Russian Direct Intervention: A blessing for the U.S.?

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to intervene militarily in Syria and work with Iran and Iraq to defeat the Islamic State has been met with a rather predictable response among Washington pundits: Putin is strong, and Barack Obama is weak.

“Like Iran, Putin is willing to back up his pursuit of his interests with force,” writes Eliot Abrams in the National Review.

“U.S. deterrence is dead,” says the American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka.

The Washington Post editorial page bemoans Obama’s lack of a strategy for Syria and noted that while “shortsighted and cynical . . . at least Mr. Putin has a plan.”

For Sen. John McCain, the Russian move “is a dramatic example of the diminution of . . . American influence in the region, particularly in Iraq,” while for David Petraeus, it is a reminder “that when the U.S. does not take the initiative, others will fill the vacuum.”

These responses to Russia’s intervention in Syria are neither surprising nor correct. But they provide a fitting reminder that Washington fetishizes the mere exercise of power, even if that exercise is foolish, dangerous and counterproductive.

If anything, rather than be shaken by Putin’s actions, the U.S. should be celebrating them. Not only does his direct involvement in Syria’s civil war have a good chance of damaging the self-declared Islamic State, it might even set the groundwork for a diplomatic resolution to the Syrian conflict—all while keeping the U.S. out of the military fight. In the realm of international relations, that’s what we call a “win-win” proposition with very limited downside.

The first thing to understand about the situation in Syria is that, contrary to the critics of the Obama administration’s policy, there is no “magic bullet” solution to the political and humanitarian apocalypse that has benighted that country. More than 200,000 people have been killed; an estimated 11 million have been displaced; and the country’s infrastructure lies in tatters. It’s no small exaggeration to say that Syria may cease to exist as a recognizable political entity.

What adds to the challenge in resolving the conflict today is the plurality of actors involved. Obviously, there is the regime of Bashar al-Assad, who though substantially weakened—Russia wouldn’t be intervening if he wasn’t—is unlikely to be displaced anytime soon. Among the rebels, there are more than a dozen groups, including the nihilistic Islamic State and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front. The presence of the latter two groups makes a political resolution nearly impossible, particularly if the United States were to play a leading role. There is no chance that U.S. diplomats could sit down to broker a deal with groups that it is currently bombing and has said must be destroyed. Conversely, neither of these groups are going to agree to negotiations as long as the military momentum is in their favor, and it’s an open question whether a group like the Islamic State would ever engage in political talks.

This is what makes Russia’s involvement a potentially positive development. To the extent that Assad, with Russian assistance, can weaken these two groups, it could shift the momentum on the ground enough to convince some of the opposition groups and Assad that they have more to gain from talking than they do from fighting. Granted, these outcomes are at best long shots. But considering the alternatives in Syria, long shots are about as much as we can hope for these days.

Yet, the reaction in Washington to Russia’s involvement has been anxiety that Moscow is suddenly becoming a crucial actor in Syria and supplanting the U.S. in the region. The first fear is disingenuous because, after all, Russia has longstanding ties to Syria dating back to the Cold War and has for several years been playing a leading role in supporting the Assad regime, diplomatically and militarily.

The second concern, however, is even more of a red herring. As shocking as this might be for
unreconstructed neoconservatives, a country involving itself directly in a quagmire-like conflict with no clear plan other than propping up a proxy figure at all costs is not a demonstration of strategic strength.

Russia is already reeling from economic contraction and the loss of billions in capital flight because of the drop in global oil prices and Western sanctions imposed after its takeover of Crimea. If, under those circumstances, it wants to involve itself in another conflict, the U.S. should be rolling out the red carpet. Frankly, better them than us.

While Russia’s engagement in Syria is probably motivated by a desire to demonstrate Moscow’s global power and influence, the outcome could end up very differently. Considering the hatred felt by many jihadists toward Russia, both for its support of Assad, but also its actions in suppressing the separatist insurgency in Chechnya, many will be itching to target the Russian forces, thus increasing the possibility that Moscow will end up getting sucked more directly into the Syrian fight.

Russian involvement in Syria risks alienating the Gulf states, Turkey and other regional actors, thus, if anything, blunting Russia’s effort to extend its influence in the Middle East.

The flipside, of course, is that Russia’s actions may strengthen the Syrian leader, which runs counter to U.S. policy as expressed by Obama in 2011, when he famously declared that “Assad must go.” But the reality today is that it’s not in the U.S. interest for Assad to be toppled—at least not right now. Since Obama’s ill-advised statement, made at a time when Assad looked to be in serious political trouble, the situation on the ground in Syria has dramatically changed. The rise of the Islamic State and al-Nusra has changed America’s strategic calculus.

While Assad “going” is still in America’s long-term interest, the short-term concern is the Islamic State and the situation in Iraq. An Islamic State takeover in Damascus or even a solidification of its position in Syria would be a disaster for U.S. interests and, frankly, an even worse situation for the region. Thus, all the more reason to cheer the Russians on as they take the fight to the Islamic State (which is about what, 5% of the sorties thus far...). And of course with the Islamic State weakened, it increases the possibility that some kind of diplomatic resolution to the conflict can be achieved, which remains America’s overriding objective in the region.

From this perspective, Putin’s move looks like a net positive for the United States; at worst, it’s one where the impact is likely to be muted, with the downside for American interests hard to identify. Still, that hasn’t stopped the criticisms from hawkish opponents of the president who view the use of military force as akin to a performance art demonstration of “resolve” and “strength.” Only in Washington, it seems, can strategic miscalculation and blundering into a vicious civil war be viewed as a sign of political strength.

The Russian bear wants to show the world how tough it is by staking a military claim in Syria. As an Obama administration official put it to the New York Times, “Knock yourselves out.”

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