Since the inauguration of President Trump, the United States has suffered a whiplash from the dramatic reversal in its foreign policy as it tries to discern a coherent strategy that explains its tactical strike in Syria. The United States’ U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have expressed competing objectives and goals for the outcome of the Syrian civil war. On a Sunday morning CNN talk show, Ambassador Haley said, “There’s not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime.” However, almost two weeks ago, Ambassador Haley and Secretary Tillerson said the removal of Assad was no longer an American priority.
The United States is trying to backtrack its way into a Syrian strategy. After years of minimal or non-intervention in the Syrian civil war (non-intervention that was once touted as a foreign policy success) Washington is still demonstrating a lack of strategy, credibility, and the resolve to achieve its goals of defeating ISIS and bringing peace to Syria. Meanwhile, Russia is already a prominent player in the Syrian civil war and it already has the strategy, credibility, and the resolve to complete its goals of defending President Assad.
Unlike Russia, the United States is a representative democracy, which means its leaders are accountable to their constituents. If for example, the American people oppose intervention in Syria, which they resoundingly do, the US government can do very little to signal credible threats without American support for such costly operations. For the past several years, the majority of Americans have expressed their unwillingness to endure another regime change styled intervention in the Middle East. The war in Iraq and Libya has greatly reduced the American appetite for another intervention in this part of the world. Moreover, with the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump, Americans chose the candidate that represented non- interventionist policies that emphasized ‘America first.’
All of this amounts to the understanding that President Trump, his constituents, and the American people do not support large-scale intervention or escalation in the Syrian conflict.
Conversely, Russia does not suffer from such ‘annoying’ democratic institutions that require it to act within some degree of its constituencies’ preferences. President Putin’s authoritarian regime enables him to act decisively without worrying about the domestic political consequences. However, this is not to say that domestic politics are not a factor in President Putin’s foreign policy calculations.
Ahead of the 2018, ‘election’ in Russia, President Putin has wholly accepted the outcome of the Syrian civil war and the livelihood of President Assad’s regime as a national interest. In lieu of the weakened Russian economy, President Putin has carefully switched out his ‘economic social contract’ with the Russian people for that of the ‘international prestige social contract;’ whereby Russians overlook and forgo domestic economic and political problems in place of international victories aboard.
It will be imperative that President Putin see through his commitment to defend President Assad’s regime. Therefore, Russia’s interests in Syria far outweigh the United States’ interests, which are still largely inarticulate as was seen by the statements made by Ambassador Haley and Secretary Tillerson over the past few weeks.
There are several implications for this mismatch of interests and credibility in regards to the outcome of the Syrian civil war. First, if tensions escalate between the United States and Russia, it is likely that Russia will be able to outmaneuver the United States because the Kremlin has vital national interests in Syria, which gives President Putin additional resolve to accomplish his goals. In comparison, the United States does not have the same type of invested interest in the outcome of the Syrian conflict. Therefore, Washington is more likely to back down in the face of serious conflict in the region.
Second, and as a result of the first point, any escalation of force between Russia and the United States’ will benefit Moscow. If my assumption that Moscow’s increased resolve and tenacity to defend Assad will outweigh the United States’ preferences for peace is correct, and conflict does in fact breakout, then it is likely that Russia will have the resolve to escalate and win any sort of short term conflict in Syria. By doing so, Russia would have successfully backed down the strongest military in the world. This would be humiliating for the United States and a resounding success for President Putin.
Third, to keep the United States less involved in the region it is likely that Russia will embed even more advisors and troops into the Syrian governmental forces, thereby ensuring the reduction of US strikes as Washington seeks to deescalate the tension between itself and Moscow.
Inevitably, the United States’ short-term tactic of air strikes is no match for Russia’s long-term strategy. Russia will dominate in Syria because they have the strategy, credibility, resolve, and the authoritarian power to support Assad in order to achieve a clear goal – preventing Assad’s defeat. In comparison, Washington does not have a strategy, the resolve, credibility, or the necessary support required in a democracy to wage another land war in the Middle East. Therefore, Washington’s tactic against Assad is no match for Moscow’s strategy.