Russia, Syria, and the Not-So-Great Game

Friday, September 11, 2015

This past week there's been a lot of hand-wringing in the US media regarding the Kremlin's recent efforts to get more involved on the ground in Syria. Here's a typical take on the situation from the Washington Post's editorial board:
Far from abandoning its support for the Assad regime, Moscow appears to be doubling down. According to numerous reports, Russia is establishing a base at an airfield near an Assad stronghold on the Mediterranean coast and has filed military overflight requests with neighboring countries. Analysts believe Russia may be preparing to deploy 1,000 or more military personnel to Syria and to carry out air operations in support of Assad forces. Syrian rebels already have reported seeing Russian aircraft over territory they control. 
The intelligence is serious enough to have prompted Secretary of State John F. Kerry to call Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday and to release a statement saying that he had warned that Russian actions “could further escalate the conflict . . . and risk confrontation” with the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State. 
In reality, Mr. Putin’s strategy in Syria has been consistent. All along he has aimed to block any U.S.-backed move to remove Bashar al-Assad from power and aimed to force the West to embrace the regime as a partner in fighting the Islamic State. On Friday, Mr. Putin said his plan for a political transition in Syria, including parliamentary elections and a coalition government with “healthy” opposition factions, had Mr. Assad’s full support, which tells you all you need to know about it.
I find this concern about Russian involvement in Syria to be quite interesting. The assumption here seems to be that it is in American interests to overthrow Syrian president Bashar Assad, and that this objective will somehow be obstructed by Russian meddling. 

Be careful what you wish for
But given the situation that Syria is in right now, is it really in American interests to overthrow Assad? 

Yes, he is a tyrant. But so was Saddam Hussein, and overthrowing the Iraqi dictator is hardly an act that many people look back upon today as a particularly wise move. While I don't think the US should be supporting Assad, working for his ouster strikes me as a profoundly unwise idea at this point in time, given the fact that it is the Islamic State which would most likely benefit from his removal.

Second, why should the US government be so worried about possible Russian involvement to defend Assad? Is the US supposed to compete with Russia simply for the sake of competition? If the Russians get more actively involved in defending Assad, one of two things would happen. Either they will succeed--which would mean that Assad stays in power and the efforts of the Islamic State to take over the entirety of Syria will have been frustrated--or, in what I think is a more likely scenario, the Kremlin would get sucked into a quagmire not unlike that into which the United States descended following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Looking at these two possibilities, it seems hard to understand what the Obama administration is afraid of. Frankly, I think that--for Russia's sake--it would be a colossally bad idea for Moscow to get deeply involved in trying to save Assad. But if Putin goes this route and it ends up being a disaster, how exactly is that a bad thing for the United States? And if the Russians actually succeed in rescuing Assad's regime and turning back the Islamic State, how does the United States lose? 

Yes, I get it--Russia is doing this to maintain its interests in the region, which were breathlessly described in a piece in the Washington Post this morning. Whoever 'wins' in Syria (no matter what, ordinary Syrians are the losers in this terrible game) also wins the reconstruction and military contracts that the next Syrian regime (or current one, if it survives) will award to the countries that helped it come to (or stay in) power. Even if Syria doesn't possess the oil wealth that Iraq has got, there's still a lot of money at stake.

So, instead of tolerating--or indeed, encouraging--Russia to get more involved in Syria, the US is working with Turkey to overthrow Assad. But where is the wisdom in following Turkey's lead?  Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan, as I and just about everybody else who writes on Turkey have discussed, is blatantly using the coalition war against ISIS as cover for attacking Kurdish forces in the region--despite the fact that the Kurds have been the most effective force fighting ISIS over the past couple of years. Erdoğan is leading his country into a terrible dead-end conflict, and any American president who thinks that it is a good idea to hitch his wagon to Erdoğan's disaster-mobile is seriously misguided 

I guess I'm a bit skeptical about 
Erdoğan's leadership re Syria
Rather than partner with the bungling Erdoğan and expend energy to keep Russia out of Syria, I think the Obama administration would be better off cooperating with both Russia and Iran. Both states are strong supporters of Bashar Assad, and of course any US president is going to be worried about these countries expanding their influence in the region should they actually manage to prop up Assad's regime. But frankly, Russian and Iranian involvement in Syria means two things: a) they'll be fighting ISIS; and b) they'll be expending time, energy, attention, money and probably human life that they won't be able to use elsewhere. How, exactly, does that run counter to the interests of the United States? If they want to fight ISIS, I don't think Washington should be opposed to that.

A not-so-great game

In the case of Russia, moreover, the conflict in Syria could also provide an opportunity for the US to seek a broader compromise with the Kremlin. This is something that urgently needs to be done, and the inability to do so among successive American administrations reflects, I think, one of the biggest foreign policy failures of the past decade.  

It needs to be remembered that pretty much all of the places where Washington and Moscow have been at odds with one another in recent years were once under the control of governments friendly to Moscow. This includes not only Ukraine and Georgia, but also Iraq and Syria. But when it comes to divvying up the spoils from the end of the Cold War, the United States is already playing with house money. All of Moscow's erstwhile eastern European Warsaw Pact allies--East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania--are now members NATO. So too are Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which were once republics within the Soviet Union. Of course Putin is seeking to stop this by demanding that Kyiv and Tbilisi stay out of American and west European-based alliances. 

There's a precedent for the state of Russian-American relations today. In the second half of the 19th century--as I've written elsewhere--Russia and the UK had a "great game" rivalry in Central Asia. This competition for influence lasted for decades, but ended quickly at the beginning of the 20th century when both Russia and the UK, fearing Germany, decided to bury their mutual antagonisms and enter into an alliance with France, their mutual friend. Russia and the UK settled their differences in the Middle East and Central Asia by effectively dividing up Iran and Afghanistan into spheres of influence.  
The current 'game' that the United States and Russia are playing began with the revolutions taking place in eastern Europe in 1989. In the 1990s, despite Russian complaints, the US first extended NATO membership to former Warsaw Pact members in central and eastern Europe, and then to former republics of the USSR itself--NATO has added a total of 12 new members since 1999. Then the US invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein, Moscow's former client. Now Bashar Assad, another client of Moscow, is fighting a series of armies in Syria, including one that was raised, financed, and trained by the United States. Meanwhile, NATO has opened a new training center in Georgia, one that has invited new threats from Moscow, as the death toll in Ukraine--over 6000--now exceeds the total number of American combat deaths from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. The not-so-great game that the US and Russia have been playing is literally tearing Ukraine and Georgia to pieces. 

In an ideal world, Ukraine and Georgia would get to decide for themselves whatever alliance they want to be in. But, as I have written elsewhere, it's hardly unprecedented for Moscow to demand that its neighbors refrain from joining military alliances that are opposed to Russia. During the Cold War, the term 'Finlandization' was used to describe this phenomenon. And while the Finlandization of Ukraine and Georgia might disappoint people in those countries who fear Russia and want to join NATO, I think that their Finlandization would be a better alternative to their Yugoslavification. 

Is it fair that Russia would get the opportunity to veto foreign policy priorities made by freely-elected governments in Georgia and Ukraine? Of course not. But how would Americans respond if, say, Puerto Rico or Mexico announced they were joining a Russian-based military pact? American concerns about Soviet missiles in Cuba almost started a nuclear war in 1962. From the Monroe Doctrine to the Contras, American policymaking toward its own 'near abroad' has hardly been based upon the principle of free choice. Yes, there are plenty of chest-pounding hawks in the United States who think it's a great idea to get into a pissing contest with Russia over Ukraine, Georgia, and any other country that finds itself trapped between the demands of Washington and Moscow. But any political competition with Russia over former territories of the USSR--those which are not yet in NATO--is likely to end in a Russian victory because Georgia and Ukraine simply mean a lot more to Moscow than they do to the US.

Better now than later

The real risk with Russia is that, in both the US and Russia, competition will become an ever stronger reflex and perhaps gain even more momentum. At times like this politicians can misjudge one another's resolve, and conflicts can escalate quickly. That is, I think, one of the lessons that we are generally considered to have learned from the Cuban missile crisis.  So, I think it would be better for Washington and Moscow to work something out while the countries over which we are divided are non-NATO members. Genuine danger would occur were elements in the Kremlin to be encouraged by success in other countries to the extent that they would begin thinking of making demands on an actual NATO member. It would be better to try to solve things before we get to that kind of situation. 

The main problem, in my opinion, with US-Russian relations is that they've been conducted in recent years on a largely ad hoc basis. In Georgia in 2008, then in Ukraine, and now in Syria, the US and Russia have competed for influence without, it seems, making any attempt at a more general understanding between them in the manner that Russia and the UK did in 1907. While I don't advocate dividing the world into spheres of influence the way that British and Russians sought to do, I do think that it would make sense for the United States to give up on its dreams of integrating still more former Soviet space into NATO. And maybe that means deciding that we'll just have to live with a Findlandized Ukraine and Georgia. 

And, as far as the Middle East is concerned, maybe working things out with Russia would also mean resigning ourselves to Russia playing a role in Syria. It might be smarter for the Obama administration to let Russia (and Iran) do our work for us in fighting the Islamic State. If they succeed, then enhanced Russian and Iranian influence in Syria is the price we'll have to pay for seeing the Islamic State defeated--and this seems, frankly, like a small price to pay. If, on the other hand, Russia and Iran simply get bogged down fighting in Syria, then all those two countries will have done is weaken their own ability to be effective in exerting their power elsewhere, much like the case with the United States after the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq. 

Relations between the US and Russia have been allowed to fester for too long. Some sort of overarching agreement between the two countries needs to be made. Syria, I think, would be the right place to begin moving in this direction. And in the meantime if Russia (and Iran) really want to take on ISIS, I say let them do it.
Also see: 

The Great Game: The US and Russia in Post-Soviet Space

10 Questions Regarding Syria

The US, Turkey, ISIS and the Kurds: What's Going On? 

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