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.