Deconstructing the U.S.-Russian Impasse Over Syria
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There is a paradox in current U.S.-Russian relations. The two countries’ domestic situations, resources, abilities, and willingness to act on the world stage are vastly different, almost inverse. And yet, by a combination of accident and intent, the two are brought back together in the Middle East, a region in which they have both contributed to the current state of affairs. Are the United States and Russia poised to act at cross-purposes with each other or is some kind of synergy possible?
Are the United States and Russia poised to act at cross-purposes with each other or is some kind of synergy possible?
Vladimir Putin has had enough time at the helm to train Russian society to accept almost any challenge the Kremlin is willing to take up. In the beginning, it looked as though getting a blank check for Syria would not be as easy as it had been for Ukraine. But the Kremlin has pulled it off with ease.
According to a recent poll by Levada, an independent pollster, the Syrian campaign was originally met with caution, but is now popular. While 69 percent of those polled were against the use of Russian military force in Syria before Russia entered the conflict, 72 percent now approve of the use of force there. Television has clearly played a role in this sudden about-face. Despite their overwhelming support for the use of force in Syria a majority of Russians do fear, the same polls show, that the Syrian operation may go sour and turn into another “Afghanistan” (the Soviet-Afghan war lasted between 1979 and 1989 and ended in Russian withdrawal; Russia suffered more than 15 thousand casualties).
Looking at Russian polls lately, one cannot help wondering if they actually mean anything and if there is such a thing as public opinion in a society whose main news source is state-run television.
Looking at Russian polls lately, one cannot help wondering if they actually mean anything and if there is such a thing as public opinion in a society whose main news source is state-run television. Still, it is clear from anecdotal evidence that Russians have been eager to feel that they are once again part of a powerful international cause. To what extent this is wishful thinking is another matter. Whereas the U.S. is capable of playing an international game, but is less willing to do so, Russia is willing but not quite capable. “What they [Russia] are doing is trying to demonstrate a strength that they don’t quite have, whereas what we’re doing is trying to demonstrate a strength that we have but don’t want to use,” Jeremy Shapiro, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution's Project on International Order and Strategy, said in an interview.
From Russia’s perspective, the plan is apparently to advertise the Kremlin’s willingness to be a force in the broader Middle East; to refocus the conversation from Ukraine to Syria; to highlight Russia's potentially useful role in a resolution of that conflict; and to court European leaders. That premise may prove empty, but it rings with potential, especially given how desperate Europe is in the face of a flood of Syrian refugees.
Russia has submitted a bid for a stake in the Syrian conflict despite the fact that it is not militarily capable of sustaining a large military presence, and has no tangible broader approach to the Middle East. At some point, even this limited expeditionary force will face casualties and mishaps. As Russian units transition from safe bombing to much more dangerous close air support for Syrian forces, they drastically increase their risks. Some of the modernized Soviet workhorses the Russians are using could burn out from sustained combat operations. Unlike wars of necessity, which is how Ukraine may have been presented to the Russian audience, Syria is clearly a gambit. Moscow does not know if the campaign is worth it until it starts paying a price - so far there have only been political and publicity victories from the venture.
From the U.S. perspective, Russia's intervention in Syria is not only galling, but it leaves the current administration with few options. Moscow may have initially signaled an almost fantastical prospect, that it might be interested in fighting jointly against the Islamic State, but this mirage was quickly replaced by an even more confounding and sobering reality. Russia's military involvement is solely to support a counteroffensive by Assad's forces, necessitating the defeat of fighters that the U.S. and its coalition have been sponsoring in Syria, while securing its position as the arbiter of Syria's fate on an equal footing with the West. Not only is there no deal to be had between Russia and the U.S. in Syria, it seems the U.S. will have to revamp its policy just to remain a relevant actor in the conflict.
Russia's military operation, and the Syrian offensive, has dealt more of a blow to the United States' coalition allies than to its foreign policy. Turkey and Saudi Arabia have placed considerable political capital at stake, and stand to lose in their geopolitical competition with Iran in Syria if their proxies are wiped out. For its own reasons, and the myriad conflicting interests that exist among its allies, the U.S. has sought to avoid further entanglement in Syria by supporting their policies. Just as Turkish and Israeli leaders flew to Moscow following the launch of Russian airstrikes, American reluctance may result in allies breaking off to reach their own understanding with Russia.
Not only is there no deal to be had between Russia and the U.S. in Syria, it seems the U.S. will have to revamp its policy just to remain a relevant actor in the conflict.
Last week Vladimir Putin met with Saudi Defense Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Salman in Sochi, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had a meeting with his counterpart, Saudi Foreign Minister Abdel Al-Jubeir. The parties discussed Syria. “The Russo-Saudi relationship, which is one of the factors in any settlement of the Syrian conflict, has seen improvements over the last month,” writes Igor Delanoё, deputy director of the Franco-Russian analytical center Observatoire. “Saudi petrodollars are financing most of the Egyptian arms contracts signed in recent months.”
Russia and the U.S. are at a profound impasse over how to end the Syrian civil war, which has become a regional proxy war for the country's neighbors. Moscow believes that the only viable and legitimate actor is the Syrian state. U.S. coalition allies demand that Assad step down as a pre-condition, while Russia and Iran insist that not only is he the legitimate leader, but that the Syrian Army represents the only force worth supporting. In truth, prior to this intervention, it is likely that Russia could not have effected Assad's resignation even if it wanted to. In either case, Vladimir Putin has been consistent in his support for the Syrian regime.
There is no prospect for military cooperation since Russia's campaign is almost entirely aimed at the coterie of fighters around Idlib, Aleppo, and Hama, who are not the Islamic State. These are radical Islamist groups, but also rebels backed by the U.S. Agreeing to joint operations with Russia is already a political stretch, given that it would normalize relations, and, to an extent, rehabilitate Moscow's image while the conflict in Ukraine remains unsettled. That price could be worth it if the prospect of fighting ISIS together and clearing them out of Syria and Northern Iraq with Kurdish support were serious. Instead Russia is leaving IS to the U.S.-led coalition air force, while steadily working to muscle American aircraft out of Syrian airspace.
In retrospect, Russia's bid for military contacts to de-conflict operations appears to have been a ruse. In reality, these missions are largely separate by default. U.S. and Russian aircraft were hardly operating in the same region of Syria to begin with. Talk of military cooperation was more about politics than technical necessity. Instead, Russia is playing games with Turkish airspace, and trying to monopolize the operating environment. Unwilling to be pushed out politically, the U.S. has responded by launching a separate campaign against ISIS in the Northeast, backing Kurdish and Arab fighters. The U.S. seeks to position itself as the nation that is genuine about tackling ISIS, but after years of policy drift and halfhearted efforts, it will have to show results in order to be taken seriously. By contrast, Russia appears decisive, having yet to make any military gains.
Russia’s Involvement May Suit the U.S.
In the bigger picture, Russia’s involvement in Syria is not necessarily a loss for the U.S. No doubt the current administration is wondering: what is the harm in letting Russia trap itself, waste precious resources, and then scramble for a political exit? Are statements by Iraqi leaders that they might welcome Russia's airstrikes against ISIS in their country problematic, or welcome? Does America gain or lose if Iraq prefers to throw its lot in with Russia alongside Syria? Other than the Kurds, are there truly forces in this war that the U.S. is interested in backing? Thus far, U.S. policymakers seem convinced that Russia stands to lose rather than gain in this war. Calling it a destined quagmire and a strategic mistake seems the setting for a policy of letting Russia walk waist deep into Syria. The administration may be assailed by political opponents for appearing weak and feckless, but in the case of Syria, such criticisms have fallen on deaf ears since 2013, when the U.S. chose not to use force after Assad employed chemical weapons.
Unfortunately, Russia also seems set on a quest to craft its own coalition, and in the process, legitimate Assad's regime as some sort of anti-ISIS fighting force. Iraq, Syria and Iran are certainly not enough - Russia wants to threaten U.S. coalition allies into joining.
So far, the U.S. and Russian programs in the Middle East seem to diverge. The Kremlin is interested in increasing its stake in the conflict while possibly diluting that of the United States. Russian willingness to act is almost inversely proportional to its capability. The U.S. is facing the opposite problem.
The opinions expressed here are solely those of the authors.
About the Authors
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American expertise and knowledge of Russia, Ukraine, and the region. Through its residential fellowship programs, public lectures, workshops, and publications, the Institute strives to attract, publicize, and integrate new research into the policy community. Read more