The United States cannot allow Russia to take the lead in Syria

The United States cannot allow Russia to take the lead in Syria
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Welcoming Syrian President Bashar Assad to Sochi this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin noted he was “pleased” with the way things were turning out in Syria. With the Islamic State in retreat and the Assad regime in control of most of the country, Russia has now realized the main objectives of its military intervention. It has propped up Assad, blocked U.S. efforts at regime change, showcased its newest weapons, and reestablished itself as a player in the Middle East, all while the United States looked on.

As a result of U.S. support for the Kurdish-controlled Syrian Democratic Forces in the fight against the Islamic State, Putin has also achieved an unanticipated windfall: a wedge to hammer between NATO members Turkey and the United States. In the span of less than two years, Russia has gone from having an aircraft shot down by Turkey to selling Ankara its top end S-400 air defense system, likely in an effort to protect regime assets against American F-16s. Finally, by bombing the civilian population in Syria and forcing more refugees into Europe, the Kremlin has helped fuel a European nationalist backlash against migrants, an explicit strategic goal of Putin’s advisors.

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This success gives Putin an opening to declare his mission accomplished before Russia’s presidential campaign gets underway in 2018. By then, the Kremlin will almost certainly have removed the bulk of Russia’s regular troops from Syria, leaving behind a residual counterinsurgency force along with some aircraft at the Hmeymim airfield and a naval presence at the port of Tartus. Most of Russia’s forces will likely transition to private contractors from the Wagner Group, a paramilitary company financed by one of Putin’s longtime associates (the same individual who stands behind the now infamous Internet Research Agency that trolled the 2016 U.S. election). This remaining force will perpetuate Russia’s powerbroker status in the Middle East. Countries such as Turkey, Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iraq will have to court Moscow, as we have already seen, to influence events in Syria or in an effort to check Iran’s growing power.

Iran is central to Russia’s strategy in the region. Russia’s military intervention was coordinated and executed with Tehran at the highest levels, and at the tactical and operational level Russian Spetsnaz also worked closely with Iran’s Quds Force, including in the operation to take Aleppo. Iran’s growing strength grants Moscow leverage with other countries in the region because it is the only power with sufficient boots on the ground to be capable of checking Iranian influence in Syria, although its ability to do so may decrease the more Assad consolidates power and as Russia’s military footprint shrinks. That is one reason why Russia covets control over the oil-rich region of southern Syria around Deir Ezzor. Moscow wants access to natural resources but also the ability to serve as a geopolitical gatekeeper along a Shia corridor from Iran to Lebanon, since this boosts its standing.

The key next step for Russia is to try to entice the United States into a negotiation on Syria’s political future. While Russia will not and likely cannot compel Assad to step down, the Kremlin needs the pretense of a negotiation on a transition to finally breathe life into the cooperation it so desperately wants with the Trump administration. The recent summit between Putin, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Sochi sought to outline a common framework for Syria’s political future that can be discussed with the United States and other countries.

In Sochi, Putin likely agreed to some checks on Kurdish power in northern Syria in return for a tacit acknowledgement from Erdoğan that Assad isn’t going anywhere soon. But the crown jewel for Putin is to get President Trump involved in this diplomatic process, so he can change the narrative in the United States from one where Russia is seen as a revanchist power that invaded Ukraine, annihilated Aleppo, and meddled in the election to one where Russia is seen a peacemaker in the Middle East and ally in the fight against terrorism.

Since the Kremlin makes for a terrible counterterrorism partner in Syria or elsewhere, since its interests are opposed to ours as I recently testified, the administration and Congress must staunchly resist Putin’s efforts to recast Moscow’s role and whitewash the atrocities Russian forces have committed. That does not mean the United States should stop talking to Russian envoys about Syria. But it does mean resisting the urge among some administration officials to chase after Moscow in search of an illusory “political transition.” Moscow is too skilled at kicking the can down the road for there to be any hope that Assad will ever be shunted aside.

Recognizing the limited leverage the United States has over Russia in Syria, the administration should start by taking a hard look at our frayed relations with Turkey. Heightened tensions with Ankara weaken NATO solidarity and play right into Moscow’s hands. With the operation against Islamic State in Raqqa largely concluded, new opportunities may emerge to reset bilateral relations with Turkey and repair badly ruptured ties along the axis of Ankara, Erbil and Baghdad.

This requires cutting off the supply of weapons to groups directly affiliated with the PKK, designated a terrorist organization by the Untied States, but without forsaking the rights of Kurds in Syria, Iraq and Turkey. None of this will be easy, but more diplomatic efforts are required than we have seen expended by this administration so far. Now is not the time for golfing or tweeting about petty matters. Russia and Iran are rapidly gaining influence across the Middle East, and strong U.S. leadership is needed now more than ever.

Michael Carpenter, Ph.D., is senior director of the Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania and nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He previously served as deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Defense and director for Russia at the National Security Council under President Obama.