A Fig Leaf for the Bear: US Foreign Policy towards Russia in the Syrian Civil War

By Marc Dubois

With Russian troops and airplanes now firmly engaged in the conflict in Syria, Moscow’s role in achieving a resolution to this crisis is the subject of continued speculation.  Indeed, this discussion continues amongst various foreign policy think tanks, whose perceptions on the matter range from viewing Russia as a potential facilitator to an opportunist daring the West to respond to this latest act of adventurism.  Heras (2015) from the Center for New American Security (CNAS), for example, argues that Russia could play a valuable role in bringing Assad and Iran to the table for a negotiated solution to the present civil war.  In contrast, a recent article by the Atlantic Council perceives Moscow’s actions as Russian adventurism in the region, a move seen as directly hostile to Western nations’ goals of removing Assad from power (Herbst, 2015).  The disagreement on this issue is important because Russia can ultimately choose to pursue either option towards the West.  In response, the US could decide to further isolate Russia and pursue a complete Syrian regime-change over Russian objections, or seek a negotiated solution in which Russia plays a positive role in bringing other parties to the table.  Given the changing strategic situation on the ground over the past few months, the latter option appears to be far more feasible.  Positively engaging Russia to collaborate in resolving the present crisis in Syria presents the best option for US policymakers in the coming months, even if such a position ultimately relinquishes the objective of regime change.  This compromise, while not ideal, will nevertheless prove far cheaper, quicker, and more effective in restoring stability to the region and eliminating ISIS, a goal that will increasingly serve as a unifying objective on which all parties agree.

Background

The Syrian Civil War arose out of the waves of protest that swept the Middle East during the Arab Spring.  Following successful popular revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt that removed entrenched autocrats, protests in Syria escalated to calls for the removal of Bashar al-Assad.  Unlike similar dictators in other Arab Spring countries, however, Assad refused to relinquish power.  Government crackdowns on the protesters subsequently devolved into a civil war as Assad’s military fought a coterie of rebel factions vying for control of the fragmenting state.  Outside powers initially declined to intervene, though numerous parties backed one side or the other in the conflict.  Later attempts stymied in the UN following vetoes in the Security Council.  Russia, for example, alongside Iran, supported Assad and blocked international efforts to condemn his actions.  The US and Europe, in contrast, provided rhetorical and some material support for particular rebel factions.  Turkey also desired Assad’s removal, yet generally focused on aiding pro-Turkic rebel factions and opposing any Kurdish elements seeking independence.  A range of broader interests thus overlay this regional issue, with various parties supporting one side or the other in the struggle.  The result is an impasse, as neither the government nor the rebel factions have yet scored a decisive victory in the civil war.

Amidst this chaos and weak Iraqi control following the removal of US troops, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) arose as a terrorist organization pursuing the creation of a global caliphate organized upon theocratic Islamic law.  ISIS has since gained control over significant portions of Eastern Syria and Northern Iraq.  In response, US and other western powers began bombing ISIS positions to contain and then eradicate this fledgling entity.  Russia also intervened, yet confined most of its attacks to target rebel positions threatening to overwhelm the Assad forces and the Russians sole Mediterranean naval base at Tartus.  The result has been significant gains by Assad forces.  Additionally, Russian material in Syria raises the risk of great power conflict in the region, as illustrated by the recent Turkish downing of a Russian aircraft following previous violations of Turkish airspace by Moscow’s pilots.

Russia’s Potential Roles

Russia’s potential role in the conflict is thus two fold.  The immediate objective is to eliminate ISIS as a threat, particularly after its recent bombing of a Russian airliner.  Obtaining Russian cooperation is the easier to achieve, as ISIS’ attack in Paris, its bombing of a Russian airliner, and its beheading of westerners makes it the common enemy of the major powers interested in the outcome of the Civil War.  Even Turkey and Iran desire the removal of ISIS, though both view the issue as less urgent than addressing other concerns in the region.  The second role for Russia is its (un)willingness to act as a mediator to bring Assad and Iran to the negotiating table to end the Civil War.  This will be far more difficult to arrange, as Russia rhetorically and militarily supports Assad.  Moreover, Moscow remains adamant that it will only come to the table following assurances that the Assad regime can stay in power.

Syrian_civil_war map Nov 30
Syria as of November 30th 2015 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Recommendation 1: Status Quo to Rollback

The US can pursue two broad policy directions towards Russia in the current Syrian Civil War and against ISIS.  The first is to maintain the status quo or even increase pressure on Russia.  Given Putin’s continued support for a repressive dictator and the fact that the majority of its airstrikes target anti-Assad rebels rather than ISIS, Washington can view Moscow as a spoiler to resolutions to the conflict.  Moreover, Russia’s entire intervention could constitute an unacceptable expansion of influence in the region that the US desires to counter.  The US in response could maintain the status quo by condemning Assad’s hold on power and Russia’s involvement.  It would continue to bomb ISIS positions and allow the Civil War to continue, with Russian airstrikes still targeting the positions of anti-Assad rebels.  The US can also strive for a more assertive approach by attempting to roll back Russian influence.  This potentially entails implementing a ‘no-fly zone’ over rebel-controlled areas where Russian airplanes currently fly.  Increasing existing sanctions could also convince Putin to withdraw troops and planes from the region, or at least to soften his hard-line position regarding Assad.  A greater NATO presence is another option available as part of a rollback strategy.  The presence of NATO troops places a deterrent expected to warn Russia not to instigate conflict.  A policy of maintaining the status quo to pressuring a Russian withdrawal thus holds a number of policy alternatives US policy-makers can employ to achieve their desired objectives.

This plan presents both benefits and dangers.  The main advantages of this plan are ideational.  By holding to its convictions regarding democracy and its rhetorical support for elements of the anti-Assad rebels, the US does not lose face because it maintains its hard-line of Assad’s removal.  It also sends a reassuring message to Arab allies and others that the US will remain engaged in the region and on this issue.  However, there are also important disadvantages to consider.  In short, this plan promises to be expensive and risky for the US to pursue.  Maintaining the status quo of the present deadlock or increasing US pressure increases the risk of drawing US troops into the conflict.  This mission creep would also quickly become more expensive as the US moves additional material and assets into the region.  Even without intervening with personnel, however, the ongoing stalemate wastes US resources it could employ elsewhere.  Lastly, any move to escalate the conflict, particularly with US or NATO troops, greatly increases the chance that conflict erupts with Russian forces.  Should this occur, it could easily expand beyond the region into a broader clash between the West and Russia with a significant loss of life and resources for all sides in the conflict.

Recommendation 2: Strike a Deal with Russia

The second recommendation entails finding common ground with Russia to 1) destroy ISIS and 2) reach a negotiated solution with all parties to resolve the Syrian Civil War.  This may entail any number of outcomes, including allowing Assad or another regime member to remain in power, a division of Syria into rebel and regime entities, or a restored Syria in which rebels receive an amnesty and greater autonomy in return for peacefully ending the conflict.  This offers a number of avenues the US can pursue, yet ultimately results in a compromise solution acceptable to all parties to end the civil war and allow regional actors to focus on restoring stability and eliminating ISIS.

There are numerous advantages to this plan.  First, this policy essentially entails western acceptance of the de facto situation on the ground.  Russian troops and airplanes are already in the region, a move that makes Assad’s fall or a no-fly zone extremely unlikely.  Additionally, the Syrian regime enjoys popular support from a substantial Alawite-Christian faction.  Assad thus has enough backing to maintain power in the area currently under government control.  By accepting this fact, the US recognizes that it cannot reverse the situation, especially not by putting troops on the ground or bombing government positions.  As such, this plan is far cheaper.  It is also highly unlikely to devolve into conflict with Russia or mission creep into the civil war quagmire.  However, by reaching out to Russia to make a deal, both nations achieve some of their objectives and the US can prompt Moscow to assume a more positive role in the conflict.

Moreover, at present Putin is likely receptive to negotiating a deal with the US.  Western sanctions in conjunction with the plummeting market price of oil places severe challenges to a cash-strapped regime engaged in an extended conflict on its periphery.  Russia may thus be willing to make concessions regarding Syria or other areas by trading sanctions for a willingness to negotiate.  For example, Russia may agree to bring Assad and Iran to the table in return for reduced sanctions, so long as it maintains a compliant client buffer zone around its naval base at Tartus.  Moreover, given Syria’s distance from Russia, Putin may also worry about strategic overextension, and will thus seek to minimize the duration of the conflict.  This plan also allows all parties to focus on the defeat of ISIS.  Given ISIS’ recent bombing of a Russian airliner, Moscow supports this policy.  A focus on reaching a deal with Russia to resolve the Syrian War to fight ISIS thus holds numerous benefits for the US foreign policy towards the present crises within this region.

There are, however, a few disadvantages to consider.  Mainly, this plan entails a loss of US prestige because it fails to result in Assad’s removal, which Washington rhetorically supports.  The anti-Assad rebels and US allies may also see negotiation as a betrayal because the desired Syrian regime change did not coincide with the return to stability.  This is a valid concern.  In response, the US must stress to its Arab allies the importance of reinstituting stability to the region, and that this goal entails an appreciation of the realities on the ground.  Without a deal and greater US intervention, it is likely that government forces supported by airstrikes will eventually eliminate the rebel factions.  While unfortunate, a deal providing for amnesty or even greater autonomy can at least achieve some gains for the rebels.  Moreover, accepting a compromise now protects some of the gains already made by these factions, because in the future they may no longer be in a position from which to negotiate.  Lastly, in geostrategic terms, a Washington acceptance of a negotiated solution does allow Russia and Iran to expand their influence into Syria.  However, given the fact that Russia holds a base in the region that it plans to maintain, it already holds significant influence in Syria.  Unless the US is truly willing to escalate its actions to force a Russian withdrawal or regime defeat, that influence is likely to remain.  This may also balance Iran’s own influence in Syria, preventing either nation from completely dominating its client state.  Nevertheless, given the challenges posed by broadening the confrontation with Moscow and the benefits of a negotiated solution, approaching Putin with a deal to secure a positive Russian role in the resolution of ISIS and the Syrian Civil War presents the best option for the US to pursue.

Conclusion

Russia holds the ability to play either a positive or a negative role in the Syrian Civil War.  In resolving this issue, the US should strive to limit Russia’s potential for spoiling the peace process.  Instead, it can incentivize Russian good behavior to bring Assad and Iran to the table.  However, in order to achieve this, the United States will likely have to negotiate a solution in which Russia achieves some of its objectives.  Given the US position of not deploying troops, the alternative is continued stalemate on the ground, with the gradual erosion of the rebel position by combined assaults of the Russian-Assad coalition.  The US thus faces the prospect of a slow decline in its bargaining position towards the Syrian regime and Moscow.  In response, the US should make a deal with Putin regarding the resolution of the Syrian Civil War by agreeing to Assad or another regime member staying in power in return for rebel amnesty alongside greater autonomy or an independent rebel-held territory.  While undesirable, this is likely the best possible outcome for the rebels that Washington can achieve given the resources and personnel it is willing to devote to the crisis.

Works cited

Heras, Nicholas.  “Russia Might Help, as Ties with US Improve.”  Center for New American Security.  20 Nov 2015.  Web.

Herbst, John E.  “Wanted: A Strong Stand Against Russia.”  Atlantic Council.  24 Nov 2015.  Web.

MPSAPres1Marc DuBuis is a M.A. candidate at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce focusing on International Security and Intelligence.  Marc completed his undergraduate degree in 2015 at Oakland University with a B.A. in Political Science with research interests focused on the resource curse and international conflict.

He has presented at multiple research conferences, including regional Phi Alpha Theta history conferences, Midwest Political Science Association (MPSA) Conferences in Chicago, and the International Studies Association Midwest Conference in St. Louis.  Published works include “The Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization” inSecurity and Intelligence Studies Journal (Volume 3, Number 1, Spring 2015), with electronic versions of “Resource Diversification and the Durability of Autocratic Regimes” (coauthored with Dr. Matthew Fails) and “Swedish Conduct in the Thirty Years’ War” forthcoming in Political Research Quarterly and the Grand Valley Journal of History respectively.

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