Russian Role Could Help in Syria

Despite the alarms in Official Washington about Russia’s increased military role in Syria, this expanded commitment breathes new hope into a possible political settlement of the conflict and could help reverse Islamic State gains, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The recently increased Russian involvement in Syria ought to be viewed as an opportunity, more so than as a threat or as something that needs to be countered. Although Moscow’s current involvement is only an extension of its longtime relationship with the Syrian regime, it represents just enough of a change to serve as the closest thing we are likely to have to a peg on which to hang some needed rethinking about the Syrian conflict.

The need for such rethinking is reflected in the fact that everyone, including the Obama administration, seems to recognize that the current trajectory of this civil war is unpropitious, notwithstanding disagreements over what to do about the situation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin taking the presidential oath at his third inauguration ceremony  on May 7, 2012. (Russian government photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin taking the presidential oath at his third inauguration ceremony on May 7, 2012. (Russian government photo)

The most important principle in any revision of policy toward the war needs to be that the untoward effects of this war will be ameliorated only insofar as peace is established in Syria, or as close as Syrians and the international community can come to establishing something passing for peace. It is the continuation of the war, much more than any particular outcome of the war or any particular political configuration of Syria, that is the source of most of the trouble that is worth worrying about.

This is true of at least three major types of trouble. One is the possible spread, quite possibly inadvertent, of instability and combat beyond Syria’s borders. The war has, for example, increased the chance of a new war between Israel and Lebanese Hezbollah, given Hezbollah’s substantial involvement in the Syrian war and Israel’s reactions to Hezbollah activity in Syria.

A second problem is the increase in violent extremism, as represented chiefly but not entirely by the so-called Islamic State or ISIS. It was the outbreak of the Syria war that enabled ISIS to spread its activity, suddenly and significantly, beyond its birthplace in Iraq. This should not be surprising; physical chaos and power vacuums have long been favorable ground for terrorist and other extremist groups.

A third problem, which has become the chief crisis of the day for Europe as well as an issue for the United States, is the surge of migrants fleeing the war for the West.

The needed focus on tamping down the war, rather than trying to tilt the outcome of it at the risk of further escalation, requires getting away from at least three unhelpful patterns of thought that have prevailed in discussion and debate about Syria. One is the dictum that “Assad must go.”

Note that the aforementioned varieties of trouble stem not from the mere existence of the Assad regime but instead from the war that emerged from confrontation between the regime and its opponents. That is true of any spillover of armed conflict across international borders. It is true also of the expansion of ISIS outside Iraq, which occurred only after the Syrian war got under way.

And it certainly is true of the migration of refugees. However much the migrants coming from Syria may have disliked the regime, it was only the physical danger and disruption of war that motivated any significant numbers of them to undertake perilous journeys to Europe.

The Assad regime certainly has many undesirable and even despicable characteristics, but so do many other regimes elsewhere in the world, and despicability alone is not grounds for escalating an internal war to try to influence the result. We also should note that some of the most despicable things this regime has been doing are, again, part of the war itself and do not predate the war. Before the war began, the regime was not indiscriminately barrel-bombing civilian neighborhoods.

Those who are especially solicitous about Israel should also note that Israel had enjoyed decades of relative stability along the Golan front with the devil the Israelis know, the Assad regime. It is only with the war in Syria and the loss of regime control of parts of that front that significant and immediate security questions related to Syria have more recently arisen for Israel.

The perpetuation of the Assad-must-go mentality is rooted in notions, found most conspicuously in neoconservative and liberal interventionist thinking, about democratization and liberalization being one-way processes and likely to result from any stirring of a political pot. This thinking has come to be applied especially to the Middle East because of the vain hopes attached to the neocon project known as the Iraq War and because of more broadly held hopes of what would come from the Arab Spring.

Another root, given the alliance between Damascus and Tehran, is the idea that anything associated with Iran must be bad. Neither of these roots provides a realistic basis for formulating policy toward the Syrian war.

The one respect in which one could plausibly argue that the very character of the Assad regime is a basis for instability and the border-crossing consequences that can result from it is that the sort of authoritarian rule the regime represents will never be the foundation for political consensus in the way that Western liberal democracies know it. But that is a long-term consideration. Right now there is a fire to be contained; discussion of what sort of political arrangements might be kindling for fires in the future is, for the time being, a digression.

Probably the one possible development that is most likely to make the chaotic Syrian situation even more chaotic, as some members of the U.S. Congress evidently have come to recognize, would be a collapse of the regime with an ensuing political and administrative vacuum. A similar recognition may underlie recent comments from the Obama administration suggesting that, although the administration cannot bring itself to abandon the Assad-must-go formulation, the timing of his departure is negotiable.

Another unhelpful pattern has been persistence of the unfounded faith in developing a “moderate” opposition with enough unity and armed clout to be the nucleus of a force that would defeat both the regime and ISIS. If earlier events had not been enough to do away with that faith, then surely it ought to be dispelled by the embarrassing acknowledgment the other day by the top U.S. military commander for the region that the number of fighters that the United States has been able to put into the fray for this purpose can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

The reason for this result is not perverse foot-dragging by the administration. One reason for it is the unresolved tension between the objectives of fighting the regime and fighting ISIS. Another reason is the inherent difficulty of vetting “moderates” amid a civil war, the waging of which is an inherently immoderate act.

(And if some fighter who had passed through a U.S.-supported vetting, training, and equipping program were later, say, to be involved in a terrorist attack against a U.S. target, some U.S. critics pushing now to expand such programs more rapidly would not hesitate to lambaste the administration for that terrorist result.)

Assertions of a woulda coulda shoulda variety, as one finds in the incessant drum-beating about Syria by the Washington Post editorial page, that if only a program to develop a moderate force had been implemented earlier with more gusto the result today would be better, is cheap talk that is unsubstantiated either by the experience of either this civil war or other ones.

With the latest Russian moves another unhelpful thought pattern comes into play, which is the tendency to view any Russian activism or extension of influence abroad as undesirable and something to be countered. This tendency is firmly rooted in old Cold War habits and has infused much thinking about other matters involving Russia, including in Europe.

A corrective to this tendency, as far as the Middle East is concerned, is to reflect on how vastly different the Cold War circumstances were from what prevails today. Beginning with the financing of the Aswan high dam in the 1950s, the USSR was making major inroads in the Middle East, not only in Syria but in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, South Yemen, and elsewhere. The Soviet activity had implications for strategic postures as well the global ideological competition. That activity was worth worrying about, and worth countering.

But today Russia is not a superpower, there is not a global ideological competition with Moscow, and the Russian presence in Syria pales in comparison with the much broader U.S. posture, including military posture, in the Middle East.

There has been much speculation about Vladimir Putin’s motives underlying the latest Russian moves in Syria. Of course we should not necessarily take what his government says at face value, and of course not all of the Russian motives are congruent with U.S. interests. But the situation regarding Syria is not zero-sum, and the United States needs to be open to ways in which the Russian posture, even with underlying motives divergent from our own, may help to bring closer possibilities for ameliorating the Syrian mess.

One thing that enhanced Russian involvement in Syria means is that Russia will be absorbing more of the costs, and more of the opprobrium associated with collateral damage, from efforts that involve at least in part the containment of ISIS. To the extent this shifts some of a burden from the United States, that is a good thing.

Russian aims are surely not purely anti-ISIS aims, but Russia has at least as much reason to worry about the group as the United States does. The United States has no equivalent to the concentrated, predominantly Muslim populations of the North Caucasus.

Another thing the Russian involvement means is that Moscow, to limit the extent and duration of its own costs, has that much more of a stake in stabilizing Syria and in tamping down the conflict sooner rather than later. A further implication is that greater Russian support for the Assad regime may yield greater Russian leverage over that regime with regard to any moves toward peace.

An overall conclusion is that the Russian moves mark an appropriate occasion for U.S. policy toward Syria to pivot away from feckless attempts to engineer a particular military outcome on the ground and toward greater emphasis on multilateral diplomacy aimed at finding a political resolution of the conflict. Russia will necessarily be heavily involved in any such effort.

Talks between U.S. and Russian defense ministers for purposes of military deconfliction on the ground are fine, but talks between the foreign ministers will be even more important. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran also will necessarily be fully involved. None of this implies that the prospects for a political resolution of this war any time soon, even apart from the ISIS problem, are very bright; they aren’t.

The apparent intractability of some of the positions taken by rebel groups, even as they accept in principle a political solution, are discouraging. But exploring every opportunity for diminishing the current fire in Syria is more likely to ameliorate the problems this conflict has caused than will adding more fuel to the fire.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

13 comments for “Russian Role Could Help in Syria

  1. Evangelista
    September 22, 2015 at 22:33

    A fourth problem that Mr. Pillar overlooks is the one currently growing out of the third problem he notes, the “surge of migrants” into Europe: The reactions by Europeans, especially Europeans whose economic structures are under stress, to a gigantic influx of “other-culture” other people, whose influx threatens their cultures as well as their individual economic well-beings, and who compete for jobs and services.

    The ‘elite’ in their good-paying government jobs and positions in their societies may dismiss the ‘lesser-people’, the ‘hoi-poloi’, the ‘plebians’, the ‘sans-cullotes’, etc. for a while, but they have a way of rising up, finding leaders to follow, becoming ‘nazis’, ‘neo-nazis’ and such, making ‘putches’ and ‘holacausts’ to “just say no” to the ‘elites’ ‘smarmy ideas’ for a ‘perfect world’.

    Watch for the police to start taking the sides of the ‘rabbles’, against their own economic interests (the elites who provide their pay-checks) to recognize approach to the tipping points, or, in cases where immigrants and other scapegoats are in target, joining with the ‘local-rabble’. If you are a Hitler that will be when you will want to make your moves.

    • Joe Tedesky
      September 23, 2015 at 00:24

      Evangelista, interesting comment. You maybe on to something, when you mention how Europe’s acceptance of their newly gained Middle East refugees could take a turn more to the worst, than for the best. Although, now a days, Hitler analogies are often quoted supporting the wrong narratives, but your analogy of Hitler fits. Cultural, along with religious differences can mean a lot. Just take a look at the presidential GOP candidates, and you may get a feel to how a Hitler figure will fetch votes. That lowest common denominator is there, and we know that. So, just stir up some hate, and then bingo we’ll put up some chain link fence, and call it a brilliant national security project. Will Europeans wishing to rid their countries of these refugees enlist to go to Syria, and topple Assad? I’m asking, not predicting this kind of outcome. I honestly don’t know, but before we go there I will only hope the truth comes out to what is happening with this whole Middle East debacle. What we need, we lack the most, and that is responsible leadership. My angst is over the fact is I don’t know any responsible leaders we may rely on…do you?

  2. Peter Loeb
    September 22, 2015 at 13:36


    No one goes to war or even considers it unless they are
    persuaded 1) that victory will easily be theirs and
    2) that their victory will be quick and painless.

    (See Gabriel Kolko, CENTURY OF WAR.)

    Before Russia began increasing its pressure and
    determination to adhere to its alliances with Syria
    where it shares a military interest, it seemed to
    Israeli and American politicians that both the
    above conditions were persuasively met— no
    questions asked. Belligerents such as Israel
    and the US could relive the “halcyon” days of Iraq.
    One could invade Iraq and victory would be ours.
    It would be a cinch.

    (This was demonstrated by the first Iraq
    War if nothing else.) With the drones of today
    no US/Israeli lives would be lost.

    (It should be noted that major powers never act
    for reasons of charity alone. Nor, for that
    matter do lesser powers.)

    The fact that Russia is more deeply involved
    changes all these calculations and the
    US/Israeli and other belligerents are surprised.
    The best spin they can put on their surprise
    is to blame it all on Russia. Without Russian
    spine for whatever reason, Syria would
    be easily demolished but now…???

    For other points one can only refer to Paul
    Pillar’s excellent article above as well as the many
    intelligent additions by other commenters.

    —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  3. dahoit
    September 22, 2015 at 11:49

    Putin is no dummy,he knows Russia’s enemy,are the Zionists.He will help Syria,and the Ziomonsters are up in the air (to Moscow)about it.

  4. Secret Agent
    September 22, 2015 at 08:56

    Nope. America will be going full retard on this one as well. Your new allies in the global war on terror will be Al Q aeda as per the Patreus plan. Deja vu much?

  5. F. G. Sanford
    September 22, 2015 at 07:40

    Germ warfare deploys microbes. Chemical warfare uses toxic substances. Psychological warfare tailors information to mislead and demoralize. What we see now is the most diabolical and dispicable weapon yet. They do not intend to die, but their plight is suicidal. They are not equipped with suicide bombs, but they create population explosions. This is the weaponization refugees – human beings unarmed and defenseless cast into a maelstrom where they become a political football, an economic threat, a source of hatred or the objects of sympathy – they promote fear of disease and social collapse – note that all the aid workers wear surgical masks – why would that be necessary? Every aspect of this scenario is stage-managed to enhance panic. This should become the pinnacle in the pantheon of war crimes embodied in Robert Jacksons’s cumulative evil of “The Supreme International Crime”.

  6. September 22, 2015 at 00:30

    this is a far more bloodier conflict than the events in Nicaragua through the 80’s, but there certainly are parallels. except in those days it was necessary to sell arms to Iran, and coke to North Americans in order to fund the training and arming of death squads in Honduras, and Costa Rica. these forayed into Nicaragua to murder doctors, nurses, teachers and agriculture advisors … this so Nicaraguans could not succeed if they continued voting for the wrong party. in 1990 Nicaraguans chose to vote for the u.s. “president’s choice” party … and the death squads stopped.
    the people who organized this misery upon Nicaraguans, have organized the current state of woe in the middle east. they have what they believe is a winning strategy … i sincerely doubt they will give up this “assad must go” compulsion.

  7. Zachary Smith
    September 21, 2015 at 21:00

    The author mentions the “presence” factor. Despite all the whining from DC about Russian interference, there is another factor to consider. I found a wiki which says the Russians presently have 9 foreign bases, one of which is in Syria. By way of contrast, this link says the US has over 800.


    Although few Americans realize it, the United States likely has more bases in foreign lands than any other people, nation or empire in history.

    That would include the Romans, so the word “Imperial” surely does seem to apply to the modern US of A.

  8. September 21, 2015 at 19:03

    F.G. Sanford your history of the current debacle in Syria is spot on but will the west acknowledge that the horrific genocide in Syria ,Iraq ,Libya and Yemen the result of the actions of the US carrying out PNAC neocon policies.

    Why do Professor Pilar and MSM pundits prefer to use the word “migrants” instead of “War Refugees” which is what they are ?

    Economic refugees also is a poor way to describe the War refugees from Iraq , Afghanistan , Syria ,Yemen and Libya etc.

  9. F. G. Sanford
    September 21, 2015 at 15:00

    There’s this thing that goes on between serious adults who wish to communicate. It’s part of the ‘social contract’, and it makes negotiation a realistic possibility. It’s called “leveling”. There has never been a ‘peaceful’ phase in the Syrian crisis. There were never ‘flower children’ in the streets of Damascus professing brotherly love or democratic reconciliation. The ambassador to Syria was Robert Ford, underling of John “Death Squad” Negroponte. The strategy of civil disobedience inspired by “think tank” denizens and NGO’s is well documented. Once a vocal minority gets attention, the “death squads” flip the script by initiating violence against both sides – the same strategy used at Maidan. In Syria, they skipped the civil disobedience and went right to the violence. Consequently, most Syrians still support Assad. Plans to destabilize Syria were revealed in diplomatic cables from 2006 released by Snowden. Recent interviews with Lieutenant General Michael Flynn regarding the 2012 DIA Assessment characterized the rise of ISIS as a “willful decision”, not a civil war. A recent article by Finian Cunningham irrefutably characterizes the nature of ISIS as a Western proxy army. We are essentially allied with ISIS by virtue of supporting Saudi Arabia in Yemen. There was already fear of inchoate fascist xenophobia brewing in Europe. A refugee crisis largely orchestrated by human traffickers and policies designed to promote insufferable desperation has enhanced those ugly sentiments. Foreign fighters from 80 countries financed by Saudi Arabia, supplied by Turkey, trained in Jordan and given medical attention in Israel does not constitute a “civil war”. But our leadership would like to hang on to that ‘meme’ so they can claim the fighters are motivated by hatred of Assad – a total fantasy. What’s in the offing is a “strategic redeployment”, not a meaningful rejection of the Neocon plan. The last thing the Neocons want is a surviving sovereign state. So, please, Professor Pillar, why not “level” with us? Or…do I have to come up with another episode of Sensei and Grasshopper? The alternative could be WWIII…because Russia actually is…still a superpower.

    • Joe Tedesky
      September 22, 2015 at 00:56

      If this were a true Syrian civil war wouldn’t there be more Syrian’s fighting against Assad? Instead Assad’s Syrian citizens back him by some accounts, as high as 80%. What western government leader has that high of an approval rating? I don’t know of any, do you? One more thing, if the Syrian people were seriously in revolt, wouldn’t it seem easy to arm a free moderate Syrian revolutionary army?

      I am most curious to see what comes out of Netanyahu’s Russia visit. Will Bibi convince Vlad of how bad Israel has it with Hezzbollah and Hamas. I believe this is a really big reason we are involved in this Syrian/Iraqi mess. Oh, but there again, maybe we are afraid that ISIS will invade Ohio. This type of scare will sell commercial time on FOX for sure.

      Whitehouse Press Secretary Josh Earnest today blamed ISIS on Assad. Josh went so far to mention how Putin even acknowledges this meme that this is all Assad’s fault. Everybody knows this. So Putin’s Syrian aid package is only a way for Putin to gain leverage over Assad. Then Putin will get Assad to vacate his office. Don’t shoot the messenger, I’m only relating to what Earnest said.

      • zman
        September 22, 2015 at 15:51

        I don’t imagine Bibi is going there to try to convince him of anything. I figure he’s there to threaten, rather than cajole. Putin won’t fold and Bibi will go home empty handed. For Earnest to blame Assad for ISIS is the absolute height of hypocrisy, just more blather for the sheep. Putin knows that without Russia having assets there, Israeli and western forces would feel free to attack Assads forces until they’ve destroyed the entire country, which is their game: chaos. With Russia there, they will think more than twice about attacking Syrian assets, instead of their proxy ISIS, who they are supposedly ‘attacking’. Bibi is having trouble at home too, although Israeli media is as complicit as American media in their omissions and outright lies. The world mostly has no idea that there are large demonstrations in Israel over policy.

Comments are closed.