Richard Gowan is an associate fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and nonresident fellow at NYU’s Center on International Cooperation, where he was previously research director. He also teaches at Columbia University. His weekly WPR column, Diplomatic Fallout, appears every Monday.
Winston Churchill once quipped that the only thing worse than fighting a war with allies is fighting one without them. Looking at the Middle East, U.S. President Barack Obama might wish he could get rid of his regional allies anyway. His efforts to stabilize the region have been persistently weakened or derailed by America’s supposed friends. Israel tried hard to block last year’s Iranian nuclear deal. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have deliberately stirred up the Syrian war, even as Washington has been doing its best to try to end it through diplomacy.
Now the turbulence in Turkey threatens to complicate the Obama administration’s final six months of crisis management in the Middle East. Last week’s failed coup by elements of the Turkish army has further upset already strained Turkish-American relations. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called on the U.S. to extradite Fetullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based Turkish cleric he claims was behind the abortive putsch. Some of Erdogan’s political allies have gone further, accusing Washington of complicity in the coup.
Even discounting this rhetoric, Erdogan’s decision to crack down on his opponents, rounding up over 6,000 people in the military and judiciary to date, threatens to throw the Turkish security system off balance for an indefinite period. This will almost certainly impinge on U.S. efforts to tackle the Syrian war. If the Turkish president conducts a deep purge of the armed forces, Turkey’s military will struggle to be an effective component of the international alliance against the so-called Islamic State. Turkish domestic officials, who have allowed the countryto become a "critical informal logistical base” for the extremist group, are unlikely to do much better.
But if Turkey is now yet another headache for Obama and his advisers, Washington already seemed utterly unconvinced that it could ever stabilize Syria with its ostensible allies alone.
Instead, despite previous setbacks, the U.S. is doubling down on its quest to bring Syria under control through a bargain with Russia. The U.S. appears ready to offer increased military and intelligence cooperation to achieve this, despite ongoing political differences with Moscow over the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Washington’s approach seems to rely on a vision of conflict resolution that is cynical and idealistic in equal measure. It assumes that the most realistic way to bring violence under control is to bring sparring powers together through diplomatic frameworks and military mechanisms that reduce, but do not erase, deeper tensions. Rather than rely on formal alliances or "coalitions of the willing,” the U.S. has to navigate hard times by hammering out tactical bargains with its competitors.
The administration has been trying to strike such a bargain with Moscow over Syria since 2011. It has pursued bilateral deals, attempted to find common ground on political and humanitarian matters via the United Nations, and most recently co-chaired a fractious multinational "International Syria Support Group” with Russia.
According to documents leaked prior to a visit to Moscow by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last week, the U.S. is now willing to set up a center in Jordan for American and Russian officials to exchange military and intelligence information on their parallel air campaigns against Islamists in Syria. In return, the U.S. hopes, Russia will rein in the Syrian military and do more to overcome humanitarian crises and diplomatic impasses caused by the fighting.
A lot of critics, including American military leaders, are unconvinced that this will work. Russia certainly has a strong track record of tentatively supporting Western initiatives on Syria, but then only fitfully attempting to implement them. It often allows process issues to overwhelm more strategic discussions. And by aligning more closely with Moscow, the U.S. signals that it is now unlikely to depose Assad. Even Kerry is frank in admitting that negotiations with Russia are "not based on trust.”
Yet, in addition to the potential humanitarian relief such a deal might make possible, there are three reasons for pursuing this latest opening to Moscow. The first is that Russia’s operations in Syria have left it in an undeniable position of strength.As Sam Heller notes, "Russia has used its intervention in Syria to reshape the military and political contest for control of Syria and to deliberately constrict the space for countervailing American action.” So while it may be distasteful to work with Russia, it is arguably simply a realistic reflection of facts on the ground.
The second reason for doing so is that, despite its apparent strength, Moscow is not entirely happy with its position in Syria. It has concluded that, according to Heller, "a purely military victory by the regime is impossible.” If this is the case, the U.S. has good reason to stay close to Moscow in the hope of eventually nudging it toward a more or less acceptable political deal.
But the final reason for working with Russia over Syria is the depressing reality that America’s regional allies cannot be relied upon to manage the war, or to sustain a peace agreement. With Turkey in chaos, and Israel and Saudi Arabia still seething over the Iran deal, the U.S. is not well-placed to shape its allies’ thinking. Moscow is reaping the benefits. Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia have all recently taken steps to build bridges with Russia of their own, despite continuing differences over Syria.
This leaves the U.S. little choice but to work to a greater or lesser degree with Russia. The administration’s critics say that its efforts to court Russia just give Moscow extra leverage. This is sadly right: Obama and Kerry are unlikely to find a way to make Russia collaborate in good faith over Syria before they leave office. But in a world in which the U.S. cannot trust its allies, or even be sure they can avoid internal strife, it has to cooperate as best it can with its foes.