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How to respond to Russia in Syria while avoiding World War Three

By Josh Cohen
October 13, 2015

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and French President Francois Hollande sit together at the start of a summit on Ukraine at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, October 2, 2015. REUTERS/Etienne Laurent

As Syrian rebels face an onslaught of Russian bombs ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin, back in Washington President Barack Obama faces incoming volleys himself.

Critics claim Obama’s lack of response to Putin’s bombing campaign makes Obama looks “weak” in comparison. Others argue that American “credibility” is at stake in Syria, and that the United States must now “reestablish deterrence” against Russia. Former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brezinski even claims that because Russian forces in Syria are “geographically vulnerable” they could be “disarmed,” though without explaining how.

The fact is any escalation would be dangerous by definition, and of dubious benefit to the United States.

For starters, none of Obama’s critics explain how Putin’s actions in Syria threaten American “credibility” or its deterrence posture vis-à-vis Russia. Risking credibility, in this case, means that if the United States does not counter an adversary in one place, this adversary will be tempted to threaten more vital American interests elsewhere. This was the logic behind the Vietnam War, where the United States’ expenditure of blood and treasure was meant to reassure our NATO allies that Washington would protect them from a Soviet attack in Europe.

That logic was misguided then and is equally misguided now. Putin is not threatening American allies such as Israel or the Gulf States, nor does he appear willing to risk a serious military confrontation with America’s NATO allies. Indeed, the United States already announced plans to station hundreds of tanks, howitzers and other armor in the Baltics, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s secretary general just stated that “we are implementing the biggest reinforcement of our collective defense since the end of the Cold War,” and that “NATO is on the ground. NATO is ready.”

While Putin may be prickly, he is not crazy, and no evidence exists that the United States’ caution in Syria will tempt the Russians to strike core American interests in other parts of the world.

In addition, those demanding a strong response to Putin’s Syrian campaign ignore a key fact: Even if Obama did favor an escalation in Syria, he faces a buffet of policy choices ranging bad to worse. For example, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) urges Obama to supply Syrian rebels with surface-to-air missiles capable of shooting down Russian planes. This ignores the fact that in Syria’s confusing mishmash of overlapping alliances, its “moderate” rebels frequently cooperate with al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. Since surface-to-air missiles can shoot down commercial airliners — as al Qaeda has narrowly missed doing previously — McCain’s idea is a recipe for disaster.

Another option for Obama is to revisit arming Kiev with billions of dollars of American military hardware. It’s difficult to see how this might induce Russia to stand down in Syria, and this idea also ignores how Putin may respond. As Obama rightfully concludes, Putin would likely react by increasing Russian support for the separatists; thereby make a bad situation worse. What is the point of causing a major flare-up in Ukraine if doing so won’t solve anything in Syria?

Finally, the very notion of “disarming” Russian military assets in Syria by military force lies somewhere on the spectrum between crazy and suicidal. Russia would almost certainly respond by striking American or NATO military forces — perhaps in Eastern Europe — so unless Obama suddenly feels a hankering to start World War Three this is an idea the president can safely ignore.

None of this means the United States should ignore Putin’s Syrian military campaign, but it does demonstrate that Obama is right to respond cautiously. Nevertheless, the president can take certain steps — just not the type that will satisfy Washington’s legion of escalation.

First, the White House must not act like the sky is falling every time Putin does something it disapproves of. Beyond propping up Russia’s longtime ally Bashar al-Assad, Putin’s Syrian campaign also allows him to stick his thumb in America’s eye. The best way to respond is not hysterically, but calmly. Russia does not possess anything near the military strength of the Soviet Union, and exaggerating Russian power serves no useful purpose. Indeed, if Russia is dragged deeper into the Syrian quagmire — particularly if its forces suffer casualties — Putin may come to rue his Syrian gamble. Thankfully, this type of attitude fits perfectly with Obama’s “play it cool” persona, and in fact during the president’s recent news conference he noted that Putin went into Syria “out of weakness, not strength.” It would be nice to see the rest of Washington follow Obama’s lead.

Second, Obama should ensure that the Pentagon continues its policy to “de-conflict” Russian-American air operations in Syria. An accidental clash between American and Russian forces could not only produce unpredictable military consequences, but would also allow Putin to raise the rhetorical temperature several notches — which fits precisely with his desire to ratchet up support at home by aggressively confronting the United States.

Lastly, Obama should redouble efforts to find a solution that ends the slaughter in Syria. One worthwhile idea is to duplicate the P5+1 strategy that worked so well in the Iran negotiations. This strategy would require that the interests of all stakeholders in Syria are taken into account, including the Iranians. Obama would need to stop demanding Assad’s departure as a pre-condition for successful talks, but this is a price worth paying if it stops the slaughter. Syria will almost certainly never return to its status as a unitary state with strong centralized control over its entire territory, but all parties share a common fear of Islamic State and this should serve as a common starting point for P5+1 Syrian talks.

The Syrian conflict presents no ideal outcome for the United States, but by proceeding cautiously Obama can prevent a dangerous military clash with Russia — and also avoid making a bad situation worse.

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