The Russian intervention in Syria begins a new and even more dangerous phase in the continuing nightmare of the Syrian civil war. Obama administration critics often portray the incident as a test in comparative presidential masculinity. As The New York Post would have it, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia wants to “humiliate” President Obama or, as Senator John McCain informed us, Mr. Putin has exploited Mr. Obama’s “weakness.”
Clearly, this sort of policy by machismo is good politics in both the United States and in Russia. American presidents like to look tough, and the Russian president has demonstrated that riding around bare-chested on horses and tagging tigers on camera can improve one’s domestic approval rating.
But foreign policy rarely favors the bold, even if headline writers do. The Russian move into Syria is indeed daring, but it will not end the Syrian civil war or counter the threat of terrorism and extremism. The various militias on the ground in Syria and their supporters abroad don’t care how Mr. Putin looks on a horse. They will plot a response and kill Russians.
Over all, the Russian efforts will worsen the violence, inflame terrorism and risk dragging the Russians into a quagmire. The consequences are likely to be bad for Russia, for the United States and, worst of all, for Syria and its neighbors.
It would be the height of folly for the United States to respond to Russia’s foray into Syria with a similarly bold but unwise countermove. The many proposals coming from the presidential candidates, from imposing no-fly zones to sending in United States forces to fight the regime of President Bashar al-Assad directly, all have the virtue of appearing strong and responsive to the Russian challenge. But they all lack an even vaguely plausible theory of how they would actually improve the situation on the ground in Syria. The basic concept is to do something bold and decisive, and then peace and democracy will simply follow. Unfortunately, the George W. Bush administration already tested that idea in Iraq.
Instead, Western policy makers should pause, exercise some unpopular caution, and reflect on what fuels the violence in Syria and why the Russians felt the need to engage in such a potentially costly escalation. Both the Assad regime and the various factions of the opposition have survived this long in the civil war because of substantial external assistance. When one faction suffers setbacks, its external supporters reliably rush in to prop it back up. This is a familiar pattern from the bad old days of the Cold War, when proxy civil wars in such diverse locations as Angola, Guatemala and Vietnam thrived for decades on United States-Soviet escalation and counterescalation.
Even without a Cold War, the pattern of proxy wars holds. The Assad regime, in fact, has suffered several setbacks in recent months, including the Islamic State’s advance through central Syria and opposition victories in Idlib Province. These setbacks resulted in part from increased and improved foreign assistance from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, and even to some extent the United States.
Russia noticed, and escalated in Syria so that it could, in the classic formulation, negotiate with the United States and its allies from “a position of strength.” This means shoring up the shaky Assad regime.
This strategy is a mirror image of the equally flawed American plan for Syria. American policy similarly holds that ending the Syrian civil war requires changing the balance of power sufficiently to convince Mr. Assad’s external supporters that his regime has no future and to enter into a negotiation on opposition terms.
And so external supporters on both sides have simply doubled down in an attempt to create their own facts on the ground. But the result is a seesaw effect in which no side will ever keep its position of strength for long or produce its desired negotiation. To the contrary, the likely consequence of Russia’s escalation is that supporters of the Syrian opposition — not just the United States, but even more Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey — are more likely to counterescalate.
Both the United States and the Syrian people would be better off if we simply skipped the next step in Syria and instead looked for a way to break out of the destructive cycle.
The necessary compromise to ending the cycle is not that far from the one stated in the Geneva Communiqué that the United States and Russia signed in 2012. It would involve real concessions, particularly from the United States and its partners, on Mr. Assad, in which they would support a political transition that contained no guarantee that Mr. Assad would leave power, while the regime and its supporters agreed to share power in Damascus.
The recent Russian escalation and American posturing have made that compromise even more difficult to achieve. The regional powers, particularly Iran and Saudi Arabia, seem even further away from compromise than the United States and Russia. At the moment, the regional powers still hope for victory and would prefer to fight the war to the last Syrian.
In the meantime, American efforts should focus on the vast suffering that is overflowing into neighboring countries and into Europe. The refugee crisis, as many have noted, is a symptom of the disease that is the Syrian civil war.
The United States, and the international community as a whole, have often seemed so focused on curing an incurable disease that they have given the symptoms — which in this case are refugees — short shrift.
We can provide greater assistance to the refugees, and we can make greater efforts to integrate them into the neighboring countries. That’s not a solution to the civil war, but sometimes the boldest thing to do is recognize the limits of your power.
Jeremy Shapiro is a fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.