Thursday, October 23, 2014

Russia-US: Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place on Syria

This article first appeared on The Epoch Times

     President Obama has had his differences with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.  Russian aggression in Ukraine has struck a chord with President Obama and he has mobilized western allies to isolate Russia from the rest of the "civilized" and orderly world.  Further complicating the US-Russia relationship is Russia's alliance with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  The United States is staunchly opposed to the Assad regime going as far as declaring it illegitimate.  However, it would seem that Syria should be an area of mutual cooperation given the vested interests of both nations to stem the tide of terrorism.  Despite previous cooperation between Russia and the US in Syria - which was only initiated by Russia for fear the US would strike the Assad regime (their ally) in retaliation for using chemical weapons on its own people - the two no longer seem to be seeing eye to eye.

     A recent news report explains the confusion and constant nefarious diplomacy between Russia and the United States.  "Did the United States and Russia agree to share intelligence about ISIS? Secretary of State John Kerry insists they did. The Russian foreign minister insists just as strongly they didn’t," the report opens.  There is mistrust on both sides as The Daily Best reported "[t]he Russian government also isn’t confident that Kerry speaks for the entire administration," and in many cases vice versa.  Putin is a very authoritative leader and Secretary Kerry's Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, has put forth tentative agreements in the past that bore no fruit - such as a cease fire at the beginning of the Ukraine crisis.  At a recent policy discussion concerning US and Russian relations hosted by the Brookings Institution, panelists agreed that President Obama did not get on the right foot with Putin from the beginning.  Some on the panel, such as Victoria Panova, Russian citizen and scholar, even believe that it will take a change in administrations to thaw or reset relations between the two countries - there is just too much mistrust right now.      

     Russia has a stake in combating groups such as the Islamic State in Syria because they have struggled with their own home grown terrorism problems for years.  Russia has cracked down harshly on the North Caucasus region, which is home to a large Muslim population and includes Chechnya and Dagestan.  There have been several uprisings and cases of homegrown terrorism against the Russian government from this region and many foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq hail from the North Caucasus.  In fact, one of the Islamic State's top military commanders in Iraq, Abu Umar al-Shishani, is of Chechen origin and is thought to have previously supported Chechen Jihadists.

     In what appeared to be a sign of progress in relations and support, Russia allowed the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2170, which called on member nations to take stronger measures to monitor and stem the flow of foreign fighters. Up until this point, Russia halted most everything from the United Nations Security Council (using its veto power) that was contrary to maintaining the Assad regime in power.  Russia surely does not want hardened terrorists returning to wage war against their government as has been done in the past.  As Fiona Hill, wrote previously, "Putin is really motivated to support the Assad regime by his fear of state collapse -- a fear he confronted most directly during the secession of Russia’s North Caucasus republic of Chechnya, which he brutally suppressed in a bloody civil war and counterinsurgency operation fought between 1999 and 2009."  Such a statement signifies Russia's stake in the fighting in Syria.  However, Russia's incentive to cooperate with the United States on matters of terrorism run counter-intuitively to recent events and previous Russian sentiment.          

     Many experts and scholars point to the eastern expansion of NATO as a catalyst of Russia's intervention in Ukraine.  In a recent Foreign Affairs essay, author John Mearsheimer argues that NATO enlargement and European Union expansion has pushed Russia into a corner.  Despite the fact the Ukraine (and NATO) does not want to join the military alliance, the inkling that spurred the domestic unrest in Ukraine in the first place - a trade agreement with Europe allying Ukraine closer to the west than with Russia - caused Russia to feel threatened from Western beset.  "Imagine the outrage in Washington if China built an impressive military alliance and tried to include Canada and Mexico in it," wrote Mearsheimer.  With this in mind, if the United States succeeds in Syria with their coalition and topples the Assad regime, they will likely enjoy even more influence in the region.  A defeat of Assad is a defeat for Russia, its ally.  Russia's tactical incentive to cooperate with the United States on counterterrorism measures is outweighed by its overall strategic goal to squelch western influence, especially in areas where Russia currently enjoys diplomatic weight.

     Western sanctions against Russia are not easing the tensions either.  As Ms. Panova stated at Brookings, "The more you push [Russia], the harsher the response you get."  Additionally, the underlying problem that says Assad must go creates problems in terms of better US-Russian relations.  Kenneth Pollack, also of the Brookings Institution, offered stark analysis of the situation currently in Syria; "[the Islamic State] is not the problem; [the Islamic State] is the symptom of the problem. The problem is the civil war in Syria and Iraq."  A similar sentiment was expressed by historian and author Christian Sahner who stated that at its root, the problem in Syria is a civil war that started between the regime and opposition, who had legitimate domestic gripes.  This notion has been lost in the cacophony of barbarism into which the war has evolved.  The Islamic State "has...diverted the world's attention from what are arguably first order problems inside Syria...a tragedy indeed," Sahner stated.  

     If Assad must go, how can the US and Russia ever come to a consensus?  This is the major dilemma and conundrum.  It is clear there is a major disconnect between both regimes and the answer may be new administrations as the damage between diplomatic channels could be irreparable.  Though there are still two years left in President Obama's term, he and Putin, whose autocratic reign may not sunset, must cooperate on key issues of mutual national security for the benefit of the region.      

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