As the situation currently stands, Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks conflict with the United States. While the Western media is aghast over perceived Russian strength, the truth is the Russian Federation, and Putin’s regime in particular, is weak. Russia’s military actions from Georgia, to Ukraine, to Syria in recent years are not projections of strength, but indications of weakness. Russia’s military performance has been sub-par for the most part.
In Ukraine, Putin tried to cover up the deaths of Russian troops, knowing it would be unpopular in Moscow. For this reason, the Putin regime prefers to send people to fight that mainstream Russians don’t much care for, such as Kadyrov’s men from Chechnya. In Georgia in 2008, Russia had a hard time projecting force just across their own border. These military actions are not a sign of renewed Russian strength, but rather they are Hail Marys—last-ditch efforts to stir up nationalist sentiments at home in order prop up the regime.
But does it always have to be like this? Perhaps not. In Syria, Putin has the opportunity to write himself into the history books as a world leader who led the charge against ISIS and forged a historic partnership between two great powers: Russia and the United States.
Like combat, international politics is filled with suboptimal decisions. Perfect solutions rarely, if ever, exist. Instead, political leaders have to balance their national interests with various internal and external frictions, and choose the lesser of two evils. This is something that we will have to keep in mind if Russian and America attempt to team-up in Syria. Painful compromises will have to be made on both sides.
Currently, Putin is not seeking a real partnership with America in Syria to help defeat ISIS. Instead, he is spreading propaganda in the form of conspiracy theories that America is a hidden hand behind ISIS, that America gave ISIS the green light to blow up the Russian airliner that went down over the Sinai, and on and on. This antagonism is also for domestic purposes within Russia. Putin needs scary, nefarious foreign plots to scare the Russian public into accepting his rule. This is a common theme within dictatorships.
I would argue that Putin has much more to gain by seeking cooperation with the West in Syria. Instead of the current propaganda narrative, he could make the case that we are all in this together, fighting an international war against terrorism which stretches from Paris to New York to Dagestan and Moscow. This narrative taps into a deeply regarded historical moment amongst the Russians, when America and Russia teamed up to defeat Nazism in Europe during World War Two.
Here is what this alliance could look like: The United States partners with the Kurds in northern Syria while Russia partners with Assad’s forces in the south. These partnerships already exist, but currently there is no cooperation between the two great powers involved in the fight. Russia and America would collaborate with one another, one force pushing from the north and the other from the south, coordinating offensives and airstrikes. In this manner, the Russo-American alliance would enact a hammer and anvil strategy, with ISIS getting squashed in the middle.
From my perspective, defeating ISIS is not that difficult, especially with the type of alliance I describe, but the post-war environment needs to be planned ahead of time. Assad, the Kurds, America, and Russia need to hold high-level meetings in order to hash out what post-war Syria will look like and to ensure that a lasting peace takes hold in the region. Again, all sides will have to make compromises.
- The Kurds: The Kurdish YPG/YPJ forces will withdraw to the Kurdish regions of Syria, known as Rojava, after the conflict has concluded. They will not be allowed to keep non-Kurdish areas such as Raqqa or Aleppo. Upon the cessation of hostilities, the Kurds will be granted a semi-autonomous state in Rojava. This state will still be a part of Syria, but will be allowed a certain amount of self-governance. Before the war, to call the Kurds second-class citizens would be generous. They did not have citizenship, nor could they legally hold jobs or go to university. For their help in the war, the Syrian Kurds would be granted full citizenship and Kurdish rights would be respected.
- The Assad regime: Bashar Al-Assad would be permitted to remain in power in Syria, and can still be pals with Russia. Syria would not be broken up into multiple states, but would remain intact with a greater respect for minority rights. The United States would recognize the Assad government as legitimate and open diplomatic relations with Syria.
- Russia: Russia would retain Assad as a partner in the Middle East. Not only would Russia retain access to a warm-water port in the Mediterranean Sea, but they would also keep Syria as a client state where they will sell Russian arms and munitions, an important economic incentive since losing Gaddafi as a client. Furthermore, Russia and Putin would gain enormous amounts of political prestige on the world stage as the dealmaker who ended the scourge of ISIS and forced an alliance with the United States.
- America: America would gain a key ally and partnership with the Kurds, an ally committed to democracy who is willing to do business with the West. Assad would be an arm-length partner as distrust is likely to continue well into the foreseeable future no matter what the case. The United States would also crush ISIS in the process, helping to stabilize the region, end unmitigated migration to Europe, and hopefully reduce the threat of international terrorism.
As is to be expected, no plan is quite perfect. We still have to deal with Iraq and Turkey. Erdogan’s government in Turkey would be absolutely livid with this arrangement, having stated that a Kurdish state will never be tolerated in Rojava. Putin isn’t the only one who needs enemies; Erdogan’s Islamist party needs the Kurds to galvanize the Ataturk ultra-nationalists and Islamists alike. Again, international politics are never so black and white.
The United States and Russia would have to work together to oversee a legitimate ceasefire between the PKK and the Turkish government—no easy task. Pushing the ceasefire along would be a key ingredient to the overall Russo-Syrian alliance. Turkey may be partially placated knowing that Rojava is still technically part of Syria, but granting Kurdish rights still sets a dangerous precedent for the Kurds in Turkey.
Iraq is a basket-case state with a corrupt government that will not even fight to save itself, but rather it sits around looking for U.S. military handouts. After Syria falls, ISIS hold-out elements would fall apart in Iraq without their logistics lines. ISIS in Iraq would then mostly go underground and launch an insurgency. The plan for Iraq would be separate but related. Cut straight to the end game: Split Iraq into three states. Sunni, Shia, and Kurd. Iraq is already a non-state without a future. It is just a question of how long we want to draw this conflict out.
The vertical integration of the Russian government ensures that Putin would be lauded as a hero for enacting such a plan. The international press would also eat it up. Due to the divisive and polarized nature of the American media, Obama is not likely to fair so well. The same people who criticize him for being weak on Syria will turn around and criticize him for deploying troops there (even if it is just small numbers of Special Forces ODAs) and will probably accuse him of being a commie collaborator for working with Putin. Such is life, and foreign policy can’t be decided by public opinion polls.
I believe what I’ve outlined in this brief article would be the best option for fighting ISIS, however, I highly doubt that any of this will actual happen. There are too many moving parts, too many entanglements, too many self-interested parties involved, and just too much common sense in a Russo-American alliance in Syria for it to ever pan out.
Instead, I leave you to your shit-show. Enjoy it, guys.
(Featured image courtesy of hereandnow.wbur.org)