Hosam Katan / Reuters An aerial view shows damaged buildings in Seif El Dawla neighborhood in Aleppo, April 23, 2015.

Should the United States Work With Russia in Syria?

Foreign Affairs' Brain Trust Weighs In

We at Foreign Affairs have recently published a number of pieces on Russia's intervention in Syria. To complement these individual articles, we decided to ask a broad pool of experts for their take. As with previous surveys, we approached dozens of authorities with deep specialized expertise relevant to the question at hand, together with a few leading generalists in the field. Participants were asked to state whether they agreed or disagreed with a proposition and to rate their confidence level in their opinion; the answers from those who responded are below:

The United States should work with Russia to fight ISIS.

Results:

Poll Results: The United States Should Work With Russia to Fight ISIS

Full Responses:

DMITRY ADAMSKY is Associate Professor, School of Government, and Institute for Policy and Strategy, at IDC Herzliya.
Agree, Confidence Level 8     

 

ILAN BERMAN is Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.
Disagree, Confidence Level 7
The question presumes that Russia’s primary motivation in Syria is indeed a broad counterterrorism campaign. In fact, Russia’s intervention there is driven by multiple overlapping motives—of which the fight against the Islamic State (also called ISIS) is just one. The outcomes that Moscow seeks (including strengthening the Bashar al-Assad regime, preserving Russia’s military access to the Mediterranean, and gaining leverage for its policies in Ukraine) are all overwhelmingly inimical to long-term U.S. interests. Thus, although Washington and Moscow may share a tactical interest in eroding the Islamic State, embracing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s current approach to Syria does not make for sound U.S. policy.

DANIEL BYMAN is a Professor in the Security Studies Program at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
Agree, Confidence Level 7    
Russia is not really fighting ISIS. It is propping up the Syrian regime. If Russia were truly engaged against ISIS, its promises and desires would be deserving of a serious look. But it’s simply backing a brutal dictator and sticking it to the United States in doing so.

MARTHA CRENSHAW is a Senior Fellow at CISAC and FSI and a Professor of Political Science by courtesy at Stanford.
Disagree, Confidence Level 8
This would be very problematic because of a lack of sincerity of Russia’s part, although being on a collision course isn’t good either. But the United States needs to be thinking hard about our insistence that Assad must go.

JANINE DAVIDSON is Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense.
Neutral, Confidence Level 7  
Russia’s initial actions do not suggest that Moscow shares Washington’s goals on either ISIS or Assad, so efforts to “coordinate” will likely fail.

ADEED DAWISHA is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Miami University.
Strongly Disagree, Confidence Level 10       
Russia’s response has nothing to do with ISIS and everything to do with propping up the Assad regime.

And by the way, any mention of Crimea or Eastern Ukraine lately?

GREGORY FEIFER is author of Russians: The People Behind the Power.
Strongly Disagree, Confidence Level 10       
Russia’s main military objective in Syria is to complicate the situation on the ground rather than help seek a resolution that would undermine ISIS. Propping up Assad, Russia’s sole Middle East ally, is part of Moscow’s effort to take international center stage. The opposite of cooperation, Putin’s overarching aim is to boost his public approval ratings by frustrating the West. The Kremlin sells this to Russians as restoring Moscow’s Cold War influence—a crucial element in propping up Putin’s corrupt, authoritarian regime at a time when the country is suffering increasing isolation and economic recession.

PAGE FORTNA is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and a member of the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.
Agree, Confidence Level 6    
It is hard to answer this question without knowing what “work with Russia“ and “fight ISIS“ mean. If the alternative is “not work with Russia” but still fight ISIS, then I strongly agree. If the alternatives have to do with how much effort and in what way the United States fights ISIS, then I’m less sure and would need to know what options are being considered.

JAMES GOLDGEIER is Dean of the School of International Service at American University in Washington, D.C.
Neutral, Confidence Level 7  
Theoretically, the United States should work with Russia and other powers to combat ISIS. But Putin’s move into Syria is only partially about ISIS. And it’s only partially about Assad. One of Putin’s major projects throughout his presidency has been to restore Russia as a great power. He has also sought to undermine U.S. leadership of the international order. In addition, Putin seeks at a minimum to distract attention away from Ukraine and, if he can, create greater European eagerness for a deal there. But in Syria, as in Ukraine, it’s easy to get in; it will be much harder for Putin to develop a strategy for getting out.

PHILIP GORDON is Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region from 2013 to 2015.
Neutral, Confidence Level 5  
It depends on the definition of “work with,” and it depends on Russia. The United States should not work with Russia on a strategy that consists merely of defending the Assad regime and attacking ISIS, which would be counterproductive in the long run. If, on the other hand, Russia is prepared not only to fight ISIS militarily but to join the United States and others in promoting a genuine political transition in Syria, then the United States should be prepared to work with it. The United States should make this clear to Russia and test Russia’s readiness to do so.

NIKOLAS K. GVOSDEV is Professor of National Security Studies at the U.S. Naval War College. (The views expressed here are those of the author alone.)
Agree, Confidence Level 1    
In theory, U.S.-Russian cooperation in confronting ISIS makes perfect sense, given the threat that ISIS poses to both countries’ interests. It is in the details that all sorts of problems arise. From Moscow’s perspective, all groups opposed to the Assad regime are de facto allied to ISIS to some degree and are therefore open to being targeted by Russian military action. Given that Moscow’s first strategic goal is to shore up Assad’s hold on the remaining portions of Syria still under his control, going after ISIS in its eastern desert strongholds is not a priority.

From the U.S. perspective, the goal is to cultivate a Syrian opposition that can both confront Assad and fight ISIS, which does not align at all with Russian objectives. Therefore, unless Moscow concedes that Assad’s departure will be inevitable or Washington changes its position on Assad, very little will be achieved, which is why I have given my answer the most “unsure” rating.

SHADI HAMID is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy and author of Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.
Strongly Disagree, Confidence Level 9         
That the United States should work with Russia to fight ISIS presupposes that Russia (and Assad) are genuinely interested in fighting ISIS, which they aren’t. Assad, with Russian backing, has from the beginning avoided targeting ISIS and instead focused his attention—and firepower—on mainstream rebel forces. Russia is now doubling down on that approach. To their credit, this strategy is effective because it persuades many in Western capitals that we should hold our noses and work with Russia, Assad, and Iran against the greater evil: ISIS. This is a bit like working with an arsonist to put out a fire, but some appear to find this sort of thing appealing.

JOOST HILTERMANN is Middle East & North Africa Program Director at the International Crisis Group.
Strongly Disagree, Confidence Level 10       
The United States should work with Russia (and Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia) to find a solution to the Syrian war, not get further drawn into the fighting—and certainly not now that the Russians are entering what may prove to become a quagmire. Moreover, ISIS is a symptom of this conflict, not the cause, and it is therefore is the wrong target. Attacking it without at the same time addressing the much more important root problem of a regime that does not hesitate to barrel-bomb and gas its own people will serve only to strengthen the group, not to weaken it.

JAMES JEFFREY is Philip Solondz Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Washington Institute. He was Deputy National Security Adviser from 2007 to 2008 and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012.       
Strongly Disagree, Confidence Level 10       
Russia’s claim to fight ISIS is a red herring to allow it to support its own interests, including its base and its ally, Assad. But at the same time, it is crafting an alliance with Iran to jointly undermine the U.S. regional order.

ROBERT JERVIS is Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Affairs at Columbia University.
Agree, Confidence Level 6     

 

EDWARD P. JOSEPH is Executive Director of the Institute of Current World Affairs and Senior Fellow and Lecturer at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Strongly Disagree, Confidence Level 8         
We know very little about ISIS. But we do know from fighting Islamist extremists such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (from whence ISIS came) that the only way to achieve sustained results is with the Sunnis themselves. Joining with Moscow—whose intervention is primarily aimed at backing Assad—will only alienate, not recruit, Sunnis from the anti-ISIS effort. If the United States wants Sunnis to join in this fight, it needs to demonstrate how their efforts will reward their primary concern: the struggle against Assad.

STEPHEN KOTKIN is Professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University.
Disagree, Confidence Level 6
Russia does not appear interested in working with the U.S. militarily. Nor are other regional powers, such as Saudi Arabia or Turkey, very interested in working with Russia. So this seems to be a hypothetical question.

Military action—individually or jointly—must be in the service of a political strategy. How is fighting ISIS part of a larger strategic goal? Stabilizing Syria, and the wider region politically, would be a strategic goal. And, theoretically, Russia could be a partner in that, which is why the United States has been conducting diplomatic talks with Russia about Syria—to no avail, at least so far.

Most fundamentally, it is not clear to me that there is an attainable stable outcome for Syria, regardless of the desire or ability of the United States and Russia to work together. The solution in Syria, as throughout the Middle East, would be good governance, and we do not really know how to create or facilitate that, certainly not in this region.

JOSHUA LANDIS is Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He is a member of the Department of International and Area Studies at the College of International Studies, and the President of the Syrian Studies Association.
Agree, Confidence Level 1     

KIMBERLY MARTEN is Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University, and Deputy Director of Columbia’s Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies.
Neutral, Confidence Level 10
Russia has now attacked some ISIS targets in Syria, but earlier Moscow intentionally targeted U.S.-backed anti-Assad rebels, despite Kremlin claims to the contrary. The question remains open about what Putin’s intentions are in Syria, as does his real interest in international cooperation or even military deconfliction, given his repeated and intentional violations of Turkish air space. Washington should keep the door open to limited cooperation with Putin but be on high guard against his pattern of surprise, deception, and disinformation. It should understand that he will never be a reliable or trustworthy ally.

JOHN J. MEARSHEIMER is R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.
Strongly Agree, Confidence Level 10
Working with Russia is the only way to end this conflict anytime soon, which is an especially important goal, not only because the conflict is a humanitarian disaster for the Syrian people but also because the continued flow of refugees from the war into Europe is eventually going to have an ugly effect on European politics. Furthermore, if there is any hope of decisively defeating ISIS—and there is not much cause for optimism—the United States will have to work with Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah.

BARAK MENDELSOHN is Associate Professor of Political Science at Haverford College and a Research Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
Disagree, Confidence Level 8
Russian policy, not ISIS, is the central challenge to U.S. global interests. Moreover, cooperating with Russia means strengthening Assad, which would contradict Washington’s need to finally show its allies in the region that it can be depended on. Thus cooperation with Russia will be justified only if Moscow will start taking actions that are compatible with core American interests.

RAJAN MENON is Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor in Political Science at the City College of the City University of New York and Senior Research Scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.
Neutral, Confidence Level 9  
It’s much too early to say whether the United States should coordinate with Russia in Syria, although it would be foolish to rule it out categorically. That’s because it’s not entirely clear what the Russians’ objective is—maybe even to Russians themselves—and how their military campaign, which has just begun, will unfold.

As far as I can tell, the Kremlin’s aim is not to save Assad per se; instead, Moscow likely hopes to avert the collapse of the Baathist state that he heads. That state has been in a precarious situation for some time. (It’s wobbly and now controls only about a fifth of Syria’s inhabited areas.)

Moscow’s minimal goal may be to preserve some semblance of the regime—with or without Assad—in a defensible bastion stretching roughly from Tartus to Latakia on the coast to the Jabal an-Nusayriyah in the east (that is, the historic Alawite areas of Syria), while retaining Damascus and its environs if at all possible. No matter what territories the regime ends up controlling, the Kremlin’s goal appears to be to ensure that the Baathists remain a political and military factor if and when there is a political settlement. (Russia will trade Assad away if that’s necessary in a political end game.)

Russia’s operation in Syria is not that of a lone wolf; nor is it impulsive. And all signs are that it has been coordinated with Iran and Iraq, whose interests in Syria converge with Russia’s in important respects.

Journalists and pundits who depict Moscow’s military moves in Syrian as a product of Putin’s machismo, his desire to divert attention from Ukraine, or his fear that a Moscow spring could follow Assad’s fall are puerile.

The Soviet Union and then Russia has had a major strategic stake in Baath-ruled Syria since the mid-1950s. The Kremlin has been the chief source of aid and arms (sales started in 1955) for successive Baathist regimes for six decades running. The Russian navy’s access to the Syrian port of Tartus dates back to 1971. And the ties between Russia and Syria remained strong after the Soviet Union imploded.

If the West, the Arab states, and Turkey have security objectives in Syria, so too does Russia. If the West fears that there could be a blowback effect created by the jihadists (from Europe and to a lesser extent the United States) who have gone to fight in Syria, so too does Russia. Numerous Russians are said to be involved, on the Islamists’ side, in the war against Assad.

As the Kremlin now sees it, the choice in Syria is between some sort of coalition in which the Baathist plays a role or a regime run by radical Islamists, most likely ISIS, or the al Qaeda–affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, with the radical Islamist Harakat Ahrar al-Sham (Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant), which often joins forces with Nusra, participating in some significant fashion. (Nusra itself cooperated with ISIS until two years ago.)

The claim that Moscow has projected military forces into Syria to destroy “pro-Western” or “moderate” forces backed by the United States and its European, Turkish, and Arab allies presumes that such groups are consequential on the Syrian battlefield or that they haven’t fought intermittently alongside al Qaeda–linked groups. (As has Suqour al-Sham, Falcons of the Levant, for instance.) In Syria’s labyrinthine and murky battlefield, alignments are opportunistic and fluid. Hence such labels as “moderate” and “secular,” which are applied to it in commonplace Western commentary, are meaningless.

One can approve or disapprove of Russia’s military moves in Syria, but they do not amount to theater or PR. Instead, they are motivated by strategic interests. Seen thus, they are unsurprising.

MOHSEN MILANI is Professor of Politics and the Executive Director of the Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies at the University of South Florida.          
Agree, Confidence Level 8     

ALEXANDER MOTYL is Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University–Newark.
Strongly Disagree, Confidence Level 10      
The United States should let Russia expend its lives and resources fighting ISIS. Then, at some point, when both sides are weakened, the United States should step in.

JOHN MUELLER is a political scientist at Ohio State and a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute.
Strongly Agree, Confidence Level 10 

 

MITCHELL A. ORENSTEIN is Professor of Central and East European Politics in the Slavic Department at the University of Pennsylvania.
Disagree, Confidence Level 9
Russia and the United States do not have the same interests in Syria; in fact, they appear to be mostly strongly opposed. Russia seeks to convince the United States that we have much common ground, but we do not.

DAVID PETRAEUS is former Director of the CIA, Commander of Coalition Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Commander of U.S. Central Command.
Disagree, Confidence Level 8
If, and it is a huge if, Russia wanted to fight ISIS, then presumably the United States and other coalition members would welcome Russia joining the coalition of more than 60 countries in conducting coordinated operations against ISIS. It is now very clear, however, that Russia is not focused on fighting ISIS; rather, it is focused on keeping the Assad regime in power in order to retain Russia’s access to the naval base at Tartus and the air base near Latakia. And in supporting the regime, Russia is conducting more attacks against non-ISIS Sunni opposition forces than it is conducting against ISIS. Those attacks have included strikes on opposition elements supported by the United States, which obviously makes the situation for the United States vastly more complicated and challenging than it already was.

PAUL R. PILLAR is on the faculty of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. Concluding a long career in the Central Intelligence Agency, he served as National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005.
Agree, Confidence Level 7    
Russia also has other motives, of course, but that fact need not preclude working on the basis of where U.S. and Russian interests regarding ISIS overlap.

BASSEL F. SALLOUKH is Associate Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and Associate Professor of Political Science at the Lebanese American University.
Strongly Agree, Confidence Level 10 

ALLISON STANGER is the Russell Leng ’60 Professor of International Politics and Economics at Middlebury College and the author, most recently, of One Nation Under Contract: The Outsourcing of American Power and the Future of Foreign Policy.
Strongly Agree, Confidence Level 8  
As I have written recently for Foreign Affairs, we shouldn’t sell short the virtues of Westphalian principles in a region that has entered the Middle East version of Europe’s Thirty Years’ War. If we can make a deal with Iran, we can also explore the potential for working with Russia to contain the violence and despair that have produced the tidal wave of refugees. Like it or not, Russia is a player in Syria and has been for quite some time; despite the public outcry, there is nothing new there. In the months and years ahead, it will be a principal challenge of U.S. diplomacy to work with other regional state powers to forge some semblance of order out of minimal shared values. That coordinated approach is in the interests of the other major powers as well as of all people who do not embrace ISIS’ definition of a better world. Working with states committed to embarrassing us has been and will be difficult, but it has been done before and the potential to move in a better direction is there.

To those who might object, I would ask them to articulate a better strategic alternative that is reality rather than fantasy-based. I do not see one.

JESSICA STERN is a Fellow at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at the Harvard School of Public Health and a Lecturer in Government at Harvard University.
Agree, Confidence Level 5     

DANIEL TREISMAN is Professor of Political Science at the University of California–Los Angeles and the author of The Return: Russia’s Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev.
Agree, Confidence Level 7    
The United States should cooperate—cautiously—with any state that is committed to fighting ISIS. If nothing else, it should do what is possible to avoid accidents between U.S. and Russian aircraft. At the same time, it should not assume that defeating ISIS is Russia’s main goal in Syria. And it should try to avoid letting the Russian media portray any coordinated U.S. and Russian action in Syria as signifying the end of Russia’s international isolation. Cooperation on fighting ISIS should not be allowed to weaken the U.S. position with regard to Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

TAMARA COFMAN WITTES is a Senior Fellow and the Director of the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings. She served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs from November of 2009 to January 2012.
Disagree, Confidence Level 8
If you are talking about Syria, it's hard to see how U.S.-Russian cooperation against ISIS would work well, given that the two countries have fundamentally different objectives. Limited tactical cooperation might be possible, but the primary impact of Russian involvement is to escalate a war that the U.S. should be assiduously working to end.

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