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Joint US-Russian Approach to Syria?

Will the US and Russia get together to grease the skids for Assad?

That’s the latest plan floating around Washington DC, according to the NYT. For both powers this would be a compromise; so far, Washington has been talking only about getting him out quickly while talking of crimes against humanity and trials at the Hague. The Russians have talked about reforming the regime without changing personnel. Letting Assad step aside in a dignified way into a comfortable if obscure retirement splits the US-Russian difference down the middle — as long as the US agrees to support Russia’s claims for some influence and commercial ties with whatever comes next in Syria.

Arranging a dignified exit for the blood-drenched strongman might stick in the craw of the human rights lobby, but if such an arrangement could be devised it would probably be the best way to minimize the chances for chaos, more bloodshed and the ultimate rise of religious fanatics in Syria. This would also minimize the chances for wider war in Lebanon and Iraq.

Russia and the US have both had unsatisfactory experiences with their Syria policy. Russian defense of Assad has isolated Russia — the Arabs, the Turks and the Europeans are all furious with the Kremlin. Assad’s mix of brutality and weakness — he is brutal enough to kill thousands of people but too weak to crush the resistance — makes him a less useful ally and it looks increasingly as if he will ultimately fall. Russia, the Obama administration hopes, is ready to look for a change.

The Americans have also not covered themselves in glory when it comes to the Syrian situation. Few policies are more vacuous and self-humiliating than to speak loudly and brazenly while doing nothing serious.  This has been exactly the Obama administration’s posture for months now, and it is a disaster and a folly. Hot headed moralistic rhetoric accompanied by thumb-twiddling and evasion makes you look weak, inept and ill-tempered.

Worse, the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, with devastating consequences for Syrians today and potentially for the whole region, including Syria, in the future. The administration is increasingly worried, and with good reason, about the people likely to take power in the event of a prolonged civil war and a chaotic transition.

Russia and the US have both reluctantly concluded that their Syria policies have failed. Now, as they look around for second or third-best options, they begin to identify ways in which they might be able to work together after all.

This is often the case in US-Russian relations. When each side feels that it has a free hand, it is not interested in working with the other. We didn’t need Russian help in Libya, Kosovo and Iraq so we didn’t consult Russian interests.  In the same way, when it comes to Russian policy in Georgia or Belarus, Russia does what it wants and leaves us to cope with the consequences.

But there are an interesting number of cases where neither one of us can get what we really want, but can maybe get a bit more with some cooperation. From the Far East to Central Asia, Iran, Syria and at other points around Russia’s periphery, there are a number of places where either now or in the future US-Russian cooperation may help avert the worst if not quite usher in what either we or they would regard as a perfect world.

Sometimes pragmatism works. Syria may be one of those places; giving Assad a dignified retirement and a peaceful old age and asking the new Syrian government to think about Russian commercial interests strikes Via Meadia as an acceptable price if it avoids the risks of a true Syrian meltdown.

 

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  • Mrs. Davis

    do the Syrians get a vote?

  • Kenny

    Won’t happen.

  • gracepmc

    If anything does happen, it will be in Russia’s best interest and the US will be where it has been since Barack Obama became President, behind.

  • Pedro Marquez

    I’m skeptical. I don’t doubt the US and Russia could find a way to see eye to eye on Syria, but if Assad’s extended family stays in power (pretty likely given how the regime is built around them) then the sectarian bloodlust remains unsated.

  • rkka

    “This is often the case in US-Russian relations. When each side feels that it has a free hand, it is not interested in working with the other.”

    Yes, and no.

    “We didn’t need Russian help in Libya, Kosovo and Iraq so we didn’t consult Russian interests.”

    Very true.

    “In the same way, when it comes to Russian policy in Georgia or Belarus, Russia does what it wants and leaves us to cope with the consequences.”

    Not quite. Recall the early morning of 8/8/08. The Russian Armed Forces had yet to fire a shot, apart from the Russian peacekeeping troops in Tskhinvali returning with their small arms the Georgian artillery fire they had been receiving since the previous night. Russian UN Representative Churkin introduced a draft UN Security Council Resolution calling on all sides to renounce the use of force. Since Saak the Tie-Eater’s forces were still advancing at that point, the Anglosphere UNSC representatives vetoed it.

    It was only then that the Russian Army took matters into their own hands.

    Yet again, the Russian government were prepared to cooperate to prevent the war in Georgia. The Anglosphere Foreign Policy Elite and Punditocracy preferred a different way.

    And mightily did the AFPE&P squawk when they discovered that the Russians were also prepared for their non-cooperation!

  • thibaud

    Given what’s going down in Europe, we’re going to have to pay a lot more attention to Russia, and finding further areas of cooperation.

    You can bet your last euro that the Germans will cooperate much more with Russia in the next few years. This is because the Germans’ key partner in Europe has been exposed as weak and unreliable, their exports to the rest of the Eurozone are going to fall significantly, and they will sooner or later be forced to bite the bullet and guarantee the debts of the French and other major European banks.

    All of this means that a partnership with Russia – on not just energy and trade, but on political matters as well, including seeking Russian financial help to stabilize Europe – is very much in Germany’s interest.

    We will have to accommodate a new European security order in which the German-Russian nexus is central. That’s going to require a lot of engagement, a lot of thought, and a lot more creativity than our political class has shown thus far.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    This assumes that Assad is willing to leave and not go down fighting like the Libyan Loon. It sounds like some have been barking up the wrong tree all along, and now they are picking an all new wrong tree for barking. These dogs can’t hunt.

  • rkka

    Thibaud,

    “That’s going to require a lot of engagement, a lot of thought, and a lot more creativity than our political class has shown thus far.”

    Its taken Napoleon/Kaiser Bill/Adolpf H. going to war with both to get Russia and the Anglosphere cooperating seriously. As a matter of fact, it took the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact to change Neville Chamberlain from “…Germany and England as pilliars of European peace abd buttresses agains Communism.” to “for twenty years Hitler has been the foremost opponent of Bolshevism. He is now its ally.”

  • thibaud

    rkka – well, Putin’s Russia is a gangster state. There’s not much we’ll be able to do so long as Ali Baba and his 40 thieves rule, or misrule, a great nation.

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