On Syria, the U.S. should take cues from Beijing, not Moscow

Bombs lie near a Russian warplane at Hemeimeem airbase, Syria, on Oct. 22. (Vladimir Isachenkov/Associated Press)
Bombs lie near a Russian warplane at Hemeimeem airbase, Syria, on Oct. 22. (Vladimir Isachenkov/Associated Press)

Russia is dominating the debate over Syria. President Vladi­mir Putin’s supposed masterstroke was to use tactical bombing to regain the strategic initiative in the Middle East and throw the United States back on its heels. But Russia is hardly the right model for U.S. action in Syria. Instead, another U.S. rival offers a more valuable strategic perspective: China.

Three years ago, I was invited to represent the Defense Department in Beijing in a strategic dialogue on the Middle East. China has historically shirked any active role in the Middle East, preferring to leave adventures in the desert to the United States and its allies. But it had become increasingly concerned about the region and sought a partnership with the United States, based on three guiding principles with implications for the United States’ role.

First, Beijing focused narrowly on its core interests in the region: access to energy resources and stable shipping lanes to preserve global commerce. Nearly every discussion we had centered on which events mattered and which did not in light of these interests. China recognizes that the Middle East occupies only a few squares on the global chessboard.

Second, China’s leaders obsessed about the sustainability of their actions and the dangers of entanglement. They noted pointedly the millions of dollars the United States spent daily on ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and favored spending China’s resources on its mounting domestic challenges, its global trade and economic agenda, and regional military action. The United States and other Middle Eastern countries were left to shoulder the burden of many conflicts, while China played from the outside to ensure its interests were pursued.

Finally, the Chinese looked without emotion at the viability of their friends and enemies in the region. They inveighed against U.S. policymakers for opposing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad without a clear view of who would replace him, yet quickly noted that their view would change if Assad’s presence contributed to greater instability than would result from him being out of power. They reevaluated their assumptions often.

The United States, of course, is not China. Nor should it aspire to be. Washington has a broader set of global interests and responsibilities than Beijing does. The United States leads not just with its power but also with its values and example. It does not have the luxury of not acting as a global power, nor should it. And the United States must continue to urge China to take a greater and more responsible leadership role commensurate with its status — in the Middle East and beyond.

That said, an open-ended U.S. military commitment of ground forces would be a gift to China, as well as to the United States’ emerging rivals around the world. Such a move would underwrite other nations’ energy security and tie down U.S. resources needed elsewhere in the world. It would also detract from the effort to rebalance American resources to Asia, both in expanding trade and giving teeth to critical security commitments. Russia’s increasing airstrikes are the latest in a long line of its missteps and entanglements in the Middle East. It would be a mistake for Washington to allow Moscow to goad it into deeper military involvement without a clear endpoint in sight.

Instead, the United States should carefully weigh the ends, ways and means of our next steps in the Middle East. That means taking a long view of leading while balancing U.S. obli-gations at home and abroad.

First, the United States should consider actions through the hard lens of its core interests in the region: preventing the Islamic State from launching terrorist attacks against the United States, its interests and its allies; preserving the stability of our close allies, particularly as refugee flows increase; and protecting access to energy resources. When these core interests are threatened, the United States should act directly. To achieve other laudable goals that are essential interests, the United States should work through its allies and proxies.

Second, Washington should concentrate on what it can uniquely contribute. Precision airstrikes, intelligence-gathering, airlift capability and Special Operations forces are all things the U.S. military does better than anyone else. Beyond that, focus on building up allies, acknowledging that this process will proceed in fits and starts. Special Operations forces should train Jordanian, Turkish, Lebanese, Emirati and Saudi special forces to take direct counterterrorism actions. These are necessary steps for regional security in the long term.

Third, the United States should lead through defense and economic diplomacy. The U.S. military must remain the defense provider of choice in the region, which means aggressively pursuing sales of military equipment to Israel and our Gulf allies so that European, Chinese and Russian equipment does not supplant it. Increasing U.S. economic engagement and diplomacy will also help make up ground in areas where China is fast advancing.

Unlike Russia’s, China’s strategy in the Middle East involves balancing obligations and demands around the world and resisting near-term fixes with no end in sight. This is better than Moscow’s shortsighted recklessness, but neither approach fits the unique U.S. role. The United States must lead by pushing for change now while maintaining the discipline of understanding how our actions play out in the long run.

Matthew Spence, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy from 2012 to this year, is a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.

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