What started with protests in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring turned into a civil war that ravaged a nation, displaced hundreds of thousands of people, and opened up a power vacuum that set the stage for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) expansion into Syria. Continued instability in Syria threatens both regional and international security. Russia’s recent involvement in the issue is a plot twist for the United States’ efforts to address the continuing violence there, but it is a twist the U.S. can use as an opportunity.
The United States has been chary of getting too engrossed in another war in the Middle East. After costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama has made it clear that he has no intention of sending ground troops to Syria. Rather, his primary plan to confront ISIS extremism has been to train moderate Syrian rebels and pursue an air campaign. Considering the growing presence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the region, it is apparent that this course of action is having little affect. While the international community has called for additional action, Russia has entered the conflict. Its government is willing and able to take initiative and address the conflict independently. If the United States is to retain any influence in the matter, it is imperative to reevaluate and adjust the country’s existing strategy in Syria.
The United States’ first step is to evaluate Russia’s policies and intentions. Following Russia’s 2014 invasion into Ukraine and subsequent annexation of Crimea in 2014, the European Union and United States imposed harsh sanctions that damaged Russia’s economy and weakened its geopolitical standing as a world power. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) reports persistently warn that Russia must pacify its actions, both in Ukraine and elsewhere. By intervening in Syria and confronting ISIS, Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to distract attention from the state’s aggression in Ukraine.
Moreover, Russia aims to reassert itself as a major world power. This is perhaps one of the most compelling explanations for the country’s recent actions in Syria. Russia’s economy has declined significantly, and the government’s logic seems to be that an effort to quell or end the Syrian conflict may earn Russia a reduction in sanctions. Reduced sanctions would signify increased acceptance and respect within the global decision and policy-making spheres.
It is important to note that the current strategic predicament that the United States faces does not lie in Russia’s presence in Syria, but rather in the country’s tactics. Few of Russia’s attacks thus far have hit ISIS. The targeted territories are largely held by those in opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. According to a map from the Institute for the Study of War, Russian airstrikes between September 30 and October 24 landed primarily on a rebel-controlled territory that borders the regime, and along the border between rebel and ISIS-controlled territory.
This is particularly frustrating for the United States. American efforts in Syria suggest that the U.S. government sees Assad’s removal from power as a key element of a successful campaign against ISIS. For Russia, ties with the Assad regime go back to the Cold War. A leadership change in Syria would seriously threaten Russia’s access to its naval facility in the Syrian city of Tartus and could symbolize the power of revolutions against authoritarian regimes. The conflicting strategies of the United States and Russia must be reconciled.
Given Russia’s strategic alliance with the Assad regime, is not surprising that its air strikes are appropriately located to prop up the government. Still, President Putin claims to be fighting ISIS in Syria. If the misalignment in Russian and American policy objectives persists, there is little hope that the any piece of the Syrian conflict will be resolved efficiently. To refocus Russia’s efforts on confronting the terrorist organization, the United States needs to find its bargaining chip – and fast.
Russia’s actions are arguably fueled by fear of the spread of Islamic radicalism, a long-standing alliance with the Assad regime, and the desire to regain influence in the Middle East. President Obama has stated, time and again, that the United States is not willing to fight the war against ISIS alone. In order for the U.S. to reach its goal of defeating ISIS, it must use Russia’s involvement in the region to its advantage. Though unwilling to put boots on the ground in Syria, the United States may have the power and the force necessary to impel Russia to do as it desires.
The United States wants help fighting ISIS, and Russia wants economic relief and a seat at the metaphorical table in global and Middle Eastern affairs. Both countries fear the spread of ISIS. Currently, Putin has a choice to make: Russia can continue to implement its existing policies in Syria, or it can work with the United States to confront ISIS. The latter option can provide each nation with a better chance of achieving its goals.
NATO can play a role in persuading Russia to change its policies. On October 6, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg rebuked Russia for its activities in Syria and violations of Turkish airspace. For NATO members, an attack on one is an attack on all. If Russia’s current activities persist, it is playing a risky game.
The United States and its allies, especially those in Europe, have the power to give Russia what it wants. Russia can cooperate with the United States’ strategy in Syria, or it can face further economic sanctions. Avoiding confrontation is not enough to ensure a solution to the current quagmire.
If Russian air strikes continue to harm United States-supported rebel strongholds in Syria, sanctions will intensify and further isolate Russia from international discussion. However, if Russia cooperates in fighting the Islamic State, the United States can collaborate with Russia in present and future global security deliberations while allowing current sanctions to decrease.
Russia has clout, to be sure, but Putin’s talk hyperbolizes the nation’s true power. The United States and other strong Western nations have the financial backing and international strength to convince Russia that it is in the nation’s best interests to cooperate with the United States-led coalition’s anti-ISIS efforts. Should Russia oblige, it is possible the United States will be willing to negotiate on the methods of political transition possible in Syria, including the question of Assad’s power.
Jaclyn Stutz is a Security Policy Studies student at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, studying transnational security threats and cyber security. She earned a BA in Global Studies from Carnegie Mellon University in 2014 and spent the following autumn teaching English in Madrid.