The rivalry between the British Empire and Russia in Central Asia during the 19th century was referred to as "The Great Game". The British were concerned that the Russians had eyes on India and wanted to assert themselves in the region. The Russians wanted to have a foothold in a place it deemed important to its strategic interests. Conventional wisdom during much of this period was that this would lead to war between Russia and Great Britain. It did not, but there was an intense rivalry throughout most of the century.
There are those who see the dawn of a possible great game today between the United States and Russia beginning in Syria and perhaps spreading throughout parts of the Middle East. Persia during the Great Game era and Iran now was and is a key player in this drama. While history charts its own course, it is unlikely that we will see Russian ascendancy in the region, just as they never gained a foothold in the Indian subcontinent in the 19th century.
What Russia wants in Syria cannot be known for certain, but given its actions and the rhetoric of its modern day tsar, President Vladimir Putin, we can make an educated guess. There are three components to Russia's policy toward Syria and elsewhere: 1) in a kind of contemporary version of the Brezhnev Doctrine, Putin will fight to ensure Russia will not lose influence in Syria, and that influence is tied to the fate of the Assad regime; 2) Russia becomes nervous when it sees states crumble from within with what it believes to be the help of outside actors like the United States--e.g. what they believe is happening in Ukraine; and 3) Putin wants the world to know that Russia is back; it is a power that must be reckoned with and cannot be ignored.
Putin has trump cards, including a formidable military and most important a deadly nuclear arsenal. He has shown he is not afraid to use his military directly or behind the scenes with his "little green men" approach in Ukraine. There have also been veiled threats from Moscow over the possible use of nuclear weapons if Moscow feels it is pushed into a corner by the US and its allies. Putin wants a seat at the table with respect to the future of Syria.
The gathering storm Russia is facing is not a military threat from the United States or any other country. President Obama has said as much. The greatest threat is the decay and possible collapse of the Russian economy. Russia has lived off the sale of its resources. As the global economy softens, the demand for commodities lessens, and the future of Russia becomes more questionable. Russian institutions--economic and otherwise--are also decaying as their 1% strips the country for their own benefit leaving the ordinary Russian with the prospect of a dismal future.
What is to be done with respect to US reaction to increased Russian involvement in Syria? US military leaders view Russia as a great threat to US security interests. It is the job of those leaders to protect American interests abroad, so US policymakers should listen to their concerns. But that does not mean the US needs to gird itself for a war against Russia, engaging in a 21st century version of a great game.
What we do need to do is define and declare specifically what our interests are in Syria and the region so that Russia and other nations understand them. At the same time, we need to make it clear that we will protect and pursue those interests using non-lethal means wherever possible, but lethal means where all else fails. This does not require tough rhetoric, and the US should pursue diplomacy on its terms. This can include Russia, but, our approach to Syria should not be determined by what Russia does or wants.
In the case of Syria, we have clear interests both humanitarian and strategic over the short and long term. The carnage the Syrian people have endured with over 250,000 killed and over 11 million refugees and internal displaced persons is a catastrophe that will take at least a generation to heal. We have a moral obligation to help these people.
We also have security concerns. The nations of the region are suffering from the chaos and destruction of the war. Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon cannot continue to carry the burden of war and refugees indefinitely without a solution on the horizon. The political vacuum that the war has created is being filled by groups whose goals are the antithesis of what the US and its allies stand for. ISIS, al-Nusra and its affiliates offer a dark future if there is no path to a political solution. Instead, for now, ISIS is offering its own political solution in Syria and Iraq. This threat may provide the one common denominator between Iran, Russia and Assad, and the US and its allies. No one wants to see it succeed.
The fight against ISIS offers the possibility of a path to a solution to the crisis however tenuous. The recently convened conference in Vienna designed to provide a way forward toward a political resolution to the Syrian crisis is different than the preceding Geneva conferences which shared the purpose but not the circumstances. In particular, the situation has deteriorated in Syria, and the Assad government is severely weakened since the Geneva conferences were convened. In addition, ISIS is much more of a force to be reckoned with as is al-Nusra. Perhaps most importantly, Iran has a seat at the table. There is no path forward toward a political settlement without their involvement, like it or not. Just as important, the US is playing a leading role in shaping the conference, which is key to protecting and promoting our goals and strategy.
While the US pursues a diplomatic solution, it is right to make sure everyone understands it will not refrain from fighting ISIS. The 50 military personnel in Syria put a fine point on continued US commitment to use lethal means to protect its interests. The clandestine effort to support Syrian rebels is another example of this. The US should also continue to allow weapons to go to friendly rebel groups so they can confront those who challenge them whether it is the Syrians, Russians or the Iranians and their proxies. There will not be a satisfactory political resolution unless those who are in the camp of the US and its allies are seen to be a legitimate force that cannot be ignored or denied a seat at the table.
Over the long term, a failure to find an acceptable solution to the crisis in Syria will severely undermine US interests in the Middle East and globally. US allies in the region could collapse under the weight of the war and the burgeoning growth of refugees. Terrorist groups could have a permanent safe haven in Syria from which to operate, hurting the US throughout the region and beyond, including in the homeland. Europe will suffer with an unabated flow of refugees to its shores, which will affect US economic, political and strategic interests.
The US may not be facing a 21st century great game, but it is facing an acute crisis in Syria and throughout the region that poses a threat to US national security. It must continue to ensure that rhetoric is followed by action, and while it should pursue a diplomatic path no matter how uncertain, it should not create false hope with unrealistic diplomatic pronouncements. Instead, it must be clear in defining its goals and steady in their pursuit.
That may mean making some uncomfortable choices as the President did the other day by sending special forces into Syria. It also means pursuing a diplomatic process that will not produce immediate or dramatic results. In addition, the case must be made and remade to the American people so they understand what the Administration is doing and why. There is too much at stake to do any less, great game or not.