Home/Daniel Larison/Boycotting Sochi Isn’t Going to Help Syria

Boycotting Sochi Isn’t Going to Help Syria

David Rothkopf proposes a very bad idea for Syria diplomacy:

The Russians have a big event coming up next year in Sochi — the Olympics — that will have all eyes of the world upon them. To date, their support of Syria has had no real cost. It is time for Kerry to indicate that the United States has both carrots and sticks and the will to use them to move the Russians to a position more consistent with international law and basic human decency….Alternatively, the United States can and should privately send a message that should the Russians refuse to play a more constructive role, America will have to reconsider its involvement in their big party.

Using the ridiculous boycott of the Moscow Games in 1980 as a model is not a promising start. At least that boycott was a protest against a major act of international aggression. What would a U.S. boycott of Sochi be protesting? That Russia is not sufficiently cooperative in overthrowing a foreign government? I have never been convinced that Russia can be made to change its position on Syria, so I don’t understand why the U.S. should go out of its way to sour relations with Russia even more when there is no real chance of compelling Moscow to “play a more constructive role” (i.e., do what Washington wants). One problem is that the Russian government doesn’t accept that the U.S. and its allies are playing a constructive role in Syria, so it isn’t likely to want to support U.S. actions that it views as destabilizing. Once we start talking about Olympic boycotts, it should be obvious that there are no credible policy options left for pressuring Russia on Syria.

Rothkopf says that Kerry “must be clear that the United States will use all the tools in its toolbox to get the Kremlin to move on Syria,” but that’s not credible. How much is the U.S. willing to antagonize Russia over Syria, and what is it truly willing to risk if attempts to cajole and pressure Moscow backfire as they so often do? At present, Russia is cooperating on supplying the war in Afghanistan and it will be important to maintain that cooperation while U.S. forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan. Is that cooperation something that the U.S. is willing to jeopardize? It shouldn’t be, but if the U.S. wants to put more pressure on Russia over Syria it had better be prepared for an unwelcome response.

It seems unwise to antagonize Russia in the hopes of gaining support on Syria that will…do what exactly? People on both sides of the Syria debate tend to exaggerate the influence Russia has in Syria to the point that they treat a change in the Russian position as a sort of deus ex machina to “fix” the problem. Syria hawks want to exaggerate Russia’s role to blame Russia for what is happening, and advocates for a negotiated or political solution want to believe that Russia is in a position to force Assad to make concessions. All of this is very flattering to Russia, but it’s not true.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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