By Andrew Kydd
There is whole lot of fretting going on over Russia’s move to supply the Assad regime in Syria with tanks, armored personnel carriers, and assorted artillery, along with a detachment of Russian soldiers. The Wall St. Journal and The Weekly Standard fret that 70 years of US policy in the Middle East, aimed at keeping the Soviets/Russians out, has been overturned. Russia apparently has an orbit; Syria and Iran are falling into it. This portends disaster, nuclear breakout for Iran, grave threats to Israel, and leaves Europe hostage to Russian/Iranian control over natural gas pipelines. All due to Obama’s weakness and indecision.
The Obama administration’s policy towards Syria has not exactly been over-burdened with success. Early opportunities to intervene decisively against Assad were passed up in favor of a relatively pointless effort to deprive him of chemical weapons, responsible for only a tiny fraction of the 200,000 deaths in the conflict. No serious effort was made to deter the parties to the war from committing atrocities against civilians. Yet because of the regime’s massacres, Assad was branded as beyond the pale and his ouster made a central policy goal of the US.
The rise of the Islamic State (IS) showed how ill-judged this decision was. However bad Assad is, IS is worse: for US interests, for Syrian civilians, and even for priceless archeological sites like Palmyra. US policy should now be focused on defeating IS as the first priority and we should be less fussy about our allies in that project. To paraphrase Churchill, if IS were to invade hell, we should at least make a favorable reference to the devil at a press conference. As a result, we should welcome Russian aid to Assad, and Iranian aid as well. Trapped by our own rhetoric, we cannot admit that stability under Assad was a thousand times better than the civil war that has been unleashed. Russia and Iran have no such inhibitions.
Of course, Russia and Iran are not intervening because they like us or because they want to help us out of our difficulties. They despise us and wish us ill much of the time and seek to advance their own interests. Their interests are only partly aligned with ours and their influence will increase – to some extent – at our expense. However, there are reasons to think their involvement could be beneficial on net.
First of all, the forces in the Syrian war that the US is willing to aid are unlikely to ever defeat Assad, IS, or al-Nusra – along with several less well-known groups – which they would have to do to prevail in the civil war and restore order to Syria. Our best hope is that they become strong enough to help defeat IS and al-Nusra, in conjunction with Assad’s forces. By that point Assad is likely to be dependent on Russia and Iran, and our clients will be dependent on us. If the international backers then want to wrap-up the war and put an end to the enormous humanitarian catastrophe it has become, the structural conditions will be right for an internationally brokered settlement. If not, the civil war will continue, civilians will continue to suffer, but at least the threat of IS will be eliminated. Eventually, one side will win or the backers will grow tired of the conflict.
Second, are Russian forces in Syria a threat to the US or Israel? If we let experience be our guide, and take a look at the two wars against Iraq, we are reminded that one of the things the US Air Force is actually quite good at is destroying Russian-made vehicles in the desert. The forces currently deployed could be destroyed by a few sorties. Assad’s military would be unwise to risk them in an assault on US clients and they would be as easy to destroy as IS pickup trucks – and much more expensive to replace.
Finally, is there a lasting danger of a Russian-dominated Syria? Putin may choose to keep token forces in Syria as a vanity project for a while, but it is hard to believe this will last, or influence Assad very much, or that his successor will find it worth the bother. Iran is another matter. The Alawites see Iranian power as their insurance against genocide by Sunni groups like IS. They want Iranian protection and the Iranians are willing to grant it. This is a fact of life in the region that any intelligent policy has to cope with.
At the end of World War II, US and Soviet troops met at Torgau, Germany, over the corpse of the Nazi regime. We did not get along with the Russians before the war, we barely got along with them during it, and we certainly did not get along with them after it. However, when our interests aligned, we fought a common enemy. If Putin feels like spending Russia’s dwindling oil revenues to prop-up Assad, and this helps defeat IS, we should not exert too much effort to stop him. As they say in Russia, there exists worse.