We should all retain a hefty dose of skepticism whenever someone uses the words “Syria” and “peace” in a sentence. Having becoming the world’s geopolitically favored proxy battleground, Syria’s civil war may not stop upon the say-so of Washington and Moscow.
There is, of course, the intractable and resolutely murderous Islamic State, whose entire recruitment strategy hinges upon more extreme human outrages. Yet they are much more easily contained than the ranks of jihadists now clustered amongst the husk that is the Free Syrian Army. At least IS has bothered with trying to set up borders; formerly Al Qaeda branch al-Nusra is mingled among American, Gulf Arab and Turkish proxies. Will they play nice just because the Americans and Russians say so?
But really, it’s the wider scene that warrants attention. We’ve learned a lot about American and Russian priorities through this deal. Let’s take a closer look.
First, the breakdown: the short term, the medium term and the long term
It took a great deal of effort, energy and risk for both powers to work this thing out. Both had reasons for doing so, branching out across time like ripples across a pond.
The short-term stuff is aimed at the 24-hour news cycle that most politicians live in. For the Obama Administration, that’s January 19, 2017: the last day of his presidency. For Vladimir Putin, it’s March 11, 2018, the first round of Russia’s presidential elections.
The medium-term stuff differs for each side. For the Obama Administration, it’s the first term of the next president, which they doubtless presume will be Hillary Clinton (the polls tend to agree). For Putin, it’s the presidential term following the 2018 election, which he doubtless presumes will be him.
The long term is where the two sides really stray apart. The timeline isn’t what’s so different: for both its the dimly-lit 2020s and 2030s. According to the Hofstede center (and borne out by my own personal experience), Americans are superbly bad at long-term planning. As a nation state, they zigzag and meander strategically, like an unconcerned colossus trampling through the woods at night.
The Russians, however, are much better long-term planners, both as a culture and a state. This is partially the result of the fragility of the Russian political and economic system: You tend to plan more when the things you need the most are also the least reliable. While Americans have often just fallen into wealth and power, Russians have historically had to fight, scheme and manipulate to scrape their great-power status out of a tough geographical spot.
So let’s see what each side wants.
The short term: Obama wants to avoid being George W. Bush and Putin wants to look like he kept Russia in Syria
Barack Obama’s second term is rapidly coming to a close and legacy is obviously on his mind. He desperately does not want to go down in history as a George W. Bush redux, spurring chaos and leaving behind wars, graves and a legacy so toxic that, even in the age of Trump, Republicans are wary of bringing the former president up.
He has a fair few foreign policy success stories: Cuba’s opening, the Iran nuclear deal, the killing of Osama bin Laden. But there are skeletons as well: Libya’s civil war, the failure to crush the Taliban in Afghanistan and, of course, the Syrian Civil War and the rise of the Islamic State.
This festering sore upon Obama’s legacy demands action, as much as the president can muster. That isn’t much these days: few presidents dare to take on a war at the end of their final term. Bill Clinton did in Kosovo in 1999, but that was a relatively low-risk affair with a relatively clean outcome. To start a war is to risk their historical legacy. Either a new president wins it and gets all the credit or a new president loses it and blames the prior administration.
Thus Obama and his foreign-policy team, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, have long fished around for a diplomatic solution to the Syrian Civil War. As the hours have ticked down on his term, Obama has given up on pushing Bashar Assad out of power. A “transition” is now emphasized, with Assadists remaining presumably the bulk of the recognized government. Now he is content with preventing an accidental war with Russia and an inescapable quagmire in Syria. “He kept us out of Syria” may well be the best he can salvage from this situation.
Putin also has his eyes on legacy as well as an upcoming election. Crooked though Russian democracy is, a strongman is only strong so long as he can flex his muscles. Putin could never have tolerated allowing a rebel force storm Tartus, the site of Russia’s only naval base outside the former Soviet Union. This, and a desire to prove Russia can project power beyond the ex-USSR, is what caused him to double down on Assad. When Assad appeared ready to collapse, he threw in yet more Russian power. Hardly without cost: at least twenty Russian soldiers have died and some equipment has been lost in battle.
Yet the Russian electorate is willing to accept those losses should it allow their leader to appear to be powerful and capable. Russian culture overwhelmingly devalues the Hofstede measure of indulgence: that is, they simply don’t care as much about life’s pleasures. To suffer is acceptable, especially in the pursuit of larger goals. Casualties have a far different electoral affect in Russia than the United States.
That being said, there are natural limits to Russian power. To deploy too much in Syria is to risk an Afghanistan redux: a marginal struggle that takes hold of Russia’s sense of self, and while the strategic gains are minimal, to lose is to accept weakness in a fashion that could unravel the state. Putin has long been the strongman standing safely behind Assad, like the Macedonian phalanx of yore, able to project power ahead but largely shielded by Assad in the frontline.
The medium term: a handoff to the next president in America and a strategic gain in Moscow
For the Americans, the medium term lasts as long as the next presidential term. Obama surely expects Hillary will win; he will set her up for success as best he can by neutralizing the biggest and most dangerous complication of the conflict. If Russia and the United States are in agreement over the broad outlines of Syria, the next president will have an easier job both destroying the Islamic State and bringing about some sense of order in Syria.
Moreover, America must avoid using up too much power in Syria. It must continue to prop up tottering regimes in both Afghanistan and Iraq to retain credibility in the greater Middle East. That is doable for the time being, but it means that it cannot dictate terms to Syria as much as it might like. It must also finish redeploying power to East Asia, where Obama’s strategic pivot has taken place. Finally, it must reserve power in Europe to ensure that NATO holds together and Russia stays in check.
Those calculations won’t change with the next president. Doubtless some foreign policy crisis waits in the wings to siphon yet more American blood and treasure.
This means the United States under the next president will be forced to do the hard calculation of what it can achieve in Syria. Initially, in the heady days of the Arab Spring, American elites believed that democracy was naturally swarming over the region. They believed these new democracies would then naturally align with the United States. (Americans have a very strong tendency to believe functioning democracies are natural allies.)
Obviously, that’s not the case. Instead, the United States will have to settle. It’s not going to get a democracy out of Syria’s ruins, nor can it overcome Assad so long as he has Russian backing. The next president instead will probably allow Syria to become a lot like Lebanon, with a weak central government and a bunch of sectarian and political fiefs that largely keep the peace. That will still mean destroying the Islamic State. Much of their territory may end up in Kurdish or Turkish-backed Arab hands.
The Russians, on the other hand, will have gained much more. First, the Russians will have once more outfoxed the Americans in Syria, preventing the United States from rolling over yet another Russian ally. It will retain its naval base, which isn’t so important as a base but quite valuable as a symbol. It will have saved an Iranian ally, building a much stronger bridge to Tehran. Meanwhile, Putin will be able to show his leadership style pays dividends, giving him a much freer hand to rebuild Russian influence and power elsewhere.
Should the war against the Islamic State actually result in a joint American-Russian effort, it will also prove Moscow has regained its abilities to be a great-power problem solver. This means it gains influence elsewhere: its seat at the table will no longer be symbolic. It will gain most as the world debates North Korea, where it could play China off against the United States to gain better security and economic deals from Beijing.
Most of all, it will help cement the Putin political machine. Putin is a mere 63 years old. He could well have a hand in Russian politics for twenty more years. Should he formally step aside, his machine could carry on his style of leadership for years to come.
The long term: an America that needs a reordered Middle East and a Russia that desperately needs to be a great power
America and Russia behave very differently when it comes to grand strategy. America often doesn’t actively have one. It did during the Cold War, but only because the Soviet Union openly plotted to bring the United States into communism. Otherwise, the United States typically stumbles about, a giant on the world stage, reacting to fires under its feet rather than finding ways to avoid them, let alone stay the only giant.
This is how the United States became a superpower: not because it plotted well, but because Europe self-destructed and brought America into its world wars. Still, that history proves that even when nations dawdle, geopolitical interests will invariably pull them in a direction.
Because America is so large and geographically secure, its mistakes rarely threaten its survival. It has made multiple mistakes in the Middle East: invading and then suddenly withdrawing from Iraq were equally disastrous and while Obama did not start the Syrian Civil War, he hardly used American power to ease it.
Regardless of the personalities of those who occupy the White House, a geopolitical center of gravity will pull all leaders toward a single outcome: America must have an ordered Middle East. It’s too close to Europe, too energy-rich, too prone to take its conflicts to terrorism and too likely to produce refugee crises to allow to fester. This is in contrast with Sub-Saharan Africa, where equally cruel wars have soaked the continent in blood but rarely brought much American interference. This was starkly illustrated in spring 2003; as Iraqis braced for an American invasion, Liberians begged for one.
Obama wanted to end the Iraq war, but the geopolitics of the Middle East post-Saddam pulled him back in. The next president may feel the same way; they may pull American power further and further back, only to find that America is directly threatened by an unstable and war-wracked Middle East. Over the next twenty-thirty years, the United States will, president after president, seek some kind of natural order in the Middle East. That will invariably come about by choosing winners and losers and maintaining those choices. Americans can make mistakes; they cannot remake geopolitics. America will be forced to try to reorder the Middle East.
The Russians face a very different problem. They are a colossus with feet of clay and they know it. There are fundamental weaknesses with the size, shape and demography of the Russian Federation. It’s not that a weak Russia will disappear from the map; it’s that it could shrink to becoming just a third-rate European power, shorn of its Asian domain, shattered across the steppes of the European plain.
This is a big reason why Putin is not a second Hitler. Hitler took power in a nation state that can dominate Europe. Even today, Germany does so peacefully. Russia is not nearly as strong. It hasn’t the economic or political strength to hold Europe in its orbit. Putin can’t remake Russia through endless wars of aggression; it would crack apart at the seams.
The best security for the Russian Federation is twofold: a vast nuclear arsenal and being seen as a great power. The former guarantees its physical security from outside invasion, the latter gives it leverage to pursue vital interests both inside Russia and overseas. Nobody dared arm the Chechens for fear of stirring the Russian nuclear bear, yet the reality is, a determined enemy in the 1990s could well have done so and really knocked a few more teeth from Moscow.
The Russians must have the stature to keep others from taking advantage of its obvious weaknesses. They also must have access to the markets needed to fuel the economy and keep their nuclear arsenal functioning. Nukes eventually go bad; someone may well someday find a way to shoot them down. On both counts, Russia must have markets for its energy supplies and raw materials and must be able to get the advantageous deals needed to keep its economy going and its military technology advancing.
Syria is a strong step forward in that regard. It proves Russia can still get big things done. It will put pause to any quiet Chinese ambition to dominate its resource-rich Far East; it’ll still violent secessionists within the Federation and take the wind out of the sails of the democrats who, if allowed to take over too quickly, might well allow secession votes across Russia. It’ll also reassure allies in Central Asia, the Caucuses and in Belarus: when the chips are down, they needn’t accept whatever the West tells them.
It also turns a small corner on the relationship with the United States. Putin knows American policy isn’t disciplined. He doesn’t have an aggressive ideology that demands the Russian tricolor in Washington. He simply wants to keep Russia on the map as a great power (with all the privileges that pertains for himself and his inner circle). So he can ratchet down the conflict and take the heat off from the formidable American alliance system now bearing down on him.
To join together and kill a common enemy is exactly the kind of breathing space the Russians need. If Russia is to survive the twenty-first century, it cannot have a second full-on Cold War with the United States, especially in its rump state. Anything that lessens that possibility is a win for the Kremlin.
Regardless of what the Syrians do, American and Russian priorities are clearer than ever
Should the deal fail, it will invariably become a blame game. But the priorities are clear; America and Russia can live with a broken Syria, so long as it’s quiet.
This story originally appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, September 14, 2016.