Philip Gordon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. From 2013 to 2015 he was special assistant to President Obama and White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf.
One of Vice President Biden’s favorite sayings on foreign policy is to never tell another man or woman what’s in his or her interest. That is a good general rule; I heard him repeat the saying many times while I was working on Middle East policy in the White House. But when it comes to Russia’s recent actions in Syria, I believe the rule needs to be broken. Russian President Vladimir Putin may fancy himself a master strategist, but in Syria he is making a mistake that will come back to haunt him — and Russia — for a long time to come.
With the Sept. 12 U.S.-Russia cease-fire agreement, the Obama administration offered Putin a way forward that from a Russian perspective could only have been described as a clean win. If fully implemented, the agreement would have prevented regime change in Damascus — a major Putin redline — for the foreseeable future; boosted Russia’s position as a major power in the Middle East; facilitated military and intelligence cooperation with the United States against terrorist groups; diminished a costly conflict; and secured Russia’s Mediterranean base. From Moscow’s perspective, that would not be a bad day’s work.
However, by supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the merciless bombardment of Aleppo, Russia is destroying the cease-fire agreement. In so doing, Putin is imposing serious costs not only on defenseless Syrians, but on Russia itself.
There was never any guarantee that the U.S-Russia deal would work even if Russia had shown goodwill. Moscow is right that it was always going to be difficult to separate true terrorists in Syria (like the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) from the “moderate” opposition groups fighting alongside them. JFS and the Islamic State, moreover, would have every reason to violate the cease-fire, given that its implementation would lead to U.S.-Russian military cooperation against them. It is also possible that the Syrian regime bears greater responsibility than Russia for having bombed the U.N. convoy trying to get aid to Aleppo a few days after the cease-fire started — possibly to retaliate for the accidental U.S.-led coalition strike on Syrian forces in Deir al-Zour a few days before. Additionally, just as the United States always found it difficult to control allies like former Afghan president Hamid Karzai and former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki (despite having hundreds of thousands of American troops in those countries), Russia may not be able to fully control Assad.
That said, a good-faith effort to implement the deal would have offered Russia a better way forward than the one they appear to have chosen, for several reasons.
First, Russia and Assad cannot win, even with a massive bombing campaign. After five years of war and the loss of more than 100,000 soldiers and militia fighters, the regime simply does not have the manpower to take and hold territory in all of Syria. Even after all the killing and displacement, Syria remains a majority Sunni country, and many of them will continue to fight against the regime — backed and armed by Saudis, Turks, Qataris. As Putin helps flatten Aleppo, he may be thinking about Chechnya, the Russian republic he repressed with equally brutal force in 1999. But he may be better off thinking about the Russian experience in Afghanistan. Putin’s widespread massacres of civilians in Syria could very well result in terrorist attacks against Russia by Muslims outraged by Russia’s actions.
Second, Russia could pay a price for Aleppo in its relations with Europe and the Arab world. The Russian economy is already suffering badly as a result of low oil prices, Western sanctions, and costly military interventions in Ukraine and Syria. Now, whatever prospects there were for the lifting of European sanctions or the expansion of Russian energy cooperation with Europe or Saudi Arabia will be greatly diminished, ensuring continued Russian economic pain. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council countries should consider their own economic sanctions on Russia to raise the costs and make clear their displeasure.
Third, Putin will now have to consider the response from the United States. It is no secret that the Obama administration has been determined to avoid any escalation in Syria that could lead to the direct use of U.S. military force. But Washington has been supporting the anti-Assad opposition in various ways, and may now — faced with humiliation and few other options — consider additions to that assistance that will increase costs on Russia. (Arming the opposition with shoulder-fired missiles capable of hitting Russian and Syrian planes over Aleppo is among the options.)
The posture of the next administration is also important to consider. It is hard to say what a President Donald Trump would do in Syria, and he has taken positions so close to Russia on other issues that Putin may be counting on a pliant Trump actually supporting his plans. But in the more likely scenario that Hillary Clinton becomes the next U.S. president, Putin could be facing a U.S. leader who has long supported a no-fly zone in Syria and robust support for the opposition, has expressed skepticism about Russia’s intentions in Syria, and will be looking to more clearly reassert American leadership in the Middle East.
U.S. diplomats say they have not given up on the cease-fire and that the original arrangement remains on the table. Ultimately, only Putin can decide what is in his interest, but he still has time to make the right call about what exactly those interests are.