed out of any influence on what happens from here on in the war and any post-war outcomes.

Russia’s escalation also exposes a fatal failure of Obama grand strategy. I know I've previously written on the blog that Obama's grand strategy is similar to selective engagement, but I've rethought that argument. His critics are right; he really doesn’t have a grand strategy at all. His foreign policy is risk-averse and low-cost, but I'm not sure that one can build a grand strategy with those things at the heart of it. The reason is because such an approach is utterly devoid of interests and values, and without those elements US foreign policy is and will remain rudderless.

Let’s apply this logic to Syria. What kinds of outcomes does Obama most prefer? Which ones would be merely acceptable? Which tools of American power can best produce those outcomes? What interests are on the line for the US? Which values should guide US policymaking on Syria? Who (within Syria, the Middle East and beyond) should the US work with to achieve its desired outcomes? Quite frankly, Team Obama would have a hard time answering those questions—as it has in answering similar ones for the past three plus years—because it is fixated on the price of the America’s commitment to Syria, not so much on the substance of US policy on Syria.

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