global politics, relationally

Russia and Syria: Let’s You and Them Fight

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My friend and fellow blogger Brandon Valeriano is a much better security studies scholar than I am. He’s written a great piece today about Russia’s involvement in Syria, and in particular how unimpressive that involvement is so far relative to the breathless hyperbole appearing in the American press.

Some of this, of course, is press coverage in the context of an American presidential race. Republican candidates, none of whom have any credentials on foreign policy, are swift to criticize the Obama administration for making the US “look weak” and for “capitulating” to Russia. The narrative of Russia’s involvement in the Syrian war plays into that fable well, and helps win votes from tribal Republicans. It has no bearing on reality, but neither does most of the rest of the campaign. For those of us interested in the world as it is, we can safely ignore the three-ring circus and look instead to what we already know about international conflict and what that might tell us about the US-Russia strategic balance.

Brandon started us out with an excellent point: the “flexing of Russian muscle” in Syria is far less than impressive. Some of their cruise missiles appear to have hit the wrong country (oops!), and their primary achievement so far has been not shooting their own soldiers. Folks are hyperventilating about Russia’s ability to move 2000 troops less than 700 miles in a mere three weeks. Recall that at the start of Operation Desert Shield the US moved 30,000 troops to Iraq (considerably farther than 700 miles) in two weeks. So really, what we’re seeing here from the Russian military is small potatoes.

Issues of timing and numbers aside, the pundits and politicians are making a serious assumption: that Russia’s involvement in Syria is strategically bad for the United States. No one has explained why or offered any defense of this proposition, so in the interest of starting a conversation I’m going to call it into question. Put simply, I don’t believe it.

First, let’s define a few terms and conditions. I will assume for the sake of this argument that Russia is a strategic competitor to the United States. I will further assume that Russia’s power is at a level significant enough that marginal changes in the US-Russia power balance (such as might be effected by involvement in a regional or local conflict) might actually matter to the overall strategic relationship. Both of these are questionable assumptions, but for our purposes here we’ll use these as a starting point.

The US has strategic interests and goals in Syria. On the overall priority list of US foreign policy objectives, Syria is at best in the middle of the list. Ukraine, relations with China, the relationship with Iran – all of these are arguably more important. So Syria is more important than, say, South Sudan, but less important than some of the other issues on the table. But we’ll set that aside and presume that Syria is important enough to be worth some consideration.

The primary interest of the US is in the outcome of the Syrian civil war. Simplifying as far as possible, that interest looks like this:

Democratic, West-leaning Syria > Assad-run Syria > ISIS-run Syria

The first outcome, while official US policy, is pure fantasy. Even a massive commitment of US resources far in excess of what we’ve been willing to do in Afghanistan or Iraq would not guarantee that outcome; it may be entirely impossible, at least within the next generation. And though GOP presidential candidates don’t want to admit it in public, a war-torn Syria under Assad is preferable to a Syria entirely dominated by an Islamic State that forces the world to recognize it as a real player.

Russia, of course, has a different set of preferences. They would likely flip the first two on the list above. But they have no love for ISIS either. They don’t mind running over some of the other anti-Assad factions since their goal is to prop up Assad. But on this one point (that ISIS is at the bottom of everybody’s preferences) their interests and our interests are aligned.

Given this partial confluence of strategic interests, why is it a bad thing (from the US perspective) for Russia to be spending its blood and treasure in Syria? At worst (or best), they end up being more effective than we have in weakening the Daesh/ISIS movement to the point where it can be defeated or  driven underground. That would allow the US and its “friends” in the Iraqi government and Iraqi Kurdistan to do the same from the other side of the border, effectively eliminating the Islamic State insurgency. Under that scenario, we would have achieved a major strategic objective in the Middle East and gotten Russia to pay for a big chunk of it!

On the other hand, we also know that great power involvement in local insurgencies often doesn’t end well for the great power. Russia’s involvement in Afghanistan and American involvement in Vietnam are two examples. By some counts, there have been roughly a dozen cases since WWII of great powers fighting against insurgencies in foreign lands. In those cases, the great power arguably won only once (Great Britain in Malaysia) and it took them a dozen years. The ineffectiveness of large, “powerful” militaries against asymmetric forces is a well-known problem within the US military.

Given this reality, it seems far more likely that rather than secure a quick victory in favor of Assad, Russia will get bogged down in a nasty war which it can’t win and which it can’t easily extract itself from without a serious loss of prestige and influence. This war will cost Russia resources in money, equipment, and lives, and it may over time make things difficult for Vladimir Putin at home (as the Afghan war eventually did for Gorbachev, even under a far more controlled political environment). As my friend and fellow blogger Steve Saideman has pointed out, there are no good options for anybody in Syria. If we accept that Russia is a strategic competitor to the United States, this again does not seem like a bad thing from our side of the Atlantic.

There is likely some dimension of this situation I’m not yet seeing. I’m sure that smarter minds more versed in security studies will see things from other angles that may add complexity to this picture. This is admittedly a very rough-and-ready analysis. Yet at first blush, it appears that from a strategic point of view the United States should be welcoming Russian involvement in Syria. Heads, we win; tails, they lose. I’m not going to lose much sleep over it, whatever the pontificators may say.