Russia's sudden, invigorated military posture in Syria has set Western foreign policy pundits on their collective ear. President Vladimir Putin, they say, is further reigniting a cold war with the West, attempting to distract the world from his misdeeds in Ukraine, aggressively reinforcing Russia's strategic military posture in the eastern Mediterranean, blatantly propping up a repressive client regime in Damascus under the guise of global counter-terrorism, and supplanting U.S. leadership in the Middle East in the bargain.
It's true: Putin is doing all of those things, to one degree or another. But we should ignore the reflexive caterwauling of the pundits long enough to take account of the fact that Putin actually is doing U.S. policy a great favor.
To understand why this is so, one must confront the fundamental ambivalence at the heart of American policy in Syria. Yes, the Obama administration is opposed to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and loudly excoriates the efforts of Iran and Russia to support it. It correctly sees Assad's departure as a necessary element in any solution to the crisis. But at the same time, it refuses to directly attack the regime, confining its air strikes to ISIS and, occasionally, other Islamist targets.
And while the U.S. government has made no secret of its desire to identify and support relatively moderate, secular forces as a counterweight both to the regime and to the Islamists who are its most effective opponents, it has quixotically tried to limit that support to those moderates who share its preoccupation with Islamic extremism over opposition to Assad. At present, such allies are confined to the Syrian Kurds and a handful of tribalists in the eastern Syrian desert. Despite stated American policy, and with very few exceptions, those relatively moderate, indigenous forces focused on forcibly overthrowing the Assad regime, willing as most of them are to make common cause with the Islamists, are finding no friend in America.
The reason for this apparent contradiction in American policy is not hard to fathom. Early on, it was driven by the administration's fear of inadvertently aiding the radical Islamists. But now, things have gone much further. We are well past the point where there is any legitimate hope of a coherent, organized secular political force on the ground, outside the Syrian state structure itself, which is capable of confronting either ISIS or the other Sunni extremist groups -- Jabhat al-Nusra and the rest, benign only in comparison with ISIS -- who collectively constitute by far the most capable elements among the Syrian opposition. The inconvenient fact is that if Assad were to fall immediately, Sunni Islamic extremists of a variety of stripes would have the whip hand in Syria, and the world would confront the prospect of a multi-faceted, semi-permanent terrorist safe haven in the heart of the Middle East, with no indigenous force capable of opposing it.
Nor are our legitimate concerns confined to geopolitics. The dissolution of the Syrian state would produce chaos on a scale to make Libya seem a model of stability. Among other things worth considering is that near the top of the extremists' post-Assad agenda would be to eliminate the Alawites and what remains of Syria's other minorities. The resulting bloodbath and accompanying refugee flows would make the current humanitarian disaster in Syria -- already the worst the world has seen since World War II -- still much, much worse.
Thus, beneath its carefully coded language, what the White House is really saying is that Assad must go -- but not right now. Far from seeking Assad's outright departure, the administration holds out for a "negotiated transition" of power. Making a distinction between the regime and the state, it wishes to see the former replaced while the latter is preserved. But like many ideal solutions, this one relies on a form of magical thinking.
The fact is that Bashar Assad has inherited from his father a state system utterly reliant upon his regime. The ingenious dysfunction at the heart of the Syrian political system was intentionally created to ensure that if the Assads were removed, the entire state edifice would fall with them. Those reliant on the state -- including not just Alawites, Druze and other minorities, but many Sunnis -- understand this very well. Few are enamored of Bashar, but he is all that stands between them and the tender mercies of an opposition effectively dominated by Islamic extremists on the one hand, and the rampant thuggery of many of the less well-organized "moderates," on the other. Absent Bashar's complicity in his own political demise -- and perhaps not even then -- an orderly, negotiated transition of power is not possible. And in any case, Assad has shown no willingness to leave.
If that were not sufficiently daunting, most of America's allies in the region -- principally Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar -- to say nothing of its would-be allies in Syria, do not share its priorities. Key Sunni powers may harbor long-term concerns about ISIS, but they believe that toppling Assad must take precedence. Impatient with U.S. equivocation, they are willing to support those in Syria whom the Americans will not.
These circumstances leave the U.S. clinging to a policy, however high-minded and far-sighted, which it has no means of implementing. American strategy is based on wishful thinking, and its actions have largely been reduced to a complicated form of moral posturing.
Into that scene, enter Russia: In sharp contrast to the exquisite ambivalence of the Americans, Russia's reinforced entry into the Syrian military fray is a model of clarity and coherence. Confronted with a struggle increasingly seen by regional powers through the prism of Sunni-Shiite rivalry, Putin has come in unambiguously on the Shiite side, declaring an axis of cooperation among Moscow, Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus and, tacitly, Hizballah. There is of course a large element of cant and mendacity in his claim to be primarily preoccupied with the defeat of ISIS, but he also has logic on his side: If there is no hope of confronting the radical Islamist ascendancy in Syria without preservation of the Syrian state, and if the state cannot survive without Assad, then preservation of the Assad regime becomes a counter-terrorism necessity, and those who oppose it de facto terrorist supporters.
The butcher of Chechnya will lose little sleep over barrel bombs and massive refugee outflows, which are a Western and regional problem anyway. Russia's geo-strategic interests, great-power pretensions, and desire to confront several thousand Chechen and Central Asian extremists in Syria, rather than closer to home, all seem to militate in favor of Putin's current course -- for now. But the future will not be smooth. Putin has signaled as much by trying to forge a broader, cross-confessional regional alliance. He has tried to court the Saudis, and has sent his emissaries to the Syrian Kurds.
But is it unlikely that greater brutality, Russian airstrikes, and more Shiite fighters from Iraq will finally subdue Assad's domestic enemies, or that the Russian president's steel-toothed charm will suffice to win over the regional powers who support them, given their perceived interests. It is far more likely that Putin will find himself trapped in an open-ended Syrian civil war at best, or beset on all sides as the protector of a besieged Syrian rump state at worst. The alternative of ignominious withdrawal will not appeal to him at all.
If and when he gets to that point, Putin is far more likely to perceive a common interest with the U.S. in a negotiated solution than he does at present. Moreover, he will be in a far better position than we are to deal with regime factions and stakeholders in arranging for the Assads' facilitated departure, and to help broker some sort of loose, decentralized governing coalition, to include relatively more responsible elements of the opposition. He will not get there willingly, but the smart betting is that he will get there. It is also not clear that the Russians can produce a smooth transition of power, even if they are motivated to try. But the chances are much greater with them than without them.
In the meantime, the U.S. should not passively wait for nature to take its course. We should redouble efforts to confront ISIS through support of Kurdish and Sunni tribal elements, despite the regional political challenges in doing so, and to be prepared to exercise influence to discourage their own abuses. We should be speaking to as many elements on the ground as possible, including the Iranians, and to expand support to those anti-Assad groups reportedly receiving assistance from the CIA. With the Russians in place, we can do so with less fear of catastrophic success.
Above all, we should not leave our Syrian allies, and others, to make invidious comparisons between Russian and U.S. patronage. Missiles supplied to these groups have been effective against Russian-supplied armor; should Russian airstrikes against them continue, anti-aircraft assistance should likewise be on the table. Paradoxically, anything done to make the military status quo less comfortable for the Russians will aid in bringing the bloodshed to an end.
More broadly, we must deal with the facts as they are, not as we wish them to be, and seize the opportunities which arise from seemingly unwelcome developments. We should avoid the trap of seeing Russian involvement in Syria solely through the prism of our bilateral rivalry. The Russians can do things in ultimate furtherance of American policy aims that we cannot do ourselves. In short, we should recognize a gift when it is proffered, even if it is well-disguised, and even if it comes from Russia.