Realist political thought is said to focus on national interests. But you wouldn’t know that from recent commentary, like Stephen Walt’s piece touting Vladimir Putin as a master strategist and Barack Obama as bumbler. Or Edward Luttwak’s paen to Putin’s strategic brilliance. Both Walt and Luttwak are regarded as being of the realist foreign policy school, but neither seems to consider national interests. Rather, they focus on – well, both articles are conceptual messes, so it’s hard to tell what they are focusing on. But it’s not national interests, unless you define national interest, as many are doing these days, in terms of the nebulous “reputation.”
Which seems to mean putting on a good show and trash-talking your opposition. Putin has featured both in his foreign policy, and it can be argued that Obama has neglected the public communication parts of strategy. But realists are supposed to look at facts on the ground more than talk. Oddly, Walt does that in the beginning of his article, and the balance is far to the side of American strategy, but he saves the day by arguing that Putin is playing a bad hand better than Obama is playing a good hand. He does not consider how those hands got that way.
There are a number of ways to critique the two articles and related expositions of alleged Putin strategic superiority (Joshua Foust, Daniel Nexon, Adam Elkus). It may be useful to list probable Russian and American interests in Syria’s ongoing civil war in what might be considered a realist analysis.
Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is Russia’s only ally in the Mediterranean. Syria was a Soviet client in the days of the Soviet Union; it is the only Soviet client in the area that Russia has managed to maintain. Russia has ports at Tartus and Latakia and a small airbase at Latakia. Russia needs to keep Assad in power and hang on to those bases, which complement their naval base in Crimea in projecting power into the Mediterranean. Before Russia intervened, Assad’s troops were doing badly in the war, and fewer men were available for conscription. It seemed possible that Assad could fall.
Russian aid to Assad will also increase Russia’s leverage over him. Syria is a potential path for natural gas pipelines from Russia to the Mediterranean, and Syria has signed gas exploration contracts with Russia.
On the downside, Assad is guilty of atrocities against his people, including attacks against civilians with sarin, chlorine, and barrel bombs. His refusal to negotiate with protesters, firing on them instead, was the beginning of the civil war. It is hard to see how his remaining in power can stabilize the country, another Russian interest.
Russia may be balancing against Iran. Russia seems to have planned its Syria operation with Iran, but other reports are that Assad is feeling too much pressure from Iran and called Russia in or that Russia and Iran have had differences over the preferred outcome in Syria. Russia’s interest is to prevail over Iran in influencing Syria.
Putin is trying to stabilize the Middle East. This is one of Putin’s stated goals of the Syrian intervention. Western intervention destabilized Iraq and Libya, with no resolution in sight. Although Syria’s civil war originated within the country, Putin seems to believe that all such instability originates in Western intervention. In this reasoning, supporting Assad’s existing government should serve to stabilize Syria and perhaps the surrounding area.
Instability in the area is particularly dangerous for Russia, whose population includes over 10% Muslims, many of them in the volatile Caucasus region, not far from Syria. Russians have joined anti-Assad forces in Syria, and they could cause disruption when they return home.
The downside is that Russia is entering the conflict on the side of Shia Iran and Alawite Assad, thereby alienating the Sunni powers in the area. Turkey, which was being courted by Russia, is angry about the Russian intervention. Forty Syrian insurgent groups have vowed enmity against Russia. Within Russia, most Muslims are Sunni and not happy about the side Russia has taken. So Russian intervention may further inflame the instability it is intended to curtail.
Russia wants a place at the peace negotiations. That probably would have been the case without Russian military intervention.
Russia wants to challenge Western domination and claim a more powerful position in the world. This is the interest that looms large in the arguments that Putin is a master strategist. His tactics seem to be focused on gaining more attention for Russia’s military capabilities, like the cruise missiles launched at Syria from the Caspian Sea, and on attaining a Yalta-like conference with Western leaders to define great-power spheres of interest.
A focus on Syria could also take the spotlight away from Ukraine with an eventual lessing of sanctions. Certainly the spotlight has shifted within Russia, as state-controlled media pivoted rapidly away from Ukraine and toward Syria in a “We have always been at war with Eastasia” movement. Military action in Ukraine seems to be decreasing.
Increase the price of oil. Russia has suffered from the crash in the price of oil. War in an oil-producing area has boosted the price slightly.
Stability in Syria. The war in Syria and the resultant refugee flows spill over into American allies in the region, including Turkey, Israel, Iraq, and Jordan. There is no obvious successor to Assad, and ISIS now holds parts of the eastern part of the country. Refugee flows to Europe pose problems there. The refugee camps in neighboring countries have the potential of recruiting more terrorists. Disease is also a potential problem; polio cases have occurred in Syria, and vaccination efforts are facing severe difficulties.
Because the war began in uprisings against Assad and many of the militias involved want to unseat Assad, it will be difficult to bring about peace talks and probably impossible to stabilize Syria as long as Assad is in power.
Because Syria has been a Soviet and Russian client, the US has no bases or other immediate geopolitical interests there. And thus no physical assets to defend within Syria.
Hamas and Hezbollah, enemies of Israel, have backing from Syria. Removing or weakening them would be a plus.
Update (October 14, 2015): Josh Busby suggests that limiting the contagion of war to other states in the area, particularly Turkey, is an American interest. I agree that it’s a meaningful addition to the list.
Russia has quite a few interests in a particular settlement of the Syrian war: for their client Assad to remain in power, to keep their military bases, and to limit the radicalization and training of Russian citizens in jihad. America’s interests are primarily in achieving a stabilized Syria to end the refugee flows and humanitarian problems.
The admirers of Putin’s strategy focus on reputational issues: that Russia is making the US, or Putin is making Obama, look bad. This has not historically been a part of realist analysis, but perhaps in a world of media, it becomes more important. But “looking bad” depends on the frame through which the looking is done. In this case, it seems to depend on inserting more military might. Putin also tends to win points by surprise tactics, which can, however, be used only once and whose power is limited.
We are also suffering from a hangover from the unipolar 1990s, which Robert Farley nicely summarizes. The United States cannot make sure the good guys win everywhere. In fact, the US has been largely ignoring wars in Africa for a number of years. Nor should the United States intervene or increase involvement in Syria simply because Russia does. US interests are broader than keeping Russia in check, and Russian influence in Syria is far from new; historical indications are that it is not a major problem for the US.
Another war in the Middle East, however, is not in American interests. The monetary and other costs of such a war would not be supported by the American public. What would be in American interests and less costly would be a ramped-up effort to help refugees from military action in Syria.
Cooperation with Russia may be possible, although not on the terms Russia has offered. As Putin continues to propose a grand coalition against ISIS, Russia has targeted other anti-regime forces much more heavily than ISIS. Any cooperation must be carefully shaped to avoid Russian disinformation and achieve objectives consistent with Western interests. The EU has called on Putin to stop bombing Syria and for more to be done to assist refugees.
Beyond the antics designed to inflate Russia’s image as an international badass, there is a real difference in strategy. On Russia’s side: great-power politics, spheres of influence, Congress of Versailles, against the West’s rule of law, national self-determination, and the United Nations. Russia’s, and the realists’, strategy gave us a half-century of world wars culminating in the invention of nuclear weapons. The West’s strategy is intended to prevent that from happening again.
Photo from Washington Post.