Putin's Game: Did Russia Win in Syria?
Putin is leveraging his country’s strengthening position to gain credibility within the international community and challenge America’s role as the regional hegemon in the Middle East.
As the end of the military phase of the Syrian conflict appears to be in sight, American policymakers would do well to reflect on how much has changed within the war and on the international stage since 2011. The conflict has pulled Iranian-backed troops within miles of Israel’s borders and has seen a direct clash between Russians and Americans. A look at the current situation in Syria confirms that the United States failed to meet a key objective in its initial involvement: removing ruler Bashar al Assad from power. Facing a military and political loss in Syria, the United States should now do what it can to salvage a humanitarian win. To accomplish this, the Washington must work with Moscow, the only actor with a strong influence on the Assad regime that may be willing to listen. To do so, America must be willing to recognize Russia’s strengthening role in the international community and deal with it as an equal partner in certain cases.
To be clear, this is an argument for stronger communication and diplomatic talks -- not for another show of appeasement like the one put on display in Helsinki. The most effective way to achieve this is to free the foreign-policy framework from the neorealist thinking of the Cold War era, and to recognize Russia and its leadership as a nuanced actor with actions that can’t always be perfectly explained by great-power competition.
A good start would be engaging more directly in the Russia-led Astana process, an alternative diplomatic track to the U.S.-backed Geneva one. At the end of July, Russia hosted the latest round of the Astana talks; the United States refused to send a representative to the meetings. The next round of Astana talks is set to take place in November. When representatives from Russia, Iran, and Turkey met in Sochi late in July, their final statement urged the international community to pour in aid. This would help alleviate the humanitarian situation and help to fund reconstruction efforts.
Steven Cook recently argued that Syria is another example of the United States being caught wide-eyed in the headlights of a major international catastrophe. Cook is not wrong to concede that Washington failed to learn the consequences of inaction following the conflicts of the 1990s, but he ignores that Russia seems to have been taking notes. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has witnessed America’s 21stCentury adventurism in the Middle East. Moscow now stands poised to step in as an alternative that regional leaders might actually be willing to work with. Any indication that Putin might be softening his stance on Syria misses the point. When Russia first entered the Syrian conflict in 2014, it used its troops to send a message to the world and to the West that it would not stand on the side-lines as another power vacuum was created in the Middle East. Nearly five years later, Putin is proving that Russia can be more than an arms dealer in the new century.
Writing for Syria Comment, David W. Lesch and Kamal Alam point out that Russia has succeeded in partnering with Syria because the Kremlin is not interested in regime change. By working with an established government, it did not take on the arduous task of removing leaders and building bureaucracies.
Appealing to the dire human-rights situation in Syria will likely do little to sway Putin’s support for Assad. Russia profits strategically and financially from arms sales with Syria. It profits politically by nurturing strong regional alliances. Yet the stakes are bigger than the battleground itself. For Putin, American-led wars have created instability in the Middle East that threatens to spill over into Russia’s borders and its near-abroad. Moreover, the deeply ingrained lesson from its post-Cold War relationship with the United States is that Russia is on its own, and the threat to its sovereignty is real. The expansion of NATO in the late 1990s and the Western military presence in Eastern Europe were taken as direct challenges to Russia’s role as a regional hegemon. More recently, the Polish president went so far as to offer to pay for the United States to build a military base in his country (“Fort Trump”).
No, Putin will not be “going soft” on Syria in the coming months -- and why should he? Since the 1990s, his country has survived by the luck of its massive gambles. Moscow now finds itself in a position to capitalize in a way that could seriously challenge America’s role in the Middle East and in the wider international community. Most recently, Putin negotiated a deal with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to secure a 15-kilometer-wide demilitarized zone around Idlib province, the last rebel-held territory in Syria and Assad’s next target. The United States was not involved in the negotiations, which have at least temporarily put off what is expected to be the bloodiest battle in the conflict yet.
All of this is unlikely to find Russia suddenly becoming a force for peace in the world or the region. Its hegemonic interests lie in Eastern Europe, beyond the borders of which it appears to lack any interest in taking on the role of the world’s policeman. Its history has never allowed the country to pursue idealistic diplomatic missions or values-based policies, and this is unlikely to change now. John le Carre, author and former British intelligence officer, may have written it best in his 1989 book, The Russia House:
“To lose time is to lose everything. Our Russian history does not give us second chances. When we leap across an abyss, she does not give us the opportunity for a second step.”
By remaining firmly behind its allies and offering itself as a reliable, laissez-faire partner, Russia has earned the opportunity to displace America’s role in the Middle East. For now, Assad will stay and the Kremlin will remain an ally of Syria. Whatever peace talks lie ahead, Russia will most certainly take a leading role in mediating between Assad and the
international community. This late in the game, it is time to recognize that the power dynamics have shifted. It is time for strategic dialogues with Russia on the future of Syria.