One of the ill-acknowledged facets of Syria’s grinding agony is that the Syrian dead lay in the interstices of two-and-one-half great alliances. The grander is that of NATO and America’s sometime Arabian allies in the Middle East, the lesser a triangular alliance of Russia, Iran and Syria. What does it matter? Though in the early stages of the Syrian civil war, a forceful intervention by the US, France or perhaps the collection of monarchies called “Gulf states” could have put paid to Assad, once Iran and Russia were engaged in the Syrian conflict, much of the hope for a good outcome had gone.
Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, a quarter of a million people have died as a result (some counts, including indirectly caused deaths, put that higher), some 11 million have been displaced inside and outside Syria, terror has reached out to the streets of Paris and Brussels, and European and US politics have been convulsed. Famously, Assad deployed sarin gas in Damascus in 2013; chlorine and mustard gas continue to be used by government and sometimes other forces. All of this has been made worse by the insistence of Russia that Assad be retained in power. Though fire-eaters in the US would love to topple Assad and establish a more humane and representative government, Russia and Iran have made this much more difficult.
Russia ought to be viewed as waging a short-of-war conflict on its neighbors and on their partners in NATO, through the sheer scale and audacity of its propaganda, directed inward and outward, through its uncivilized campaign to intimidate diplomats, and through actual use of force in the Ukraine. The top US military officer in Europe warned that even NATO members must be prepared for the mix of propaganda, proxy war, and unacknowledged, non-uniformed military operations (like the seizure of the Crimea) that he called “hybrid war.” It is necessary to understand Russian intervention in Syria in light of this opposition in Europe, and in terms of strengthening ties with two of Russia’s few remaining allies outside the old Soviet orbit.
What are US aims here? Ambassador Powers is a proponent of a duty to protect populations under threat of mass murder, like Rwandans in 1994, or Yazidis in 2015. Another aim might be to enforce norms against the use of chemical weapons, or intentional bombardment of civilian targets. The President “came to believe that only a handful of threats in the Middle East conceivably warranted direct U.S. military intervention. These included the threat posed by al‑Qaeda; threats to the continued existence of Israel…and, not unrelated to Israel’s security, the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran. The danger to the United States posed by the Assad regime did not rise to the level of these challenges.” In the years since, the President formed a coalition to combat ISIL, and has pushed for a political solution without Assad in power. Though in 2013, Russian inter-mediation allowed the peaceable removal of much of Syria’s stockpile, it also decisively forestalled action by the US and other governments against Assad. If Russia has gained its goal of preserving Assad’s life, it has also ensured that there is scope for more and more radical rebel groups to coalesce, and made space for the conquest of much of Syria and of Mosul.
Indeed, this conflict threatens the integrity of the Atlantic alliance. Turkey occasionally shells American proxies, and is itself veering away from the democracy espoused by its allies. The Kurdish problem, and the authoritarian turn in Ankara are not of recent vintage, but Turkey’s internal problems would not be so severe were it not for the challenges presented by the nearby civil war and a nascent, belligerent Kurdistan.
We must make no mistake: this tangle of loyalties and dependencies made the President’s aspirations more difficult to attain, certainly more difficult than his detractors with respect to either the Iranian nuclear pact or his slow escalation in Iraq and Syria give him credit for.
To spell it out: taking a harder line on Iranian arms could prompt Iran to pump more resources into Assad’s struggle, to the hurt of American interests in Syria and what would be Kurdistan. Worse, Iran’s proxies in Baghdad could be given the tools to fracture the equilibrium there. This would leave Iran with a failed state on its border - albeit one with a Shia majority in the zone near Iran - but the US with even less to show for its invasion and reconstruction of Iraq.
An important juncture in the talks over the Iranian nuclear program took place just as Assad traipsed over the red lines in question. Russia’s role in the Iranian negotiations - as a party friendlier to Iran, and an acceptable guarantor of the security of some Iranian nuclear materials - ran parallel to its role as Assad’s second ally, and broker of the deal that, putatively, removed Assad’s arsenal of chemical weapons, before he could continue to use them, or fanatics could transship them towards, say, Cairo or Budapest. Rouhaini was newly in office in fall 2013; his later public statements about Assad likely reflect what US negotiators already understood about Iranian interests.
Russia could continue to flex its muscles in Ukraine or against the Baltic states, or send bombers on aggressive flights about Europe; whether bullying Sweden or threatening Denmark, Russia has shown a willingness to pressure Western countries if it is displeased by them. If the US were to impose a true no-fly zone over Syria, in the tradition of the long, intermittent and undeclared war from ‘92 to ‘03, it would put American (and other NATO) jets in the way of Russian pilots, with all of the ramifications for NATO members and the conflict in Ukraine, that might come with that. Not long ago, a US airstrike mistakenly hit a Syrian army position, threatening a painfully-negotiated ceasefire, and with it the security of aid convoys to Aleppo.
But Russia did not intervene directly until September 2015, a year after the President’s launch of the Coalition to Counter ISIL; before that, US, British and Arabian jets could have closed Syrian airspace, and foreclosed it to Russian intervention: it would be the Russians who, in using their base in Tartus, ran a gauntlet of fomenting great-power war. That opportunity is long past.
What then? One possibility is withdrawal. We are told that we have borne too much responsibility, that others do not “pay their fair share.” A survey of NATO’s commitments to our Afghan adventure will make clear the ingratitude of those words, even if we could wish some defense budgets were higher. To fail to appreciate the effect on our friends in Eastern Europe, or on those who would do them harm, is ignorance or cowardice. Another is to muddle through, and continue to tackle these problems piecemeal, patching together peace and security, or at least medical aid as best we can; that may be the best we can really do.
But Russia and Iran make no bones about a foreign policy aim of frustrating ours. A more forthright appraisal of the problems posed by an active, if not exactly resurgent, Russia, might make it easier to formulate and to achieve our objectives in Europe and the Middle East. Because Russia has repeatedly stolen a march on our objectives, their energies are largely spent: they only have one aircraft carrier to send to Syria, and not for very long. If our engagements with Russia, Iran and Syria can be successively used as leverage against our aims, so can Russia’s interests be used against it. The aim would not be to score points or antagonize, and certainly not to foment a direct conflict, but to press for an agreeable balance, in line with a real correlation of forces, economic and cultural as well as military.