Every week, a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Federiga BindiSenior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies
Yes, it should—and in doing so, it should learn from its past mistakes. The West intervened in Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It then intervened in Iraq, based on the supposed absolute certitude that former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Finally, it intervened to free Libya of the country’s strongman leader Muammar Qaddafi.
In all those cases, the West was deluded in thinking it could export democracy and human rights. On the contrary, the West’s failures opened the doors to the so-called Islamic State.
Russia must be on board for the international community to have a chance at stopping the Islamic State before it is too late. This primarily entails ending the Syrian Civil War. Time is short. The jihadists are advancing across the Southern Mediterranean. Investigations suggest that the Islamic State is directly managing the trafficking of migrants into Europe, using the illegal trade to send back radicalized young Europeans.
Together, the West and Russia can ensure a peaceful transition in #Syria.Tweet This
The West cannot afford to end the Syrian Civil War in the way it dealt with Libya or Iraq. Realism must once again rule in international relations: together, the West and Russia can reach a compromise to ensure a peaceful transition in Syria, including finding a safe haven for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Despite all the difficulties, the July 2015 Iran nuclear agreement is proof that the West and Russia can still cooperate together internationally—and that when they do, results are achieved.
Ian BondDirector of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform
The West has no choice but to work with Russia on Syria. As one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s main backers and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Moscow will participate in any diplomatic process.
The West has no choice but to work with #Russia on #Syria.Tweet This
But the West and Russia have irreconcilable objectives. The West has consistently but ineffectually tried to unseat Assad; Russia has propped him up, equally consistently but with more determination.
No doubt on the advice of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad has used Russia’s Chechen gambit: if your main opponents are reasonable men, kill them and replace them with blood-soaked Islamic militants; then tell the world your breed of mass murder is less of a threat than that of the militants. Not only has Assad largely refrained from attacking the self-proclaimed Islamic State, but he has even shared gas revenues with the group. Now Putin’s aid to Syria includes air defenses to threaten the Western-led coalition that is attacking the jihadists.
So is Russia really intending to work with the West to solve the Syrian crisis? Or is it just showing that it will disrupt Western efforts unless bought off—perhaps with sanctions relief or Western acquiescence in keeping Ukraine weak and divided? If the West falls for this trick, it should not be surprised to find even more refugees—Syrian or Ukrainian—on its doorstep soon.
Ian BremmerPresident and founder of Eurasia Group
It’s time to accept that Russia will play a larger and lasting role in the Middle East.
#Russia will play a larger and lasting role in the Middle East.Tweet This
The U.S. president’s Syria policy is a failure. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad survives and continues to violate international conventions. At least a quarter of a million Syrians have died since the country’s civil war began, refugees are on the move, and the self-styled Islamic State continues to attract new recruits. It’s the worst of all possible worlds.
The United States’ Russia policy is worse. The U.S. administration stumbled into conflict with Russia over Ukraine, a country that matters much more to Moscow than to Washington, and Russian President Vladimir Putin is now proving that Russia is too big to isolate.
Focus on the future. U.S. President Barack Obama’s primary Middle East commitment should be to destroy the Islamic State, the best-equipped, best-funded terrorist organization in history. The militant group threatens to destabilize countries across the Middle East. It’s attracting recruits and imitators around the world, filling refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, and flooding Europe with desperate migrants.
The Obama administration and the majority of the American people want to avoid sending U.S. troops back into Iraq, and the Islamic State can’t be destroyed from the air. Washington needs partners. NATO allies, Iran, Iraqi militias, and Russia all have good reason to want the Islamic State on its back. All will be needed.
Joerg ForbrigTransatlantic fellow for Central and Eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund of the United States
By massively boosting its military presence in Syria over recent weeks, Russia has created irreversible facts on the ground. It has done so to demonstrate that Russia reserves the right to be involved in resolving any conflict or crisis, wherever in the world it may occur. The Kremlin sees this indispensability—together with its sphere of influence, which is at the root of the Ukraine crisis—as a key ingredient that defines Russia as a global power.
Russia has effectively succeeded. As of now, a unilateral Western intervention in Syria like that in Libya in 2011 has become impossible, as it would risk a direct military confrontation between Russia and the West. Instead, the West will now have no choice but to accept the negotiation format, which Russian President Vladimir Putin will propose at the upcoming meeting of the UN General Assembly. The drawn-out process that is likely to follow will do nothing to ease the pain of Syrians but everything to safeguard the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
#Russia is determined to thwart Western conflict resolution efforts.Tweet This
Yet with its actions in Syria, Russia has shattered all the hopes that emerged in the wake of the July 2015 deal on Iran’s nuclear program. This global agreement had suggested that Russia might be a cooperative partner on conflicts outside its immediate neighborhood. Over time, such cooperation would serve as a confidence-building measure, eventually allowing for the joint resolution of conflicts closer to Russian borders, such as that in Ukraine. As is now obvious, Russia is determined to act as a spoiler, thwarting Western efforts at conflict resolution the world over.
In short, the question is no longer whether the West should work with Russia on Syria (or anywhere else). Instead, it is how the West can do so on anything other than Russia’s terms.
Florence Gaub and Nicu PopescuSenior analysts at the EU Institute for Security Studies
Given that the West has little appetite for a forceful unilateral intervention in Syria, the real question isn’t whether the West should work with Russia, but how, as no option is left other than negotiation. For peace negotiations to be successful, all stakeholders, of which Russia is one, need to be at the table—or the exercise leads back to square one.
#Russia believes the West wants too much in #Syria.Tweet This
The Russian notion is that the West wants too much in Syria—both the self-proclaimed Islamic State and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad out of the picture. Russia believes the West has to choose. But many in the West are convinced that removing Assad will ultimately deplete the Islamic State, killing two birds with one stone. This is handy because Russia has stated repeatedly that it is not married to Assad, only that it opposes regime change by revolution.
If the West and Russia can agree on the removal of Assad (but not all Assadists), that is an important starting point toward the trickier next phase: convincing the Syrian stakeholders that his departure is an acceptable alternative to ongoing war.
Kristina KauschHead of the Middle East and North Africa Program at FRIDE
Of course. As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s main provider, there is no way around Russia. Unfortunately, U.S. and European efforts to win Moscow’s support for a diplomatic solution have so far failed to change the geopolitical equation by providing a sufficient incentive for Moscow to stop fueling the conflict.
As #Assad's main provider, there is no way around #Russia.Tweet This
Unlike in the nuclear talks with Iran (now held up as a blueprint for forging a successful single-issue coalition among key players that otherwise disagree), on Syria, Russia pursues fundamentally different goals from the West and is prepared to use its full spoiler potential. Russia’s long-standing Middle East policy has been to counter Western influence through alliances with anti-Western regimes. These have now been either toppled or estranged from Russia—except the Assad regime.
For Moscow, keeping its foothold in Syria is about sustaining geopolitical claims in an embattled Middle East, preventing precedents of revolutionary regime change, containing Sunni extremist spillover into Russia, and, most importantly, containing Western influence in an international environment in which Moscow is now uncomfortably isolated.
The recent Russian military deployments in Syria suggest that the Kremlin is willing to use its leverage and exploit Western vulnerabilities on the Syria dossier to gain ground in its larger zero-sum battle with the United States, this time at Syria’s expense. The West must not fall for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s trap: as long as Syria’s choice is framed as the Islamic State versus Assad, both will prevail.
Marc PieriniVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
The Syrian tragedy has been going on for four and a half years, and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would have collapsed multiple times if it had not been for Russia’s (and Iran’s) direct support with ammunitions, spare parts, and advisers.
As the regime shows signs of exhaustion, Russian support is not going away; it is currently increasing, with more advisers and more sophisticated weapons. This reflects the long-standing political and military alliance between the Assads and Moscow, itself one essential pillar of Russia’s presence in the Middle East. The other pillar is Russia’s history of military cooperation with Egypt.
The West has no other choice but to work with #Russia—and with #Iran.Tweet This
As a consequence, the West has no other choice but to work with Russia—and with Iran, which has made a comeback on the Middle Eastern diplomatic scene after striking a major international deal on its nuclear program on July 14.
The issue is how to bridge the wide gap between the West and Russia on the fate of Bashar al-Assad himself. Most diplomats and experts from both sides agree that any political settlement needs to preserve the structures of the Syrian state and army. But, as long as Assad continues to indiscriminately pound civilians with barrel bombs, the West will have genuine difficulty in entertaining a discussion with Moscow—and Tehran.
Gianni RiottaMember of the Council on Foreign Relations
Yes. But is Russian President Vladimir Putin ready to play ball? The conflict in Syria now more closely resembles a plot from the TV series Game of Thrones than the immutable, glacial, frozen trenches of Cold War I. Friends and foes change overnight. Maps of the bombing patterns of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army and of the self-styled Islamic State reveal that the two sides rarely hit each other, as they both focus their fire on other rebel militias.
The conflict in #Syria now resembles a plot from #GameofThrones.Tweet This
Putin wants to keep his safe harbor at the Syrian coastal city of Latakia while having a bargaining chip on the table. He may bet on diplomacy and try to engage U.S. President Barack Obama in some kind of talks. But Putin is a tactician, never a strategist. So he will not wage war in the Middle East, a task too difficult for today’s Russia. Instead, he will brawl and flex his muscles, but mostly, he will wait and see what the United States and Europe do.
So what will they do? I wish I could pen an articulate answer full of innuendos and smart speculations. My guess, sadly, is that the Americans and Europeans will sit and talk, launch a few air strikes, and wait for the next wave of refugees.
Ulrich SpeckSenior fellow at the Transatlantic Academy
No. Working with Russia on Syria would be possible only if the West shared Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal: to keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power. Of course, Russia won’t say that—because the only way for Moscow to lure the West into cooperation is to pretend that Russia is ready to see Assad go.
Russia’s interest in Syria is to make several points: that Russia is a global player; that autocracy is legitimate; and that Russia is a trustworthy patron for countries with an anti-Western outlook. But the way to attract the West into cooperation is to pretend that Russia’s goal is to fight terrorism.
There is no common ground between the West and #Russia in #Syria.Tweet This
The Kremlin smells that the West may be about to fall, as the so-called Islamic State remains strong, as Europe’s refugee crisis challenges EU unity, and as Washington remains undecided over Syria. And some in the West seem to be falling indeed, keen to find common ground with a Russia that has appeared quite scary in recent months. Syria then becomes a tool to improve Western-Russian relations.
But there is no common ground between the West and Russia in Syria. Assad is the country’s biggest terrorist, systematically killing many more civilians than the Islamic State. Most refugees are fleeing Assad’s bombing and gassing. With Assad in power, war won’t end. Fighting the Islamic State will be possible only if Assad is gone. These are two sides of the same coin.
Paul StronskiSenior associate in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program
The loss of Syria to radical extremists is in neither the West’s nor Russia’s interests, so the obvious answer would be to work together. The problem, however, is that Moscow and Washington disagree over what to do with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Washington has long believed that Assad is the major problem in Syria and that Russian support for him is propping up a bloody regime, weakening moderate opposition forces, and fueling extremism.
Moscow, however, has long argued that the Assad regime is the only force preventing an extremist victory in Syria and that Washington’s democracy agenda is a cause of instability in the region. East-West cooperation on Syria has broken down in the past over these disagreements, and there is little indication that this has changed.
What has changed is the collapse of East-West relations over Ukraine, which makes cooperating with Russia even more difficult and immediately raises suspicions about what the Kremlin is up to with its recent deployment to Syria. That deployment could very well be Moscow’s last-ditch effort to prevent the Assad regime’s collapse.
Moscow has seen its influence in the Middle East wane under #Putin.Tweet This
Moscow has seen its influence in the Middle East wane under President Vladimir Putin, a problem for a leader who rhetorically claims to be restoring Russia’s great-power status. Moscow has had a close relationship with elements of the Assad regime for decades and increased that support after the 2011 Syrian uprising. The regime’s collapse would be an embarrassing blow for the Kremlin in the Middle East.
A grand coalition with Russia against the self-styled Islamic State would not necessarily be a bad idea. But the mechanics of creating that coalition would be complicated given the fundamental disagreement over the causes of instability in Syria and Russia’s limited ability (and, perhaps, willingness) to make a valuable contribution to the narrow military operations that the anti–Islamic State coalition is conducting. With Ukraine still simmering—at times forgotten—on slow boil, there will be plenty of pushback for any such move.
Perhaps the real question is whether Washington should be emulating the Russians and starting to create new, albeit limited, facts on the ground. A good place to start would be to gripe less about Moscow’s efforts and to start lending support to Turkey’s desire to create a new anti–Islamic State safe area inside Syria.
Nathalie TocciDeputy director of the Italian Institute of International Affairs
Working with Russia on Syria is by no means an easy proposition. Not only has Russia been steadfast in its support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but it has also recently decided to step up that support through direct military engagement. And yet there is no alternative to engaging with Russia—and, indeed, with Iran—be it to effectively counter the so-called Islamic State or to put an end to the bloodbath in Syria.
Working with #Russia on #Syria is by no means an easy proposition.Tweet This
Engagement with Russia is possible due to Moscow’s determined rejection of the Islamic State and conviction that only a political solution can put an end to the Syrian Civil War. But meaningful engagement presupposes setting to one side the “Assad in or out” dichotomy, which has paralyzed international diplomacy for five long years.
The original idea of the UN special envoy for the Syrian crisis, Staffan de Mistura, to build peace bottom up by concentrating on local ceasefires was correct. It is unfortunate that this overall approach has been dismissed because it has foundered in Aleppo. After all, the West is far more likely to develop meaningful engagement with Russia—as well as with Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey—from the bottom up than as part of another effort at top-down reconciliation, as is currently being pursued.
Pierre VimontSenior associate at Carnegie Europe
With Russia’s increased military involvement in Syria, it tends to be forgotten that Russia’s presence and influence in Syria is not new and has even been useful in the past. The role played by Moscow in 2013 in reaching an agreement on the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons helped Western nations get off the hook.
Today in #Syria, the dynamic of war is prevailing over diplomacy.Tweet This
Today in Syria, the dynamic of war is prevailing over diplomacy in spite of the abundant lip service being paid to a political solution as the only way out. Indeed, all actors involved in this conflict keep on feeding a military escalation. With Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army currently on the defensive, Russian intervention may well end up being another effort to stop the Syrian army from progressively losing control.
Yet the West may have a window of opportunity for diplomacy and should seize it. The refugee crisis has led to a situation that Europe evidently doesn’t know how to handle. This makes it even more necessary to look at the root causes of migratory pressures. Following the July 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, some new form of cooperation in the Middle East—even if fraught with many difficulties—is also a possibility that should not be missed.
Could this not be the right moment to convince Russia to join efforts and push for an end to the Syrian conflict and maybe other current crises in the region? After all, both sides have a genuine interest in bringing stability back to the Middle East.