Editorial: Why the U.S. needs to dance with the Russian bear in Syria
As their dueling addresses to the U.N. this week made clear, President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin see the crisis in Syria in radically different ways. For Obama, Bashar Assad is a tyrant whose brutal repression of peaceful protesters led to a humanitarian catastrophe and who has forfeited his right to rule. But Putin cast Assad as an indispensable ally in the fight against Islamic State.
Even so, there is enough potential common ground to justify the administration’s decision to pursue cooperation with Russia, both in combating Islamic State and in advancing a political settlement of the Syrian civil war, which has cost the lives of 200,000 men, women and children over the last 41/2 years and uprooted millions of others.
Engaging Russia in this way is an acknowledgment of its growing influence in the region, but denial of that reality serves no purpose. In recent months, Russia has seized on the emergence of Islamic State to involve itself not only in Syria — where it has transported military equipment and appears to be on the verge of launching airstrikes, presumably against Islamic State — but also in the wider struggle against the extremist group that is also active in Iraq. Moscow is sharing intelligence now not only with Assad’s government but also with Iran and even with Iraq, a nominal U.S. ally.
Of course the U.S. and its allies must reject Putin’s suggestion that they join forces with “the Syrian authorities and government forces who valiantly fight terrorists on the ground.” But Russian assistance in defeating Islamic State — an objective the U.S. seems to have elevated above an early exit for Assad — shouldn’t be spurned simply because Moscow supports Assad, or because of differences on other matters, such as Ukraine. And, as a practical matter, coordination will be necessary if both Russia and the U.S. are launching airstrikes against Islamic State positions in Syria.
More difficult will be winning Russian support for a political settlement in Syria. Despite the praise Putin offered at the United Nations for the “valiant” regime in Damascus, Russia might be willing to support a peace agreement in which Assad would eventually step down or at least agree to share power with opponents. The U.S. is right to explore that possibility.
For Obama’s GOP critics, this frustrating state of affairs is the result of the administration’s failure to pursue a more muscular policy both in Syria and in its relations with Russia. We remain unconvinced that the U.S. could have turned the tide in Syria by arming Assad’s “moderate” opponents, a problematic strategy that became even riskier with the rise of Islamic State. Nor was it realistic to believe the U.S. could exclude Russia from discussions about Syria’s future. The focus now should be on pushing those discussions in the right direction.
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