Russia’s push to support Assad in Syria and its agreement to share intelligence with Syria, Iran, and Iraq has evoked the predictable handwringing here in the United States. Some worry that Russian involvement will derail the U.S. fight against IS. Others worry that Russia’s engagement will weaken U.S. influence in the Middle East and further embolden Vladimir Putin in his various misadventures. Such concerns are misplaced. Even though Putin has no intention of helping the United States his maneuverings have in fact done just that. Rather than ramping up U.S. engagement to outdo the Russians, as hawks are calling for, Obama should instead take this opportunity to reassess and redirect U.S. policy.
Russian actions have improved Obama’s Middle East “strategy” in three ways.
First, Russian initiative in 2013 kept the United States from getting involved in Syria too early. As horrendous as the $500 million training initiative turned out to be, it was a drop in the bucket compared to what the United States would have spent by now had the United States engaged earlier and more aggressively. When Assad’s regime blew past Obama’s ill-advised “red line” on chemical weapons, it was Russia that came in to save the day, brokering an arrangement that led Syria to give up its chemical weapons. Had Obama instead launched a few meaningless missile strikes at the Assad regime the United States would have shouldered greater responsibility for the regime’s behavior. Both Republicans and liberal interventionists in his own party would have pushed Obama toward deeper and ultimately more costly intervention.
Second, Putin’s recent actions make clear that the United States does not have to carry the expanding burden of fighting IS alone. In the absence of any real partners on the ground and with no desire to go it alone, the United States has been reduced to half-measures in Syria. Had there ever been an identifiable group of moderate rebels then perhaps a U.S. training program would have made sense. Today, however, with IS pressing hard and moderates thin on the ground, such a strategy is clearly too little and too late. Without partners, the United States has no real ability to influence events on the ground. Airpower has many strengths, but even a much broader campaign of airstrikes could not win the day without the backing of U.S. ground troops. Russia is not the partner the United States would have chosen, of course, but the fact remains that Russia is willing and able to take the fight to IS in ways that benefit the United States.
Third, to the extent that Russian involvement replaces U.S. involvement, the United States will benefit from passing the role of “bullseye” to Russia. Fourteen years of military intervention, occupation, and aggressive counterterrorism has not produced a pro-U.S. coalition determined to combat IS but instead a widespread and deepening anti-Americanism. As the Arab Barometer reveals, robust majorities of many Arab publics believe that U.S. interference in the Middle East justifies attacks against the United States. Expanding the U.S. footprint in Syria and Iraq at this point will produce more unhappiness, more radicalism, and more anti-American violence.
Best of all, Russia has given Obama the opportunity to pivot away from the miscues, missteps, and misreads that have produced zero visible impact on IS and zero progress in resolving the mess in Syria or Iraq. Russian involvement essentially precludes increased U.S. military involvement and shifts the balance of power toward Assad. On the one hand this limits U.S. options and stymies Obama’s call for Assad to step down. At the same time, however, it also prevents Obama from doubling down on failed strategies to find and train non-existent moderates and precludes any notion of sending ground troops. This gives Obama the necessary breathing room to reconsider U.S. goals in Syria and to redirect U.S. strategy.
Some will argue that the price tag of Russian engagement is too high: Putin rising, Assad in power, U.S. influence on the wane in the Middle East. The truth, though, is that the United States has wielded unprecedented influence over the Middle East since 9/11 and has discovered that it is the price of influence that is too high. Through 2014 the United States had suffered almost 7,000 casualties and spent over $4.4 trillion on the war efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. For that unimaginable toll the United States has bought two broken nations, spurred the creation of IS, and ensured the growth of Iranian power. And as yet there is no end in sight. Vague concerns about our future ability to promote national interests in the Middle East pale in comparison to the certain costs of war. Given this, Obama’s best move today is to thank Putin and reconsider what sort of influence in the Middle East the U.S. truly needs and how to achieve it.