Ending the forever war: saving Syria and resetting relations with Russia

By Jocelyn Iannis Meakins

The death toll stands at 400, 000 and counting. The roster of international actors involved lengthens by the day. Syria is a blazing inferno. Turkey’s recent incursion entrenches the battle lines still further and demonstrates precisely why neither side will be allowed to turn the tide of war militarily. External interventions ensure that the bloody stalemate cannot be broken and with the US and Russia supporting opposite sides, the current proxy war could be fueled and funded indefinitely. Both the American led coalition and Russia are unwilling to mount a full-scale ground invasion yet neither side is prepared to cede ground to the enemy. The recent US-Russia ceasefire looks shaky at best and will doubtless unravel like every other attempt. This deadlock makes a mockery of UN sponsored efforts to staunch the bloodletting and increases pressure for immediate action.

Amidst this chaos there have been strident calls from sectors of the US security establishment to confront Russia and push back militarily, yet indulging in such foolish ratcheted escalation would be a grave mistake. Russia is a nuclear armed power with revanchist ambitions and a penchant for military posturing. Overtly challenging Putin’s Syrian gambit risks a further deterioration in relations and an unprecedented destabilisation of the post-war order. Current relations with Russia are bad but there is scope for them to get unimaginably worse if the US military enters the picture.

Thankfully, however, there are other options. Although anti-Western rhetoric is a useful public relations lever for Putin’s regime, it is only one of the hybrid weapons in the Kremlin’s arsenal. A spectacular foreign policy coup or sanctions relief are two other much sought-after goals which would buoy Putin’s regime in the upcoming Duma elections. Russia’s shrinking economy and budget cuts necessitate grandiose foreign interventions to peg Putin’s popularity to Russia’s global stature and thereby distract the populace from economic misery. At the same time, lifting sanctions would help to revive Russia’s flagging economy and lessen Putin’s global isolation.

This gives the West leverage. The only way to end Syria’s suffering is to implement a UN mandated peace plan involving NATO and Russian troops which would split Syria along sectarian lines into several zones of responsibility. The US could guarantee safety and ceasefire in the Kurdish regions; Turkey and/or Saudi Arabia could occupy the Sunni areas, while Russia and Iran could preside over the predominantly regime-controlled Alawite and Christian segments. Assad could be convinced to step down by Russian rewards and assurances of sanctuary or he could be left to rule over a rump Alawite/Christian enclave. To be sure, such a plan would require much cooperation and negotiation but it is eminently achievable and infinitely preferable to the current chaos. Its provisions and enactment have already been outlined in greater depth by several RAND scholars.

However, merely offering Putin the chance to burnish his great power credentials is not enough. Lifting sanctions imposed on Russia after Crimea is the other essential inducement and despite protestations to the contrary, the moral and strategic imperatives for doing so are manifest.

Firstly, the timing for striking a ‘grand bargain’ with Russia is auspicious. Obama is looking to his legacy and would dearly love a resolution to the Syrian quagmire while Putin would benefit from a successful foreign policy stunt prior to parliamentary elections. More importantly, with Britain, one of the most vocal proponents of sanctions no longer in the EU, it seems increasingly likely that sanctions will not be extended. If the end of sanctions is inevitable, the West might as well get something in return.

Secondly, the deterioration of relations with Russia threatens global security. Our current trajectory seems to promise a new nuclear and conventional arms race in Europe, as well as reinstating the threat of Armageddon. Like it or not, Russia is a preeminent nuclear power and opting for isolation over engagement will only make Putin more dangerous. The doomsday clock already stands at 3 minutes to midnight and improving relations with Russia is essential if we are to stop the countdown to apocalypse. Moreover, the ongoing war in Syria is also a grave threat to European stability. The migrant crisis has frayed Europe’s political stability with Brexit being the biggest casualty thus far. If we are to halt Europe’s drift into extremism then halting mass migration is a must.

Thirdly, the argument that lifting sanctions would be a betrayal of Ukraine is fallacious. In any Syria deal the West would make abundantly clear that negotiation on Syria does not mean a weakening of support for Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations. Indeed, as a token of good faith both the EU and the US and UK could offer further financial and military support to assuage Ukrainian concerns. Although lifting sanctions might be galling at first, achieving peace in Syria would be fair compensation. Besides, the EU has already violated its own founding principles by agreeing a migrant deal with Turkey and abrogating the concept of non-refoulement. Is trying to improve relations with Putin’s Russia really so different from doing a deal with Erdogan’s Turkey? At least Russia hasn’t yet purged 80,000 civil servants and released 38,000 prisoners on early probation in order to detain political suspects. Despite the myriad flaws of Putin’s rule, Western countries are in danger of applying double standards. Russia under Putin is certainly no worse than Saudi Arabia, yet, while Russia is ostracized, Saudi Arabia is buttressed and financed. Even now, Western military advisors are helping Saudi Arabia orchestrate a bombing campaign in Yemen which has claimed the lives of 510 children last year alone. Just because Russia is a predominantly Christian, European nation does not mean that it should be held to different standards.

That is not to say that dealing with Putin’s Russia is pleasant but we live in an imperfect world. Crimea is irrevocably lost and nothing short of a major war will win it back. Moreover, despite the terrible tribulations of ethnic Ukrainians and Tatars in the peninsular, the majority ethnic Russian population in Crimea wishes to be part of Russia. In sum, recognising Russia’s fate accompli in Crimea and accepting the will of the majority of Crimeans is a price worth paying for peace in Syria. Doing so will be neither palatable nor popular but sometimes it is better to do a deal with the devil you know than carp on about a paradise lost.

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Jocelyn Iannis Meakins

Joss Meakins is a graduate student studying Russian and International Politics at Columbia University. His primary research interests include Ukrainian political reform, Russia's military modernization and NATO-Russia relations.

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