by Paul R. Pillar
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appears to be trying to follow the sound advice of Ted Galen Carpenter in letting Russia take primary responsibility for handling the tar baby known as Syria. Tillerson reportedly told United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres that the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad rests with his principal foreign backer, Russia, and that U.S. involvement in Syria is focused just on defeat of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS or IS). Of course, even if this reporting accurately reflects Tillerson’s inclinations, there is no guarantee that his president will move in the same direction. Syria could be another issue on which, like the dispute between Qatar and some of its Arab neighbors, the secretary of state tries to do one thing while President Donald Trump is doing and saying something much different.
Regardless of the extent of disarray in the Trump administration, the reasons to defer to Russia regarding Syria’s political future are sound. Syria continues to be a no-good-solution problem in which whoever is out front in trying to solve it is likely to earn more trouble and more enemies, rather than plaudits, for his efforts. The United States does not have any significant interest in the future distribution of political power in Syria. Russia, by contrast, has a greater interest, with the Assad regime being a longtime client and Syria being Russia’s only significant foothold in the Middle East. As for IS, Russian and U.S. interests are more parallel than conflictual. Defeat of the group is in the interests of both, as well as being in the interests of Iran. With Assad vowing to retake control of every inch of Syrian territory, let his patron Russia figure out what that means, what it should mean, and what it means if, as is likely, that vow is never realized even after the IS mini-state is extinguished.
Back in Washington, the main impediment to clear thinking about these issues is the tendency to assume that the United States must actively oppose in Syria whatever is in the interests of the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies. Some of those taking this stance, such as Dennis Ross, make the partially valid point that the Assad regime is part of what Sunni extremists of the IS ilk hate. But no regime-changing alternative is in sight that would point to a satisfactory conclusion. Moreover, the half century of Assads being in power and the six years of civil warfare in Syria demonstrate that it has been the warfare, not the existence of the regime, that has given extremism the opportunity to grow into anything like IS. The United States needs to participate at any table, in Geneva or Astana or elsewhere, where de-escalating the war is the objective. Its participation should not be predicated on any one political Syrian future or on diminishing Russian or Iranian influence in the country to any one level.
Regarding Trump’s first meeting with Vladimir Putin, there is understandably much trepidation, not least of all among Trump’s aides, about how the real estate developer will fare against the wily and experienced Russian president. It is not reassuring to hear U.S. National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster say that Trump is going into the meeting with “no specific agenda.” If Trump could be coaxed to do some strategic thinking, and to marry that with shrewd tactics and his self-image as a deal-maker, framing the Syria issue advantageously should be at the center of those thoughts. Too much American discourse about issues between the United States and Russia has treated Syria in terms of what sort of cooperation the United States can get out of Russia. Putin will take advantage of that perspective and treat any cooperation on Syria as a concession on his part that should earn Russia concessions in return on other issues.
That perspective is the wrong way for the United States to approach the Syria issue. Russia has more at stake in Syria than the United States does. The United States should treat Syria as a “give” rather than a “get.” The U.S. posture should be along the lines of what Tillerson reportedly told Guterres. The United States should offer to defer to Russia regarding post-IS political arrangements in Syria in return for which the United States expects Russian concessions and cooperation on other matters.
As to what those other matters should be, there is too much reason for continued Russian inflexibility on the issues of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, which have been at the center of east-west tensions and sanctions, to have hope of much movement on those subjects growing out of the discussions in Hamburg. But what is far, far more important to the United States than Syria, or than Crimea or Donbass for that matter, is the soundness and integrity of the U.S. democratic process.
So here’s the proposed deal. The United States, while continuing pursuit of the common interest of defeating IS, does not try to manipulate the internal political future of Syria and defers to Russia there instead. In return, Russia stops, completely, trying to manipulate the internal politics of the United States.
Of course, we all know what makes Donald Trump reluctant to address that latter issue honestly and squarely. Any discussion of Russian interference could call into question the legitimacy of Trump’s own election. (At least, that’s the part of Trump’s motivation that we know, notwithstanding any other motivations for giving Russia a pass on the issue that we do not yet know.)
But beating around the bush on this subject is an interest that Trump shares with Putin, who does not want to admit interference. That shared interest can be a basis for deft ways of presenting such a deal publicly. Language could be crafted, avoiding any stopped-beating-my-wife implications, that strongly declares a commitment on the part of both Russia and the United States not to interfere in each other’s domestic politics. Putin could continue to assert publicly that he is not guilty of any such interference in the past. Trump could continue to assert publicly that this is all just a matter of Democrats making excuses for their loss. But a real deal could be struck privately. And the rest of us can still look to Robert Mueller to uncover more of the truth eventually.
Photo: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin