Michelle Dunne and Dimitri Simes got it wrong in yesterday’s discussion on the PBS Newshour of Russia’s role in Syria. They failed to understand the main reason the Obama Administration hesitates to buck Moscow and offered a precedent–the 1999 Kosovo intervention–that can’t be mechanically applied in today’s conditions.
If only Syria were at stake and the Russians were tacitly on board, it would be foolish, as Simes suggested, for the Americans to hesitate to act without UN Security Council (UNSC) approval. They acted without approval in Kosovo without any serious backlash from Russia, which in 1999 was in no position to offer much resistance.
But that is not the current situation. Iran is also on the chess board. If the United States attacks Syria without Moscow’s concurrence, it will lose Russian participation in the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran. Your top national security priority for the moment is stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons, but you would put that goal at risk for the sake of Syria? Whether you believe stopping Iran can be done by diplomatic means or you think that military action will be required, you want to keep your powder dry and the Russians on side as much as possible.
Russia to boot is not the basket case it was in 1999, when it winked and nodded at NATO’s attack on Serbia, which after several months ended Belgrade’s repression and the expulsion of the Albanians from Kosovo. Simes conveniently forgot that Kosovo briefly threatened real problems between the United States and Russia, when Moscow seized the Pristina airport before NATO forces arrived there. But Russia was too weak and too broke to do anything more than putter around the runways. Moscow today is far better equipped with armed forces, hard cash and diplomatic support to respond than it was in 1999.
The key to solving the Syria problem is convincing Moscow that it risks losing everything when the Assad regime comes down. Diplomatic persuasion, not military action, is what is needed. At some point, Russia will realize that protecting its port access in the Mediterranean and its arms sales to Syria requires support to the successor regime. If Moscow fails to jump ship in time, the Russians will go down with it.
Moscow sounded a bit desperate yesterday underlining that its arms sales to Bashar al Assad violate no UN resolution or international law. True enough. What they violate is common sense and human decency. No one should be surprised that this is difficult for Vladimir Putin to understand. He is after all having his own problems with demonstrators. But even he by now understands that helicopter gunships are not the right way to deal with dissent.
When President Obama sees President Putin at the G-20 meeting in Mexico next week, Syria should be high on the agenda. The road to Damascus still runs through Moscow.