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Russia Won’t Help on Syria

Paul Saunders sees an opening for working with Russia to reach a negotiated solution to the Syrian conflict. He challenges the view that Russia won’t cooperate, which he describes this way:

One recent articulation of the “Russia won’t” case appeared in the International Herald Tribune and online at The New York Times, where former Obama administration State Department official Samuel Charap argued that Moscow will not back any plan to remove Assad because Russian officials are determinedly opposed to the principle of outside intervention in any nation’s domestic politics and don’t want to legitimize U.S. and Western interference in Russia’s own governance. This line of reasoning has typically been more common among neoconservative commentators skeptical of U.S.-Russia relations in general than with enthusiastic backers of the administration’s reset policy like Charap.

It seems to me that Charap has the better of the argument here. Whether one thinks the “reset” was successful or not is beside the point. Russia has opposed Western interventions in the internal affairs of other countries for decades. Russia does this primarily for self-interested reasons, but it’s also true that these interventions are a “threat to the stability of the international system.” Moscow remains opposed to any Western effort to topple regimes, especially when those regimes are aligned with or at least on good terms with Russia.

One can accept this as a given, as Charap does, or whine about it as critics of the “reset” tend to do, but it has been one of the few constants in the international response to the Syrian conflict. It’s true that it would have been smarter for the sake of maintaining better relations if the U.S. hadn’t uselessly, gratuitously insulting Russia and China over the last year on the Syrian issue, and it’s true that the Libyan war soured Russia on offering even token cooperation, but there was never much chance that Russia was going to help the U.S. or European governments achieve a goal that Moscow didn’t share. The desire to find some diplomatic fix for the Syrian conflict is understandable and admirable, but creating unrealistic expectations of what Russia can or will do in this regard just sets up the U.S.-Russian relationship to be needlessly damaged more than it has been.

Charap goes on to make the “Russia can’t” argument as well. Charap explains that Russia is no longer able to pressure Assad effectively, because Assad’s position has become more desperate than it was earlier:

Perhaps Russia had such leverage with Assad 12 or 18 months ago. But now he is in a fight for survival, and there is no good reason to believe that he would do anything more than smile and nod at any ultimatum from Moscow. And since such a hypothetical ultimatum would at a minimum involve Assad’s immediate departure, because that would be the only way to get the opposition to the table, it will remain a hypothetical one.

Charap is right about this, too, but focusing on Russia misses the point and attributes a degree of influence to Moscow that it doesn’t have and arguably never had. Regardless, any chance of a negotiated solution to the conflict depends on the willingness of the parties to the conflict to accept a power-sharing agreement, which no one seems inclined to accept at this point. The obstacle to a negotiated solution won’t be overcome by appealing to Moscow or demanding more from Washington, since the main obstacle is the maximalist goals of the warring sides.

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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