FPI Bulletin: Russians in Syria, Confusion in Washington

September 28, 2015

Today, President Obama will sit down with Vladimir Putin for the first time in two years. Previously, Obama touted the success of his efforts to isolate Putin following the invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine. “Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters,” the President said in his State of the Union address, “That’s how America leads – not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve.” However, the unexpected deployment of Russian forces to Syria has exposed the shortcomings of the hands-off policy toward Syria favored by the White House. Hoping to salvage a policy already threatened by the Syrian refugee crisis and the failure to train moderate opposition forces, the administration is now engaging Putin, even at the cost of legitimizing his aggressive behavior.

While determined to engage Putin, the White House has struggled to explain why it is necessary. Two weeks ago, at a town hall meeting with American troops, the President told Army Sergeant Aaron Giese that while Russian support for the Syrian regime is deeply misguided, “we are going to be engaging Russia to let them know that you can't continue to double-down on a strategy that’s doomed to failure.” The weakness of this rationale is its presumption that engagement can change the Kremlin’s mind about a strategy to which it is firmly committed.

The second rationale for engagement is the hope that it will help to clarify Russian intentions vis-à-vis Syria. Mark Toner, the Deputy Spokesperson for the State Department, explained, “one of the critical elements going forward is that we have a dialogue, that we have an understanding of what Russia’s intentions are in Syria.” This argument seems disingenuous in light of how frequently American officials have denounced Putin for his apparent desire to stabilize the regime of Bashar al-Assad. As one exasperated correspondent at the White House told Press Secretary Josh Earnest, you “said the President wants to obtain clarity on what Russia is doing there.  It sounds like you already decided what Russia is doing there – doubling down on behalf of Assad.  I'm trying to reconcile those two things.”

The reason President Obama does not have a clear purpose for his meeting with Vladimir Putin is that the administration remains unsure of whether there is a constructive role that Russian forces can play in Syria. Before the deployment became a fait accompli, Secretary of State Kerry warned Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that sending troops to Syria “could further escalate the conflict, lead to greater loss of innocent life, increase refugee flows and risk confrontation with the anti-ISIL coalition operating in Syria.” When the Kremlin chose to proceed, the administration fell back to the more accommodating position that Russian intervention could be productive if executed responsibly.

When asked if the U.S. would object to Russian airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria, White House spokesman Josh Earnest captured the administration’s ambivalence by saying, “Well, I think the short answer is it depends.” Earnest then elaborated the subtle distinction around which the administration is attempting to build its policy. On the one hand, the White House opposes “any efforts by Russia that are motivated – that are geared toward doubling down on their support for the Assad regime.” On the other hand, Earnest said, “what we would welcome is an integrated, coordinated, constructive effort on the part of the Russians to support the 60-member coalition of nations that is working to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.”

The question that has proven so difficult to answer is what kind of Russian intervention would contribute to the campaign against the Islamic State without having the practical effect of stabilizing the regime in Damascus. Frustrated by the administration’s inability to answer this question, one correspondent remarked at a State Department press briefing, “you say that [the U.S.] would welcome a constructive Russian role, and the only example of a constructive role that you have offered is for them to do nothing and to stay out.”

Potentially, one way to distinguish Russian efforts to support Assad from Russian efforts to fight ISIS is to examine the targets of Russian military operations. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter recently noted that one way for Russia to worsen the violence in Syria “would be to indiscriminately attack all the foes of Assad,” not just ISIS. In fact, it is the recent success on the battlefield of rebel groups other than ISIS that threatens the viability of the regime. Over the summer, Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, partnered with other rebel groups to expel Assad’s forces from Idlib province in northwestern Syria. By taking Idlib, rebel forces are now in a position to strike at the coastal enclave that is home to Assad’s strongest supporters, his fellow Alawites. According to a recent assessment by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), securing this enclave is now one of Assad’s primary objectives. Russian forces are well-positioned to support this effort, since their base in the port city of Latakia is only 50 miles from the front lines.

Even if Russian forces target ISIS, their actions will principally benefit the Assad regime. As illustrated by ISW’s map of the front lines, there are only a few points at which territory held by the regime lies adjacent to the ISIS domain. Most of those points are isolated outposts distant from the country’s population centers, possession of which helps to maintain the regime’s image as the only actor in Syria with a nation-wide presence. There are also some areas closer to the capital where both ISIS and other rebel groups exercise a measure of control. Targeting only those areas may enable Russia to say with a measure of plausibility that its troops are in Syria to do battle with ISIS. Even so, the beneficiary of such efforts would still be the Assad regime.

With so few ways for the Russian deployment to benefit the campaign against ISIS, there seems to be little reason for the White House to reward Vladimir Putin with a high-profile meeting. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter recently suggested that Russian intervention could be beneficial if and only if it were accompanied by Moscow’s support for a transition process premised on Assad’s departure. Given Moscow’s robust support for Assad, this approach may seem impractical. However, Secretary of State Kerry has signaled that the U.S. may be prepared for a substantial compromise on the question of how long Assad would remain in power as a part of a transition. His departure “doesn’t have to be on Day One or Month One or whatever,” Kerry said.

Forbearance toward Assad would be a serious mistake, however, especially given the administration’s clear recognition that his brutality is both appalling on its own terms and responsible for the rapid growth of Islamic extremism. Instead, the administration needs to replace its hands-off policy toward Syria with a proactive approach that entails meaningful steps to remove Assad from power, an objective the administration claims to have sought for more than four years.

In his recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, retired General David Petraeus enumerated the most important steps the U.S. ought to take. First, it should “support the establishment of enclaves in Syria protected by coalition airpower, where a moderate Sunni force could be supported and where additional forces could be trained, Internally Displaced Persons could find refuge, and the Syrian opposition could organize.” In addition, the U.S. could “tell Assad that the use of barrel bombs must end—and that if they continue, we will stop the Syrian air force from flying. We have that capability.”

Establishing safe zones and grounding the Syrian air force may now be more difficult as a result of the Russian deployment. That is yet another cost of the administration’s habitual passivity. However, as events have consistently illustrated, the longer the administration waits to act, the more difficult the task will become. 

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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