Syria: U.S.-Russian Tepid War

Syria appears unlikely to serve as a vehicle to improve the wider U.S.-Russia relationship in any sustainable way. A U.S.-Russian Tepid War can still lead to plenty of collateral damage.

Notwithstanding President Vladimir Putin’s recent announcement that the “main part” of Russian forces would withdraw from Syria, the commencement of indirect talks in Geneva, and increasingly frequent contacts between Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Syria appears unlikely to serve as a vehicle to improve the wider U.S.-Russia relationship in any sustainable way. Setting aside outstanding differences between Washington and Moscow over the conflict and Syria’s political future, American elites probably will not view any realistic outcome as a success for the United States. This suggests that continuing tension may define U.S.-Russia relations for some time.

Yet, the U.S.-Russia confrontation over Syria also demonstrates something else. While neither the White House nor the Kremlin appears sufficiently interested in improving bilateral relations to re-evaluate its broader policy approaches, each also appears quite constrained in its pursuit of competition and confrontation in Syria and elsewhere. As a result, the current downturn in U.S.-Russia relations looks less like a new Cold War and more like a Tepid War—not too warm, not too cold, and as a result not too uncomfortable. Thus neither side is strongly motivated to look for a way out.

Consider how the United States and Russia might have approached the conflict in Syria during the Cold War. In that environment, Syria’s Assad dynasty might have been a not merely an important ally for Moscow in the Middle East, but the cornerstone of a regional military presence that threatened both U.S. allies in the region and NATO’s southern flank. Had Washington sensed an opportunity to oust the Assads, the United States would probably have intervened substantially—perhaps not directly, as America has been able to do in the post-Cold War period, but through extensive support for regional players seeking to topple the Syrian government in order to install a friendly regime.

This could have led Moscow to provide considerably more weapons to Damascus, without worrying about being paid, and possibly to intervene directly much sooner. Moreover, Russia’s intervention might have included large numbers of military advisors and possibly even Russian or proxy ground troops (beyond those provided by Iran and Hezbollah). For its part, the U.S. administration would not have debated arming and training the opposition for months stretching into years. On the contrary, Washington would probably have flooded Syria with anti-tank missiles and, more importantly, portable anti-aircraft missiles. In that situation, few in America’s foreign policy elite would insist on careful vetting of Syrian opposition forces—the United States would arm and train almost anyone prepared to fight (as in Afghanistan). Regional U.S. allies would have considerable influence in channeling this aid.

That this has not happened in Syria should make at least one thing clear: U.S.-Russian competition is too weak for either Washington or Moscow to see the war primarily as a U.S.-Russian dispute rather than a Syrian and regional problem. This does not mean that Syria isn’t important to the United States or to Russia—it is, for many well-known reasons. However, it does mean that U.S.-Russia relations is not the organizing principle underlying either U.S. or Russian policy in Syria, though some voices in each country have suggested that it should be. Instead, the Obama administration has assessed U.S. interests in Syria largely independently of bilateral relations and even resisted making it a bilateral issue. To the extent that the Kremlin has incorporated U.S.-Russia relations into its Syria policy, it has done so in a manner that looks perverse from a Cold War perspective, seeking to use the conflict to press for dialogue and possibly cooperation with America (while simultaneously scoring a few points by attempting to appear more decisive and effective than Washington).

Unfortunately for Syrians, a U.S.-Russian Tepid War can still lead to plenty of collateral damage—based not on what either is willing to do, but on what it is unwilling to do. The United States and Russia have somewhat less responsibility for these outcomes, since they have been somewhat less involved in creating them, but they are no less devastating to those directly affected.

A Tepid War can also damage important American and Russian national interests, as the current confrontation has already done. While the damage is limited in each specific situation—otherwise, it would be a Cold War or a Hot War—the cumulative impacts will grow steadily over time, like the costs to repair an old car that is too useful to discard but too expensive to replace. We may be able to keep driving the U.S.-Russia relationship for some time with modest costs when something goes wrong. Then again, one day the brakes or the steering might suddenly fail, leading to a high-speed collision.
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