2. Would NATO oppose Russia directly and with force, if she overran Georgia? We could. Would we?
3. Would NATO threaten to shoot down Russian aircraft airlifting troops and equipment to Syria? We could. Would we?
4. If NATO were faced with losing Russian cooperation on the northern logistics route to Afghanistan, would the NATO nations be prepared to accept that as a cost of enforcing a solution on Russia in Syria?
It is not certain how these questions would be answered, and that’s where Russia’s dilemma lies. I do not by any means assess that Russia is ready to launch a campaign today. But I do assess that the West has not taken seriously Russia’s fundamental objection to seeing Syria regime-changed by an Arab coalition whose principal outside patron is not Russia. The problem for Russia is not so much that Assad has to be replaced as that the Western powers propose to do it in conjunction with the Arab League, an arrangement that diminishes Russia’s influence on the process while opening a door for state-Islamist radicals. If Syria is to be given a new regime through an Arab partnership, Russia wants to be in the lead.
The strategic issue for Russia here is not merely the narrow concern about having a base in the Med. It is the approach, ever closer to Russia, of a Western-backed “tectonic shift” – Medvedev’s expression for the Arab Spring – that keeps opening political doors to the Muslim Brotherhood. If common cause is going to be made with the Muslim Brotherhood, Russia will do it, selectively, and for her own purposes. She will resist having Muslim Brotherhood-led or -influenced regimes inflicted on her near abroad by the West.
Libya was a different story: always an outlier in numerous ways, and in any case having old and geographically obvious ties to the major economic powers of Europe. It was not a direct blow to Russia for the West to handle Libya in the peculiar, indeterminate manner chosen by France, the UK, and the US. But Syria is different. What happens in Syria will affect everything for 2,000 miles around on three continents. Russia can’t let Syria be handled as Libya has been. Neither can Turkey, for that matter, which is why the Turks have been eager to take the Syrian resistance under their wing, and keep coming up with new proposals for talks and coalition building.
Failures of US policy
The bottom line, however, is that the US could handle the whole Syria issue differently. What is missing in this saga is American leadership, on traditional American principles. The outcome in Syria is not solely about a revolution against a terrible dictator. It has repercussions for the power relationships and security arrangements of everyone in the region. If there is no great power seeking to foster a good outcome for the Syrian people, while also balancing the concerns of other interested parties, then there will be no balance: there will only be a back-and-forth scramble in which the chief victims are the Syrian people.
The back-and-forth scramble is what we are seeing. It is not strategically sound to simply back one faction in a situation like this, on the narrow basis of ideology, but that is what the Obama administration has done. Instead of taking leadership, it has backed a plan Russia has good reason to find inimical and dangerous.
The US should be concerned about the danger as well – but instead, the Obama administration is seeking reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, backing it in Syria (see here as well), and proposing to fund and treat with the terrorist group Hamas. The Russians are justified in being worried that the US shows little discrimination in our choice of clients and protégés in the region. Whether the reason is ideological sympathy or ideological naïveté, the US administration’s affinity for the most radical, repressive, Islamo-statist elements in the Islamic world cannot be a basis for strategically responsible uses of power.
The Obama administration showed clearly during the Libya operation that it was committed to not using US power to achieve decisive political outcomes. Yet US power is the element most badly needed in the situation in Syria. The feat needed in Syria is one to which only America, up to now, has been suited: acknowledging the regional implications of any Syrian outcome; bringing Russia into a group effort; and yet also bringing an end to the Assad regime on terms favorable for the Syrian people, and acceptable to the Arab world, the West, and Russia.
Perhaps, in the weeks ahead, another nation will find a way to fill that role. France may shift her focus: from dismissing Russia and setting up a separate coalition, to trying to engage Russia. Turkey may be able to broker a group effort in which Russia gets a role.