Ethics, Russia, and Syria

August 13, 2018

This article was originally posted on the Ethics & International Affairs blog.

In the past weeks, in talks given to the National Security Law Committee of the American Bar Association's International Section and at the Chautauqua Institution on the role of Russia in the Middle East, the question of the ethics behind Russia's intervention in Syria to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad has come up. Generally, the questioning follows along the lines of how Moscow can support a dictator who has used chemical weapons in his desperate attempts to retain power at all costs.

I have generally responded that in my view, the current Russian establishment acts amorally when it comes to international affairs, and certainly does not utilize any sort of situational ethical calculus in making decisions. If Assad is a "bad" leader, his faults, in Moscow's eyes, rest less in the crimes he is accused of and more in being weak at the beginning of the Arab Spring and creating conditions which led to the rebellion in the first place. Had he been more deft and effective, using force more judiciously, he should have never been in a position where his regime came so close to collapse whereby use of WMD as a last resort to stave off defeat (prior to the major Russian intervention) was required.

The questioning, however, also reveals a fundamental chasm in current U.S. approaches to Syria. From our perspective, Assad remaining in power—and he has already outlasted the U.S. president who declared he had "to go"—is a moral affront. Yet for the last several years, we have been unwilling to mount the effort needed to remove him—and it was this assessment as to the limits of how far Washington would get involved which gave Russia the confidence to launch its own intervention in 2015. Russia is also not going to remove Assad for the United States to assuage our sense of ethics or respectability. Yet, at the same time, while Americans don't want to intervene to remove him, they also are uneasy about re-legitimizing him, which is why, despite successes on the battlefield, Assad's government still cannot get the political legitimacy at the negotiating table that would restore him to good standing among the family of nations and allow him to ability to rebuild his position. There is no Muammar Gadhafi-style rehabilitation Assad can go through at this point. The U.S. instead seems to be moving into a position of "no war, no peace"—that is, disengaging from Syria, but without formally conceding Assad's position.

Does this mean, that at some point, to secure their interests, Moscow might encourage (or pressure) Assad to step down in order to see a new leader come to power in Damascus who can move beyond Assad's legacy? That raises a separate question: Is there anyone in the current Syrian establishment that the U.S., and the West more broadly, would recognize as not having the stain of WMD use on their resume? And would a post-Assad government come about because of deals reached with regional actors like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, both of whom, despite being U.S. allies on paper, have forged a pragmatic, and daresay amoral, working strategic partnership with Russia—thus leading to a less-than-ethical, but stable outcome?

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