It Would Be a Serious Mistake to Provoke Russia Over Syria
James Rubin makes a number of faulty assumptions in his argument for Syrian intervention, but this may be one of the worst:
Some worry that U.S. involvement risks a confrontation with Russia. However, the Kosovo example — where NATO went to war against another Russian ally, while Moscow did little more than complain — shows otherwise. In that case, Russia had genuine ethnic and political ties to the Serbs, which don’t exist between Russia and Syria. Managing Russia’s reaction to outside intervention will be difficult but should not be exaggerated.
The role of the Moscow Patriarchate’s sympathy for Syrian Christians in shaping Russian policy towards Syria’s conflict can be overstated, but it shouldn’t be ignored. Whether the Kremlin has genuine or feigned concerns for the fate of Syria’s Christians isn’t important. What matters is that it has an incentive to act as if it is genuinely concerned.
One need not look for religious reasons to understand that Russian opposition to Western and Gulf state intervention in Syria is just as strong as its opposition to NATO’s war on Serbia. One critical difference this time is that Western governments aren’t simply dismissing Russian objections as an irrelevant obstacle. Another difference between 1999 and today is that Russia is not nearly as weak as it was then. It was much easier to ignore Russian objections during the Kosovo war, because there was no cost in doing so. Russia didn’t do much more than complain in 1999 because there was relatively little that it could have done. Thirteen years later, it would be a mistake to assume so blithely that the U.S. could avoid provoking some significant Russian response.
Russia is unlikely to acquiesce to a U.S.-backed effort to promote regime change in one of its client states. It is more likely that the Russian response to almost any form of U.S. military intervention in Syria would more closely resemble Russia’s angry reaction to the Bucharest summit and Western recognition of Kosovo’s independence in 2008. Before that year was out, a U.S. client state had been egged into fighting a war it couldn’t win and was subsequently partitioned, and U.S.-Russian relations were at their lowest point since the Cold War. Citing Kosovo of all things as proof that the U.S. needn’t worry about provoking Russia suggests that Rubin hasn’t been paying much attention to Russian foreign policy for the last decade.
Besides, the U.S. is still fighting in Afghanistan, and the U.S. needs to retain Russian cooperation in light of the horrible state of U.S.-Pakistani relations. It would be the height of folly to provoke the Russians over Syria at the same time that American and NATO forces are relying on supply routes running through Russia. That is another factor that wasn’t present in 1999, and one that Rubin completely ignores.