Every week, a selection of leading experts answer
a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy
challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic
Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International
Yes, it should—and in doing so, it should learn
from its past mistakes. The West intervened in Afghanistan in
response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It then intervened in Iraq,
based on the supposed absolute certitude that former Iraqi president
Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Finally, it
intervened to free Libya of the country’s strongman leader Muammar
In all those cases, the West was deluded in
thinking it could export democracy and human rights. On the
contrary, the West’s failures opened the doors to the so-called
Russia must be on board for the international
community to have a chance at stopping the Islamic State before it
is too late. This primarily entails ending the Syrian Civil War.
Time is short. The jihadists are advancing across the Southern
Mediterranean. Investigations suggest that the Islamic State is
directly managing the trafficking of migrants into Europe, using the
illegal trade to send back radicalized young Europeans.
The West cannot afford to end the Syrian Civil War
in the way it dealt with Libya or Iraq. Realism must once again rule
in international relations: together, the West and Russia can reach
a compromise to ensure a peaceful transition in Syria, including
finding a safe haven for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Despite
all the difficulties, the July 2015 Iran nuclear agreement is proof
that the West and Russia can still cooperate together
internationally—and that when they do, results are achieved.
Director of foreign policy at the Centre for
The West has no choice but to work with Russia on
Syria. As one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s main backers and
a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Moscow will
participate in any diplomatic process.
But the West and Russia have irreconcilable
objectives. The West has consistently but ineffectually tried to
unseat Assad; Russia has propped him up, equally consistently but
with more determination.
No doubt on the advice of Russian President
Vladimir Putin, Assad has used Russia’s Chechen gambit: if your main
opponents are reasonable men, kill them and replace them with
blood-soaked Islamic militants; then tell the world your breed of
mass murder is less of a threat than that of the militants. Not only
has Assad largely refrained from attacking the self-proclaimed
Islamic State, but he has even shared gas revenues with the group.
Now Putin’s aid to Syria includes air defenses to threaten the
Western-led coalition that is attacking the jihadists.
So is Russia really intending to work with the
West to solve the Syrian crisis? Or is it just showing that it will
disrupt Western efforts unless bought off—perhaps with sanctions
relief or Western acquiescence in keeping Ukraine weak and divided?
If the West falls for this trick, it should not be surprised to find
even more refugees—Syrian or Ukrainian—on its doorstep soon.
President and founder of Eurasia Group
It’s time to accept that Russia will play a larger
and lasting role in the Middle East.
The U.S. president’s Syria policy is a failure.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad survives and continues to violate
international conventions. At least a quarter of a million Syrians
have died since the country’s civil war began, refugees are on the
move, and the self-styled Islamic State continues to attract new
recruits. It’s the worst of all possible worlds.
The United States’ Russia policy is worse. The
U.S. administration stumbled into conflict with Russia over Ukraine,
a country that matters much more to Moscow than to Washington, and
Russian President Vladimir Putin is now proving that Russia is too
big to isolate.
Focus on the future. U.S. President Barack Obama’s
primary Middle East commitment should be to destroy the Islamic
State, the best-equipped, best-funded terrorist organization in
history. The militant group threatens to destabilize countries
across the Middle East. It’s attracting recruits and imitators
around the world, filling refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon, and
Jordan, and flooding Europe with desperate migrants.
The Obama administration and the majority of the
American people want to avoid sending U.S. troops back into Iraq,
and the Islamic State can’t be destroyed from the air. Washington
needs partners. NATO allies, Iran, Iraqi militias, and Russia all
have good reason to want the Islamic State on its back. All will be
Transatlantic fellow for Central and Eastern
Europe at the German Marshall Fund of the United States
By massively boosting its military presence in
Syria over recent weeks, Russia has created irreversible facts on
the ground. It has done so to demonstrate that Russia reserves the
right to be involved in resolving any conflict or crisis, wherever
in the world it may occur. The Kremlin sees this
indispensability—together with its sphere of influence, which is at
the root of the Ukraine crisis—as a key ingredient that defines
Russia as a global power.
Russia has effectively succeeded. As of now, a
unilateral Western intervention in Syria like that in Libya in 2011
has become impossible, as it would risk a direct military
confrontation between Russia and the West. Instead, the West will
now have no choice but to accept the negotiation format, which
Russian President Vladimir Putin will propose at the upcoming
meeting of the UN General Assembly. The drawn-out process that is
likely to follow will do nothing to ease the pain of Syrians but
everything to safeguard the regime of Syrian President Bashar
Yet with its actions in Syria, Russia has
shattered all the hopes that emerged in the wake of the July 2015
deal on Iran’s nuclear program. This global agreement had suggested
that Russia might be a cooperative partner on conflicts outside its
immediate neighborhood. Over time, such cooperation would serve as a
confidence-building measure, eventually allowing for the joint
resolution of conflicts closer to Russian borders, such as that in
Ukraine. As is now obvious, Russia is determined to act as a
spoiler, thwarting Western efforts at conflict resolution the world
In short, the question is no longer whether the
West should work with Russia on Syria (or anywhere else). Instead,
it is how the West can do so on anything other than Russia’s terms.
Florence Gaub and Nicu Popescu
Senior analysts at the EU Institute for Security
Given that the West has little appetite for a
forceful unilateral intervention in Syria, the real question isn’t
whether the West should work with Russia, but how, as no option is
left other than negotiation. For peace negotiations to be
successful, all stakeholders, of which Russia is one, need to be at
the table—or the exercise leads back to square one.
The Russian notion is that the West wants too much
in Syria—both the self-proclaimed Islamic State and Syrian President
Bashar al-Assad out of the picture. Russia believes the West has to
choose. But many in the West are convinced that removing Assad will
ultimately deplete the Islamic State, killing two birds with one
stone. This is handy because Russia has stated repeatedly that it is
not married to Assad, only that it opposes regime change by
If the West and Russia can agree on the removal of
Assad (but not all Assadists), that is an important starting point
toward the trickier next phase: convincing the Syrian stakeholders
that his departure is an acceptable alternative to ongoing war.
Head of the Middle East and North Africa Program
Of course. As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s
main provider, there is no way around Russia. Unfortunately, U.S.
and European efforts to win Moscow’s support for a diplomatic
solution have so far failed to change the geopolitical equation by
providing a sufficient incentive for Moscow to stop fueling the
Unlike in the nuclear talks with Iran (now held up
as a blueprint for forging a successful single-issue coalition among
key players that otherwise disagree), on Syria, Russia pursues
fundamentally different goals from the West and is prepared to use
its full spoiler potential. Russia’s long-standing Middle East
policy has been to counter Western influence through alliances with
anti-Western regimes. These have now been either toppled or
estranged from Russia—except the Assad regime.
For Moscow, keeping its foothold in Syria is about
sustaining geopolitical claims in an embattled Middle East,
preventing precedents of revolutionary regime change, containing
Sunni extremist spillover into Russia, and, most importantly,
containing Western influence in an international environment in
which Moscow is now uncomfortably isolated.
The recent Russian military deployments in Syria
suggest that the Kremlin is willing to use its leverage and exploit
Western vulnerabilities on the Syria dossier to gain ground in its
larger zero-sum battle with the United States, this time at Syria’s
expense. The West must not fall for Russian President Vladimir
Putin’s trap: as long as Syria’s choice is framed as the Islamic
State versus Assad, both will prevail.
Visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
The Syrian tragedy has been going on for four and
a half years, and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
would have collapsed multiple times if it had not been for Russia’s
(and Iran’s) direct support with ammunitions, spare parts, and
As the regime shows signs of exhaustion, Russian
support is not going away; it is currently increasing, with more
advisers and more sophisticated weapons. This reflects the
long-standing political and military alliance between the Assads and
Moscow, itself one essential pillar of Russia’s presence in the
Middle East. The other pillar is Russia’s history of military
cooperation with Egypt.
As a consequence, the West has no other choice but
to work with Russia—and with Iran, which has made a comeback on the
Middle Eastern diplomatic scene after striking a major international
deal on its nuclear program on July 14.
The issue is how to bridge the wide gap between
the West and Russia on the fate of Bashar al-Assad himself. Most
diplomats and experts from both sides agree that any political
settlement needs to preserve the structures of the Syrian state and
army. But, as long as Assad continues to indiscriminately pound
civilians with barrel bombs, the West will have genuine difficulty
in entertaining a discussion with Moscow—and Tehran.
Member of the Council on Foreign Relations
Yes. But is Russian President Vladimir Putin ready
to play ball? The conflict in Syria now more closely resembles a
plot from the TV series Game of Thrones than the immutable, glacial,
frozen trenches of Cold War I. Friends and foes change overnight.
Maps of the bombing patterns of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s
army and of the self-styled Islamic State reveal that the two sides
rarely hit each other, as they both focus their fire on other rebel
Putin wants to keep his safe harbor at the Syrian
coastal city of Latakia while having a bargaining chip on the table.
He may bet on diplomacy and try to engage U.S. President Barack
Obama in some kind of talks. But Putin is a tactician, never a
strategist. So he will not wage war in the Middle East, a task too
difficult for today’s Russia. Instead, he will brawl and flex his
muscles, but mostly, he will wait and see what the United States and
So what will they do? I wish I could pen an
articulate answer full of innuendos and smart speculations. My
guess, sadly, is that the Americans and Europeans will sit and talk,
launch a few air strikes, and wait for the next wave of refugees.
Senior fellow at the Transatlantic Academy
No. Working with Russia on Syria would be possible
only if the West shared Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal: to
keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power. Of course, Russia
won’t say that—because the only way for Moscow to lure the West into
cooperation is to pretend that Russia is ready to see Assad go.
Russia’s interest in Syria is to make several
points: that Russia is a global player; that autocracy is
legitimate; and that Russia is a trustworthy patron for countries
with an anti-Western outlook. But the way to attract the West into
cooperation is to pretend that Russia’s goal is to fight terrorism.
The Kremlin smells that the West may be about to
fall, as the so-called Islamic State remains strong, as Europe’s
refugee crisis challenges EU unity, and as Washington remains
undecided over Syria. And some in the West seem to be falling
indeed, keen to find common ground with a Russia that has appeared
quite scary in recent months. Syria then becomes a tool to improve
But there is no common ground between the West and
Russia in Syria. Assad is the country’s biggest terrorist,
systematically killing many more civilians than the Islamic State.
Most refugees are fleeing Assad’s bombing and gassing. With Assad in
power, war won’t end. Fighting the Islamic State will be possible
only if Assad is gone. These are two sides of the same coin.
Senior associate in Carnegie’s Russia and
The loss of Syria to radical extremists is in
neither the West’s nor Russia’s interests, so the obvious answer
would be to work together. The problem, however, is that Moscow and
Washington disagree over what to do with Syrian President Bashar
Washington has long believed that Assad is the
major problem in Syria and that Russian support for him is propping
up a bloody regime, weakening moderate opposition forces, and
Moscow, however, has long argued that the Assad
regime is the only force preventing an extremist victory in Syria
and that Washington’s democracy agenda is a cause of instability in
the region. East-West cooperation on Syria has broken down in the
past over these disagreements, and there is little indication that
this has changed.
What has changed is the collapse of East-West
relations over Ukraine, which makes cooperating with Russia even
more difficult and immediately raises suspicions about what the
Kremlin is up to with its recent deployment to Syria. That
deployment could very well be Moscow’s last-ditch effort to prevent
the Assad regime’s collapse.
Moscow has seen its influence in the Middle East
wane under President Vladimir Putin, a problem for a leader who
rhetorically claims to be restoring Russia’s great-power status.
Moscow has had a close relationship with elements of the Assad
regime for decades and increased that support after the 2011 Syrian
uprising. The regime’s collapse would be an embarrassing blow for
the Kremlin in the Middle East.
A grand coalition with Russia against the
self-styled Islamic State would not necessarily be a bad idea. But
the mechanics of creating that coalition would be complicated given
the fundamental disagreement over the causes of instability in Syria
and Russia’s limited ability (and, perhaps, willingness) to make a
valuable contribution to the narrow military operations that the
anti–Islamic State coalition is conducting. With Ukraine still
simmering—at times forgotten—on slow boil, there will be plenty of
pushback for any such move.
Perhaps the real question is whether Washington
should be emulating the Russians and starting to create new, albeit
limited, facts on the ground. A good place to start would be to
gripe less about Moscow’s efforts and to start lending support to
Turkey’s desire to create a new anti–Islamic State safe area inside
Deputy director of the Italian Institute of
Working with Russia on Syria is by no means an
easy proposition. Not only has Russia been steadfast in its support
for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but it has also
recently decided to step up that support through direct military
engagement. And yet there is no alternative to engaging with
Russia—and, indeed, with Iran—be it to effectively counter the
so-called Islamic State or to put an end to the bloodbath in Syria.
Engagement with Russia is possible due to Moscow’s
determined rejection of the Islamic State and conviction that only a
political solution can put an end to the Syrian Civil War. But
meaningful engagement presupposes setting to one side the “Assad in
or out” dichotomy, which has paralyzed international diplomacy for
five long years.
The original idea of the UN special envoy for the
Syrian crisis, Staffan de Mistura, to build peace bottom up by
concentrating on local ceasefires was correct. It is unfortunate
that this overall approach has been dismissed because it has
foundered in Aleppo. After all, the West is far more likely to
develop meaningful engagement with Russia—as well as with Iran,
Saudi Arabia, and Turkey—from the bottom up than as part of another
effort at top-down reconciliation, as is currently being pursued.
Senior associate at Carnegie Europe
With Russia’s increased military involvement in
Syria, it tends to be forgotten that Russia’s presence and influence
in Syria is not new and has even been useful in the past. The role
played by Moscow in 2013 in reaching an agreement on the destruction
of Syria’s chemical weapons helped Western nations get off the hook.
Today in Syria, the dynamic of war is prevailing
over diplomacy in spite of the abundant lip service being paid to a
political solution as the only way out. Indeed, all actors involved
in this conflict keep on feeding a military escalation. With Syrian
President Bashar al-Assad’s army currently on the defensive, Russian
intervention may well end up being another effort to stop the Syrian
army from progressively losing control.
Yet the West may have a window of opportunity for
diplomacy and should seize it. The refugee crisis has led to a
situation that Europe evidently doesn’t know how to handle. This
makes it even more necessary to look at the root causes of migratory
pressures. Following the July 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, some new
form of cooperation in the Middle East—even if fraught with many
difficulties—is also a possibility that should not be missed.
Could this not be the right moment to convince
Russia to join efforts and push for an end to the Syrian conflict
and maybe other current crises in the region? After all, both sides
have a genuine interest in bringing stability back to the Middle