The United States is slowly reversing its stated policy toward Syria from a careful tolerance of Russia’s effort to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power, at least for the short term, to a combination of restricted missile attack and a call for his removal. At the heart of this sudden change was the attack on a terrorist-held area with chemical weapons that left many casualties among innocent civilians. Between the U.S. affirmation of Assad’s culpability for the attack and Syria’s denial, and in the absence of credible investigation, we will have to wait for a long time before we know what actually took place and who was responsible for this atrocious war crime. While the Syrian regime has demonstrated its will to use great brutality against opponents, without regard for innocent civilians being caught in the crossfire, it is a valid question to ask: “Why would Assad provoke the U.S. and the international community shortly after the U.S. administration stated that his removal from power was not a priority?”
Given the level of commitment Russia is making to its Syrian allies, the U.S. has a fine calculation to make. It is very hard to claim that vital U.S. interests in Syria are at stake and the defense of these interests justifies a showdown with Russia in the Middle East. In fact, U.S. policy in Syria has been fine-tuned to the interests of its regional allies: Israel and some members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), most particularly Saudi Arabia. Israel’s interest is to ensure that the situation in Syria does not disintegrate into a permanent chaos that would threaten its security. Although Israel has not counted the Assads among its friends, the Syrian border has not been an active threat to Israel since the 1973 war. But some of the possible alternatives to Assad may well be in the future, if given a chance. Saudi Arabia and some like-minded GCC states have been more interested in ousting President Assad as a means to curb Iranian westward expansion. Their miscalculated involvement in the Syrian revolt and their financing and arming certain extremist elements of the rebellion was detrimental to Syria’s chances of replicating the Tunisian and Egyptian experiences. Now, they want the U.S. to pick up the pieces.
Russia, on the other hand is determined not to lose an ally with whom it maintained a long history of relations. In fact, after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, Syria became Russia’s most valuable country to have access and geo-strategic relevance in the region. From this viewpoint, Russia’s national interests in Syria are stronger, and more immediate, than the U.S. interests, which are secondary at best. And just like the U.S. has friends and allies, who are keeping their hands very busy in Syria, so does Russia. Iran is a strong ally of Russia and is a major player in Syria. The Iranians view the survival of President Assad as a vital national security interest and a major part of their plan to project their power and influence all the way to the Mediterranean.
In addition to their clash of interests, there remains the great question for the United States and Russia: How would Syria look the morning after President Assad leaves power by force or voluntarily?
For Russia, this question is already answered by the long-standing philosophy of its foreign policy. Russia deals with the governments as they are and expresses no interest in molding them into a preferred form. It does not make a difference to the Russians if the government is a democracy or an authoritarian regime as long as it holds a seat in the United Nations. The U.S., on the contrary, has a long-standing foreign policy of promoting democratization and it has put this policy into action in many places, albeit often unsuccessfully. Also, this policy has been challenged by a double-standard of considering some despots as “more equal than others.”
The problem in Syria is that President Assad, despite his brutality, is challenged by people whose atrocities and the ideologies they espouse are more brutal and exceedingly dangerous for the region at large. It is unwise to assume that in every conflict there is a good side and a bad side. In the case of Syria, both sides are bad, and supporting either camp is morally repugnant. If the U.S. and Russia continue to back the opposite sides, there will be no winner in the foreseeable future and the only guaranteed result will be more torment to the innocent civilians who are held hostage by the warring parties. The only possible solution for this crisis is a political one, and this political solution can only be accomplished by the coordination and cooperation of Russia and the United States, within the legal framework of a United Nations Security Council mandate.
Abbas Kadhim is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. Twitter: @DrAbbasKadhim