The chill of U.S.-Russia relations has intensified over the past week, with the curt exchanges between Presidents Obama and Putin at the United Nations (their first face-to-face meeting in more than a year) over contrasting and competing strategies for ameliorating the dire situation in Syria. As with so many aspects of the current standoff between the two leaders and nations, it need not be so.
What is evident is that while the United States and Russia disagree over one "elephant in the room" aspect of resolving the Syrian crisis—the fate of President Bashar al-Assad—they share an equally obvious, self-interested resolve to de-fang and defeat the ISIL forces that now control large swathes of eastern Syria. In this regard, it is, to say the least, frustrating to look on as two world leaders snipe at each other over how this is to be accomplished. It is rather like two Neros fiddling while Rome, or in this case Damascus, burns.
In the prevailing environment, the default option for both Russia and the United States is to treat the other's blueprints for action with skepticism. Under this heading comes the U.S. reaction to Russia's recent military buildup in Syria, which includes air-to-air and ground attack aircraft, attack helicopters, and ground-to-air missiles. At the time of writing, it is also reported that Russia has joined French air forces in bombing ISIL targets. This in turn has evoked the accusation from the West that the targets include other non-ISIL, anti-Assad forces. While a state of flux thus prevails, the fact that Russian, French, and U.S. war planes are in the air over a relatively small territory sharply underscores the need for coordination and information sharing. Russia's tart response is that the West's approach to the Syrian tragedy, with 300,000 deaths and 11 million displaced, has been feckless and inconsistent. To some degree, it is difficult to disagree with this: for example, at precisely the time of the UN General Assembly gathering in New York, the administration was forced to shut down a year-old, $500-million program of arming and training "moderate" opposition forces in Syria after it became clear that defections among these meant that arms and men were added to the ISIL ranks. And as for those who still call for the targeted arming of "responsible" anti-Assad elements: Who among them can separate the "moderates" from the Islamists, who together represent a motley and blurred array of rival groups at work against each other rather than in any concerted, coherent opposition? As Erika Solomon noted in the Financial Times on September 28:
The biggest issue today is the division between moderates and hardline Islamists that have grown in power. Even among the Islamists there are many disputes. Salafist forces such as Ahrar al-Sham want to rehabilitate their image in the West, bringing them into conflict with Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's powerful Syrian branch. Yet both are fighting ISIS.
Again, this paralyzing friction between the United States and Russia and their respective allies need not be so, and may not be so, if we can bring a stop to the "blame game." For the Russians, this means stopping the finger-pointing at the United States and the West about actions in Iraq and Libya fueling the advance of ISIL in Syria—heaven knows, there are still challenges aplenty for stabilizing these problem states, post-Saddam and -Gaddafi. For the United States and its allies, it means recognizing that Russia has both historic interests in Syria and grave concerns that an extreme Islamist victory in Syria would pose a threat within Russian territory. On the first score, the naval base at Tartus in southwest Syria is Russia's only such facility outside the former Soviet space and the home of its critically strategic Mediterranean fleet. The "listening station" at Latakia in the northwest is Russia's main intelligence base in the region. In all, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has allowed, Russia's latest military muscle flexing may be seen to be as much about "self-protection" as aggression. On the matter of threat to Russia itself, let us consider geography: Syria's northern border is a mere 12-hour car ride from Grozny, and in this context a quote from Walid Jumblatt, the veteran Lebanese Druze leader who knows his Russia, is worth heeding: "...their [Russian] objectives are military coordination with the Syrian regime and to search out and kill Chechen leaders [of ISIL]...Putin's obsession is his own Sunnis; he has tens of millions of Sunnis." While Russian Sunni extremists are, as everywhere, a minority, having had more terrorist attacks than anywhere in the West since the Cold War's end, Russia is justifiably concerned about the specter of an ISIL presence in its north Caucasus enclaves.
Finally, there is the aforementioned "elephant in the room" issue: the fate of Assad and his coterie. Putin has repeatedly offered the mantra of "Syrian people deciding the future of Syria." This has been anathema for a West determined to see the Syrian dictator follow the fate of those of Iraq and Libya. Leaving aside, however, whether these regime changes went entirely according to plan, the fact remains that efforts of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and others to remove Assad have failed to accomplish anything so far other than an emboldening of ISIL. Furthermore, the U.S.-led "Assad must go" chorus would not seem to be the most compelling incentive for the Syrian leader to come to any negotiating table. With his mention of "managed transition" at the UN, it seems that Mr. Obama may be disposed to modify at least the timing of what seems to be the inevitable outcome. For the sake of 11 million refugee or displaced Syrians, one devoutly hopes that on this and on other points of division hitherto, the grim-faced encounter of the two presidents this week may yet bear some cooperative fruit.