Solving Syria: How next US president could pressure Russia in new ways

Exerting more US influence in Eastern Europe could give Washington greater leverage with Moscow, which is key to resolving the Syrian conflict.

Karin Laub/AP
Brett McGurk, the White House envoy to the US-led military coalition against the Islamic State group, speaks during a press conference at the US Embassy in Amman, Jordan, Sunday. McGurk said the US will provide air support for an offensive to retake the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State extremist group.

There may be little agreement among Middle East policymakers over what the next US president should do in Syria.

But where views do start to dovetail is over that notion that the road to addressing Syria’s nearly 6-year-old civil war runs through Moscow.

Until Russian President Vladimir Putin is convinced the United States is serious about upping its game in Syria with steps to curtail the violence and force a return to diplomacy, regional experts say, the conflict’s trajectory is unlikely to shift.

“Right now the dilemma for the US boils down to leverage, and specifically leverage with Putin to make space for whatever actions the US might seek to take,” says Nicholas Heras, Middle East security fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington. “Russia and the Assad regime are winning, so until the US can increase its leverage,” he adds, “Russia’s position of strength will place a real check on any of the more aggressive steps the US might take.”

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has said little about what he would do to address the Syrian conflict, while Democrat Hillary Clinton touts implementation of a no-fly zone over parts of Syria and creation of safe zones for the civilian population – actions she has advocated since she was secretary of State.

But such steps risk confrontation with Russian forces in the country, analysts caution, noting that even an unintended event – like the downing of a Russian fighter jet – could dangerously broaden the scope of the conflict.

Russia would have to be convinced first that the US was serious about promoting its interests in Syria – like reducing violence so Syrians can safely remain inside the country – before the US could challenge Russia’s position of strength, analysts say.

Negotiating with the Kremlin

But how to increase leverage with Putin? The best way may be to first take action where Putin’s primary interests lie, some experts say. That means signaling a more robust American diplomacy generally through steps in Eastern Europe and the Baltics specifically.

“One of the first things the next president should do is bring back the two brigades” that President Obama removed from Europe as a cost-cutting measure, says Robert Kaplan, a senior fellow at CNAS. Mr. Kaplan is a prominent advocate of a “realist” foreign policy based on pursuing US interests while recognizing those of other parties. By reinforcing the US commitment to Central and Eastern Europe, he says, the US could “put us in a position to negotiate [with Putin] with actual leverage.”

Others say such actions would risk antagonizing Russia and could further deteriorate relations between the two powers without necessarily improving conditions in Syria. Indeed, discussion of such proposals, coupled with the prospect of a win by Secretary Clinton – viewed widely in Moscow as an anti-Russia hawk – has fueled a shrill conversation among Russian foreign policy elites about the prospects for World War III.

But US experts who advocate more aggressive US steps, including in Europe, say the point is not to antagonize Putin but to convince him the US is serious.

“I do think the next administration is going to think long and hard about how it can pair certain measures outside Syria with Syria and the direction we want to go there,” says Mr. Heras. “Syria is just one component of a much larger competition,” he adds, “We need to look broadly at Russia’s interests and what matters most, and that’s Eastern Europe.”

Some say it’s essential the next president set the stage for negotiating with Putin on Syria, rather than launching directly into operations in Syria – like establishing a no-fly zone – that without some kind of understanding could risk deteriorating into confrontation.

Altering Obama's approach

Yet others point out that Secretary of State John Kerry failed in his quest to implement a cessation of hostilities in Syria with Russia in large part because Putin does not think the US is serious about backing up its diplomacy with consequences.

Better to first create the conditions to take action, they say.

“First we increase our presence in the Baltic Sea, we increase our military exercises with the Swedes and the Finns,” says Dov Zakheim, a former undersecretary of Defense who is now the vice chairman of the Center for the National Interest in Washington. “Then I’d say to Putin, ‘You’ve got interests [in Syria] and we’ve got interests, so let’s work something out.’ ”

Kaplan says one thing the next president should abandon is Mr. Obama’s “Assad must go” policy (which in all but stated policy has been abandoned by the Obama administration anyway). More than a neat, two-sided civil war, Syria’s conflict is more the result of “state collapse,” he argues, opening the door to a complex array of internal and external actors.

“If you get rid of Assad, that will not stop the fighting at all,” Kaplan says. On the contrary, it would almost certainly intensify – not, he argues, what the US wants to see.

No matter what the next president settles on, no one expects Putin to simply sit by and wait for a new US policy towards Syria.

“There’s almost certainly going to be an initial period when Putin is going to test the next president,” Heras says. “Whoever the president is should be ready for it.”

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