Proxy Wars

Russia's Intervention in Syria and What Washington Should Do

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (C) attend a meeting on Russian air force's activity in Syria at the national defense control centre in Moscow, Russia, November 17, 2015. Alexei Nikolskyi / Reuters

The attacks by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in Paris have forced a major rethinking of U.S. strategy in the Syrian conflict. A part of that rethinking must be U.S. President Barack Obama’s unwise decision to treat Russia as a legitimate partner in negotiations over Syria’s future.

At the G-20 meeting in Turkey this week, Russia quickly offered itself as a key partner in the fight against ISIS and the stabilization of Syria, and Obama again expressed his willingness to entertain that notion.

This is a grave mistake. Rather than being a constructive partner, President Vladimir Putin’s Russia has been engaged in a proxy war against the United States in Syria, despite Obama’s protestations to the contrary. And when an enemy wages war against the United States, it does not get to choose whether it is at war; its only choice is to win or lose. Right now, the United States is losing the proxy war in Syria—and a wider competition for regional influence—against Russia. And it will continue to do so without a dramatic shift in policy to confront Russian aggression.


In Syria, Putin professes that he wants to fight ISIS, but this is mere posturing. Even with new Russian strikes on ISIS-controlled areas in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks and the downing of the Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula, Russian forces have trained the large majority of its bombs on coalition-backed opposition fighters. Putin has also explicitly stated that he wants to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which directly contrasts with stated U.S. policy. Turkey, a NATO ally, has suffered repeated violations of its airspace as Russia pursues its offensive against Syrian opposition forces.

Russia is engaged in a shooting war against the United States’ clients to undermine U.S. policy. If that’s not a proxy war, what is? 

But this proxy war is

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