How to respond to Russia in Syria while avoiding World War Three

October 13, 2015
Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Francois Hollande sit together at the start of a summit on Ukraine at the Elysee Palace in Paris

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and French President Francois Hollande sit together at the start of a summit on Ukraine at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, October 2, 2015. REUTERS/Etienne Laurent

As Syrian rebels face an onslaught of Russian bombs ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin, back in Washington President Barack Obama faces incoming volleys himself.

Critics claim Obama’s lack of response to Putin’s bombing campaign makes Obama looks “weak” in comparison. Others argue that American “credibility” is at stake in Syria, and that the United States must now “reestablish deterrence” against Russia. Former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brezinski even claims that because Russian forces in Syria are “geographically vulnerable” they could be “disarmed,” though without explaining how.

The fact is any escalation would be dangerous by definition, and of dubious benefit to the United States.

For starters, none of Obama’s critics explain how Putin’s actions in Syria threaten American “credibility” or its deterrence posture vis-à-vis Russia. Risking credibility, in this case, means that if the United States does not counter an adversary in one place, this adversary will be tempted to threaten more vital American interests elsewhere. This was the logic behind the Vietnam War, where the United States’ expenditure of blood and treasure was meant to reassure our NATO allies that Washington would protect them from a Soviet attack in Europe.

That logic was misguided then and is equally misguided now. Putin is not threatening American allies such as Israel or the Gulf States, nor does he appear willing to risk a serious military confrontation with America’s NATO allies. Indeed, the United States already announced plans to station hundreds of tanks, howitzers and other armor in the Baltics, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s secretary general just stated that “we are implementing the biggest reinforcement of our collective defense since the end of the Cold War,” and that “NATO is on the ground. NATO is ready.”

While Putin may be prickly, he is not crazy, and no evidence exists that the United States’ caution in Syria will tempt the Russians to strike core American interests in other parts of the world.

In addition, those demanding a strong response to Putin’s Syrian campaign ignore a key fact: Even if Obama did favor an escalation in Syria, he faces a buffet of policy choices ranging bad to worse. For example, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) urges Obama to supply Syrian rebels with surface-to-air missiles capable of shooting down Russian planes. This ignores the fact that in Syria’s confusing mishmash of overlapping alliances, its “moderate” rebels frequently cooperate with al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. Since surface-to-air missiles can shoot down commercial airliners — as al Qaeda has narrowly missed doing previously — McCain’s idea is a recipe for disaster.

Another option for Obama is to revisit arming Kiev with billions of dollars of American military hardware. It’s difficult to see how this might induce Russia to stand down in Syria, and this idea also ignores how Putin may respond. As Obama rightfully concludes, Putin would likely react by increasing Russian support for the separatists; thereby make a bad situation worse. What is the point of causing a major flare-up in Ukraine if doing so won’t solve anything in Syria?

Finally, the very notion of “disarming” Russian military assets in Syria by military force lies somewhere on the spectrum between crazy and suicidal. Russia would almost certainly respond by striking American or NATO military forces — perhaps in Eastern Europe — so unless Obama suddenly feels a hankering to start World War Three this is an idea the president can safely ignore.

None of this means the United States should ignore Putin’s Syrian military campaign, but it does demonstrate that Obama is right to respond cautiously. Nevertheless, the president can take certain steps — just not the type that will satisfy Washington’s legion of escalation.

First, the White House must not act like the sky is falling every time Putin does something it disapproves of. Beyond propping up Russia’s longtime ally Bashar al-Assad, Putin’s Syrian campaign also allows him to stick his thumb in America’s eye. The best way to respond is not hysterically, but calmly. Russia does not possess anything near the military strength of the Soviet Union, and exaggerating Russian power serves no useful purpose. Indeed, if Russia is dragged deeper into the Syrian quagmire — particularly if its forces suffer casualties — Putin may come to rue his Syrian gamble. Thankfully, this type of attitude fits perfectly with Obama’s “play it cool” persona, and in fact during the president’s recent news conference he noted that Putin went into Syria “out of weakness, not strength.” It would be nice to see the rest of Washington follow Obama’s lead.

Second, Obama should ensure that the Pentagon continues its policy to “de-conflict” Russian-American air operations in Syria. An accidental clash between American and Russian forces could not only produce unpredictable military consequences, but would also allow Putin to raise the rhetorical temperature several notches — which fits precisely with his desire to ratchet up support at home by aggressively confronting the United States.

Lastly, Obama should redouble efforts to find a solution that ends the slaughter in Syria. One worthwhile idea is to duplicate the P5+1 strategy that worked so well in the Iran negotiations. This strategy would require that the interests of all stakeholders in Syria are taken into account, including the Iranians. Obama would need to stop demanding Assad’s departure as a pre-condition for successful talks, but this is a price worth paying if it stops the slaughter. Syria will almost certainly never return to its status as a unitary state with strong centralized control over its entire territory, but all parties share a common fear of Islamic State and this should serve as a common starting point for P5+1 Syrian talks.

The Syrian conflict presents no ideal outcome for the United States, but by proceeding cautiously Obama can prevent a dangerous military clash with Russia — and also avoid making a bad situation worse.







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Putin is there legally, America is not.

end of story.

Posted by EmidioBorg | Report as abusive

Basically what is being said is that the USA and only the USA can bomb destroy and change regimes at will. The USA can decide unilaterally whom to supply with lethal weapons regardless of were they end up. Surly the answer is to have not gotten involved in the first place which hopefully would have stopped the rise of ISIS. And consequently saved thousands of lives and not created the refugee crisis.

Posted by Moties001 | Report as abusive

If US considers Russia such a big threat then I assume US does not believe that Putin is willing to cooperate in Syria (even when all evidence is showing that he is willing). So why not join with Russia, US already has assets in Iraq and Bagdad is the place where Russia, Iran and Iraq setup the intelligence center. Even if US is reluctant to share all intelligence information with the Russian coalition I’m sure something can be shared and a lot can be learned.
Worst case; Russia is bluffing and once US tries to join they will stall or somehow refuse. Then we know for a fact we are on the path to WW3. Best case; cooperation in Syria might show that both sides are not looking to confront each other and the working relationship could extend to other parts such as Ukraine.

Seems to me the only reason to not cooperate with Russia in Syria is if US is actually confronting Russia and everything that Russia has been said against US is true.

Posted by nikoliy | Report as abusive

Is there any humanity left in all these political clowns – politicians, analysts, et al? Can they just look up at the map of Syria’s displaced persons and see where from and to where do Syrian people flee? Are they fleeing from the Assad government-controlled territories? Are refugee flows decreasing or increasing from a territory that falls under “rebel” control – whoever the rebels are?

And finally – the famous “90% oif russian strikes …” cliche. BBC has map where both geography of territorial control and the locations of russian strikes are shown. But our lying political talking heads trust that people will not even look at the map to see how their lies square with the facts. Sad…

Posted by BraveNewWrld | Report as abusive

Did the author get paid off by the KGB or something? What a piece of Putin apologist propaganda.

Posted by amd65 | Report as abusive

Brezinski profited and enjoyed beautifull life on his Rusophobic fairy tails now every one else plays the same card in a hope for a published article or politcal career funded by War Inc.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Who really cares what Russia does in Syria. Let them get bogged down. It’s funny.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

What has changed is Putin’s Ukrainian invasion making enemies of Ukraine the EU and the US, Putin’s shoot down of MH17 destroying relationships with the Netherlands/Malaysia, Putin’s bombing of anyone opposed to Hitler Assad (making enemies of the Saudis and what Muslim moderates there are left in Syria), and the destruction of the Russian economy (in 4% recession and permanent decline). Russia is heading off a cliff, that’s what has changed.

Posted by tribeUS | Report as abusive

The writer of this article is trolling, i stopped reading at the start if the third paraghraph really.

Posted by Noproxy | Report as abusive

Very sensible opinion.

Posted by tedjbandit | Report as abusive

First of all The Russian Federation is not afraid of America’s little NATO alliance with European’s, Russia has a stronger version of NATO, As Russia formed Military and Financial Alliances with China this year also joining them is Iran, Iraq and Pakistan and North Korea basicly all US enemies This can get Ugly WW3 is very close

Posted by JGsure | Report as abusive

Putin’s Vietnam.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Though ignoring kneejerk responses that would validate Putin’s frantic attempt to look like he’s a player rather than just a rogue autocrat is good advice sitting and hoping that Putin has bitten off more than he can chew is just adding fuel to Obama’s reputation as overcautious and all talk in global affairs.

That’s probably a fair assessment of the man but its dangerous when the leader of the free world is seen as a toothless tiger. The US is already viewed in the middle east as easy to play (as Putin has now at least twice) , indecisive and unable or unwilling to stay the distance.

It’s bizarre to think that a US president could do worse than George Bush in international leadership but though Bush was seen as reckless and dangerous he was at least respect inasmuch as feared by bad actors. Obama’s unwillingness to take and maintain decisive action has put the bad actors in the drivers sear.
Iran is out of jail and already throwing its weight around. Putin is contained in one adventure and starts another. Sure these guys will kaboosh any chance of their populations becoming rich and safe – but you really think they care.

They are bullies and they looks strong and walk tall and the US stands in the corner shaking its head.

Who’s the boss.

Posted by compass2k | Report as abusive

States are the building blocks of international solidarity. States that fail to implement good governance are a threat to their citizens and the international community.

Syria has not been governed well. The US and others should not mute their desire for better leadership. Russia is trying to protect its regional strategic interests by force. We should all hope that the high cost of intervention persuades Russia to pressure Syrian leadership into future compromise.

Posted by wbig | Report as abusive

Russian economy is now smaller than Italy’s. Russian GDP per capita is now lower than Czech Republic or Greece. It is quickly becoming a third world country under Putin, and this boondoggle will surely assist in accelerating.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

This author is a Putin’s agent. He always proposed West do nothing and let Putin act as he wants. Putin tries to create instability and confronting with the USA around the globe

Posted by miamiseal | Report as abusive

we are always at war but never war, so sad, we are always on standby with explaning to do constantly, nobody is King nobody is Queen.

Posted by krst | Report as abusive

Russia is acting rationally, while the West is acting very stupidly.
To my fellow Americans, you need to fees up to reality,
THE US IS A BANKRUPT NATION, that is the reason why we are not getting involved in the Middle East.

After spending $4 trillion in Iraq, only to belong to Iran in the end, and another $1 trillion in Afghanistan, only to be handed back to the taliban terrorists, I think Obama is making the right choice.

Besides, Russians and better fighters than Americans.

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

“How to respond to a drunk guy puking on himself on a park bench.”

You don’t. Russia is in a downward spiral and we must move on without them. We can pity them, but we do not need to touch them.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

American policies in the middle East make no sense in any sort of Reality. Removing Sadaam Hussein Empowered Iran. Leaving him in power would have kept Iran in Check and ISIS would not have happened, neither would Al Quaida in Iraq. Iran would not be wreaking havoc Politically all over the middle East. Iran is supporting Terrorism in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Libya.

Posted by terrencegtrman | Report as abusive

“Putin is there legally”. Excellent comment. Right, he was invited by a slaughtering president.

Posted by CWR | Report as abusive

Russia is there at the nvitation f those that cmmited crimes against humanity, this makes the, equally responsible

Posted by gentiler | Report as abusive