Circling the Wagons on Syria

By looking to Russia for influence, America could topple the regime

What to do in Syria? Western military intervention looks fraught with difficulties, but the situation on the ground is a humanitarian nightmare and is producing greater instability by the week. A recent trip to Turkey and Russia has persuaded me that there might be a path forward. The pressures on Bashar Assad’s regime are real and mounting; it is running out of cash and now faces real military pressures from Turkey. These pressures could be heightened and combined with smart diplo–macy, and they could push Assad out of power. But that would mean trying to work with the Russian government rather than attacking it.

The U.S. has been bashing Russia for shielding Assad, coddling an ally at the cost of human lives and arming the Syrian military. Some of this is true, some false, and much is exaggeration. But all is unhelpful if the goal is to oust Assad. Unless the U.S. intends to ask Iran for help, Russia is the only country with any influence with the Syrian regime.

The first thing to realize is that Russia’s ties to Syria are limited. U.S. officials and much of the Western media keep repeating the mantra that the Assad regime is a crucial ally of Moscow’s. This is a vast exaggeration. Syria was a client of the Soviet Union’s, but as with many other Soviet allies, that relationship collapsed with the USSR. The economic ties are weak; Russia is Syria’s ninth largest trading partner, accounting for just 3% of Syrian trade. Syria’s largest trading partners are the European Union, Iraq, China and Saudi Arabia (which has three times as much trade with Syria as Russia does). The political bonds between Damascus and Moscow do not seem tight either. Assad’s first trip to Moscow took place five years after he became President—not exactly the behavior of a crucial ally. His first trip outside the Middle East was to Paris, which he has visited more frequently. The next year he visited London. He vacationed with Turkey’s Prime Minister on the Black Sea.

The Russian naval base at Tartus in Syria is often described as highly strategic. Yet the Russians don’t ascribe much importance to it, not in their words, actions or cash. The port is rarely used and has been allowed to crumble. When Russia’s only operational aircraft carrier visited earlier this year as part of a flotilla, no dock could accommodate it. No Russian ship is based there.

Russia is the main arms exporter to Syria and sells the regime a significant amount of hardware every year. Russian officials told me exports were about $150 million annually; many outside estimates suggest the figure is much higher. But in any event, last year Russian arms deliveries to Syria were a tenth of its deliveries to India, a quarter of its deliveries to Vietnam, less than a third of those to China and less than two-fifths of its deals with Algeria. Moscow exports more arms to Egypt than to Syria.

Russia’s ties to the Syrian military are real, however, and could be very useful to the West. Moscow could reach out and make Syrian generals understand that they could preserve the military in some form if they assisted in dislodging the regime and moving to a democratic framework. That is essentially what the Egyptian military has done, and while the revolution there has not been perfect, it has certainly been preferable to a long and bloody civil war in that country.

The Obama Administration has been pursuing a pointless campaign of vilifying the Russians—perhaps as a way to blame someone for the reality that there are few good options in Syria. On June 12, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly charged that the Russian government was sending attack heli–copters to Syria that “will escalate the conflict dramatically.” It turned out that the Russians were sending back three helicopters that were bought by Syria roughly 20 years ago and were refurbished in Russia. What is gained by these attacks?

Russia might be unmovable. Its officials are paranoid about Western interventions that topple unpopular regimes, seeing Panama, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya as part of a pattern. But they are also concerned about what would come after Assad—in a country where 40% are minorities—especially if a long sectarian war would energize –jihadi groups. Russia has had and continues to have struggles with such groups in its southern regions and border areas.

If the Russians can be persuaded that Assad is going to fall and that the best way to prevent radicalization is to push for a transition now, they might be willing to help in that transition. It’s a long shot—but not impossible—that Moscow will shift from being part of the problem to part of the solution. It’s certainly worth the effort before we move toward a wider and deeper war.