Rex Tillerson’s Russian Mission Impossible
The secretary of state is expected to use his visit to Moscow this week to demand Russia break with Assad. This is wishful thinking.
By punishing Syria for its use of chemical weapons, President Donald Trump effectively broke with Barack Obama’s foreign policy toward the Middle East. In a bit of irony for a committed anti-interventionist, Trump enforced Obama’s red line in Syria against the use of chemical weapons, ending the U.S. prohibition on military strikes targeting the regime of Bashar al-Assad. This is not necessarily the start of a larger American war in Syria, but it could be the beginning of the end of the Syrian conflict.
For opponents of Assad who hope Washington will seek regime change in Damascus, news of the strikes on a Syrian airbase was welcome. The Trump administration may not escalate much further, but some expect it to push Russian President Vladimir Putin to break with Assad. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and Secretary of State of Rex Tillerson have, in turn, called Moscow either complicit in Assad’s chemical attack, as at least one U.S. official has alleged, or incompetent in fulfilling the promise of preventing it. Either way, Tillerson is expected to use his visit to Moscow this week to demand Russia break with Assad.
But the promise of a break is wishful thinking. The chemical attack and the retaliatory U.S. strike may have embarrassed and angered Russia—even if it was given heads up, as reporting suggests—but they’ve given Putin no reason to turn on Assad.
Today, days after the strike, the balance of power in the war remains the same. Assad and his allies continue to gain new ground in Idlib province and consolidate their hold over the critical corridor stretching from Damascus to the Mediterranean coast. The airstrikes may slow his pace for a time, but he is still winning, and that means Putin will see no need to change his long-term strategy: His prestige and, indeed, very conception of Russia’s great-power status are tied to the outcome of Syria’s war. He took advantage of Obama’s reluctance to intervene against Assad to become the main power broker in Syria. In the process, Assad’s survival has become the measure of Putin’s influence.
Of course, Russia’s interests in Syria predate even the Soviet Union. The Russian Orthodox Church has close ties to its sister Syrian Orthodox Church; some of the czars crowns were said to have been made of Damascene steel. Strategic ties forged during the Soviet era persist to this day. Russia continues to enjoy access to the eastern Mediterranean using the Syrian naval base in Tartus.
Strengthening Putin’s ties to Assad is their shared concern with containing Islamic extremism in the Arab world and Afghanistan, lest it spread to Russia’s Muslim regions and periphery. Syria has become ground zero for Putin’s containment strategy, and Russians are quick to point to the large number of Chechen jihadis fighting there to make their case. Putin, however, sees the Assad regime as a bulwark against extremism, and has embraced a strategy for defeating extremism that starts with keeping Assad in power. Hence, Putin sees Assad’s opposition, and the Islamic State, as the immediate obstacles to his containment strategy. And, further: As long as the largely Sunni jihadis are waging war on Assad, the threat they pose to the Russian homeland is diminished.
This common cause against the Sunnis has allowed Iran and Russia to forge deep military and intelligence ties. Over the past five years, Iran has, in turn, created a formidable integrated force, consisting of Shia militias and fighters, from Lebanon’s Hezbollah, to volunteers from across the Arab world, to Pakistan and Afghanistan, all trained and under the command and control of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. This is a regional strategic asset of material value to Putin. Defending Assad is about more than just the future of Syria: It is also about using this Shia force to serve Russia’s broader interests in the Middle East. It is for this reason that Turkey or the Arab states supporting the opposition have found it so difficult to wean Moscow off Tehran.
Russia surely hopes that the American strike was a one-time punishment of the Assad regime. With U.S. intervention against Assad currently limited to enforcing red lines, the fundamental balance of power on the ground will remain in Assad and Russia’s favor. However, Putin would resist a broader American initiative to force regime change in Syria—indeed, he’s reportedly even resisting meeting with Tillerson. That would diminish Russia’s role in the conflict, and ultimately be construed as a defeat for Putin. He would rather intensify the fighting in the short run to further empower Assad than give time and space for regime change.
Those who think a deal with Putin on Syria is plausible should first ask what he’d get in return for folding up his elaborate strategic investment there—his prize would have to be bigger than Syria. The options include the recognition of the annexation of Crimea, or of Russia’s sphere of influence in Ukraine, and a halt to NATO and European Union encroachment on what Russia sees as its turf in Eastern Europe. The United States is unlikely to deem Syria worth exchanging Europe for the Middle East; as such, building a Syria policy on the promise of Putin parting ways with Assad is unwise.
The Trump administration could, however, force Russia to sunder ties with Assad by drastically increasing the U.S. military presence in Syria. That would risk direct confrontation with Russia, and effectively force Washington to take ownership of the Syrian war, which Trump would be hard-pressed to sell to the American people.
America’s interests in Syria would be best served by a diplomatic process that stops the carnage, ends the refugee flows, focuses attention on eradicating ISIS, and also reduces regional tensions. The Obama administration’s diplomatic initiatives, including rounds of meetings with Russia, and then international conferences with the opposition and regional stakeholders in Syria, failed because a policy of non-intervention against Assad gave Washington no leverage. Tillerson now has new leverage: The United States has demonstrated that it will intervene militarily against Assad. Russia will no longer assume that Assad could pursue war for maximal gains with impunity.
Russia and Assad will no doubt test American resolve, and the Trump administration will be compelled to convince them through force. But its recent actions need not lead to an expanded U.S. war in Syria. Rather, the Trump administration could instead see military action as the bedrock of a diplomatic strategy to end the civil war. Diplomacy has to be backed by the use of force. This would threaten Russia’s position enough to enlist its support in compelling Assad’s cooperation. A credible diplomatic process would deny Assad what he seeks through continuation of the conflict—he would likely be a casualty of a successful diplomatic settlement—but Russia could still realize much of what it seeks in Syria. And a diplomatic settlement that would keep America out of the war is in Putin’s interest.
In Moscow this week, Tillerson has the opportunity to explain that the United States could strike again, and insist that Putin tightly control Assad’s actions, while also agreeing to a new U.S.-led diplomatic effort whose success alone could avert further U.S. action in Syria. Leading this process would bolster American standing in the region and across the world, and also curtail Russian ambition. Tillerson now has an opportunity to lay out a diplomatic plan for ending one of the most devastating conflicts of our time.