Although historical analogies are often whoppingly abused, the past crisis brought to my mind by Russia’s decision to launch airstrikes in Syria has nothing to do with the Middle East – and not even with the so-called 1969-1970 Israel-Egypt War of Attrition. That’s when Soviet pilots began flying combat patrols over Egypt to save its leaders from a humiliating defeat. Instead, the analogy that worries me is the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. This conflict quickly turned into a proxy war between the Europe’s democracies and its fascist dictators, and World War II broke out shortly after the latter prevailed.
The forces being mainly and possibly exclusively attacked by Moscow so far are not the ISIS terrorists that have been targeted by the U.S.-led coalition in Syria, but Syrian and other groups waging an American-backed revolt against Syrian dictator Bashir Al-Assad. So even though Washington’s support for the anti-Assad insurgents has been half-hearted, this Russian escalation clearly confronts President Obama with the prospect of defending these forces militarily, or suffering a hammer blow to whatever anti-ISIS and Middle East strategies he is pursuing, and to America’s global reputation. And even if the Russians wound up focusing on ISIS – in parallel with the American-dominated air campaign – the chances of friendly fire-type mishaps would be alarmingly high.
There are tempting arguments to be made for letting Vladimir Putin do the world’s dirty work in Syria, even if it leaves Assad in power. But they’re not arguments that Mr. Obama or his supporters can make, since the Syrian tyrant’s ouster has been a major goal of theirs for years. Much more important, the president’s hawkish critics also make valid points in warning that a Putin-Assad victory would greatly boost the influence of a Russian-Syrian-Iranian coalition in a region whose oil remains crucially important to the world economy. And although ISIS’ defeat would greatly reduce the terrorist threat the United States has faced from the Middle East’s Sunni Muslims, it’s entirely possible that Putin and his friends could empower Shiite replacements.
So it’s true that, as I’ve written, over the long run (really meaning “ASAP”), the best American approach to the Middle East is responding to the threats it generates with domestic policy measures. But it’s also true that even though U.S. dependence on Middle East oil – and in turn, the world’s, since global energy markets are so tightly integrated – is greatly reduced, the kinds of border security improvements needed to keep most terrorists out are nowhere in sight. So opting out of the Middle East, or a “Let Putin Do It” approach, simply aren’t safe enough options yet.
Putin indeed might back down if the United States follows through its vow to continue its own airstrikes whether or not they bring American jets dangerously close to Russian craft. But that’s only a possibility, and one fraught with peril. Economics may offer a better option, in one of two ways.
First, the West could at least decisively strengthen the message sent by continued sorties over Syria, and thus get the Russians out of its skies sooner rather than later, by threatening to impose truly sweeping sanctions on Moscow.
Some international business ties have been cut off in response to Putin’s muscle-flexing in Crimea and Ukraine, and Russia’s economy has been hurt, but the pain clearly has been manageable. Moreover, the sanctions’ failure to change Russian behavior so far stems no doubt not only from their limited scope, but from Putin’s clear, and seemingly sensible, confidence that the Europeans, whose own economies have been weak, are eager to restore unfettered commerce – or at least are determined not to escalate sanctions unless absolutely necessary. But if the Europeans are as angered by Putin’s latest moves as they sound, here’s their chance to show it. And here’s Washington’s chance to find out just how reliable an ally Europe will be.
But there’s another sanctions-related strategy worth considering: a Western promise to end the sanctions if Putin agrees to abandon Assad and cooperate actively and comprehensively with the U.S.-led campaign to destroy ISIS. The result would be a de facto Western acceptance of Russian domination of neighboring Ukraine – surely Putin’s top current strategic priority – in exchange for the Russian leader (temporarily?) dropping his ambitions to be a dominant player in the much further away Middle East. In the process, Putin also gets to help counter Islamic terrorism, a continuing threat in those Russian regions with big Muslim populations.
This bargain should serve Western interests, too, since however regrettable Ukraine’s likely fate is, its importance to U.S. and European security is dwarfed by the need to defeat ISIS. And victory in Syria could start easing the refugee crisis with which Europe is struggling to cope.
But whether the prospect of much greater economic losses is enough to end Russia’s military intervention, or whether the prospect of ended sanctions accomplishes the goal, economics seems to have considerable potential for defusing a genuinely scary Syria situation. The Europeans’ cooperation certainly can’t be assumed – especially for sanctions escalation. But here’s hoping that, although there’s no evidence for diplomatic creativity in Washington, President Obama is at least exploring such proposals.