Over the weekend, Russia killed a major leader in the Syrian opposition in what amounts to a giant sucker punch:
Even as the regime was bombing rebels in the eastern suburbs of Damascus and in a town to the southwest, it was making preparations to expand a cease-fire in the southern outskirts of a capital surrounded by the chaos of the war.
Last week, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a resolution outlining a road map for a political solution to end the war in Syria, now in its fifth year. U.N.-mediated peace talks between the regime and opposition were expected to start in late January.
There is a lot more context to the specific circumstances of the Syrian resistance, as well as a poor precedent for any future peace effort, but I see this as something much bigger, and more worrying from the perspective of any peacemaking: Russia is opposed to it.
Russia, as one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, voted in favor of this road map knowing full well that this leader, Zahran Alloush, was an important part of that process. In addition, they have deliberately avoided striking at ISIS targets, choosing instead to target the rebels that might conceivably pose a legitimate alternative to Assad’s rule.
So, knowing that Russia is engaged in perfidy to undermine any peace process in Syria, what does that mean? For one, it means the plans offered by the GOP and by Hillary Clinton to impose some sort of intervention or no-fly zone are, at best, stupid and at worst incredibly dangerous. When Turkey shot down a Russian attack jet for violating its airspace in November, there were widespread fears about a broader war between NATO and Russia resulting. Thankfully that didn’t pass, but there is virtually no way the U.S. military could reasonably implement an NFZ without also striking at Russia. And that won’t happen. It’s off the table.
This would apply doubly so for a direct intervention, even against ISIS. For starters, directly striking at ISIS will not materially alter its appeal or its brutality; at best it might shift that brutality around a bit. As long as Bashar al-Assad remains in power, ISIS will remain a powerful attractant for those who wish to destroy him. And Russia has proven that it will lie, cheat, and murder, in order to defend Assad.
That leaves the U.S. with very little else to do in Syria, and it is because of a discomfiting fact I have noted for several years, but which very few advocates for war seem interested in admitting: ISIS is not a very big threat to us. Yes, it is worrying, and yes the instability they cause are a problem, but the superheated rhetoric from the White House that ISIS is the biggest threat since sliced bread rings awfully hollow when you think about it.
For context, our air war against Serbia in Kosovo was more intense in terms of ordinance and strike frequency. And, while ISIS’ specific type of violence is gruesome, it is not extraordinary: narcotics cartels engage in similarly lurid, horrifying acts of sociopathic brutality right along our own border and it has never sparked the same sort of hand wringing or demands for military intervention that ISIS has (I suspect it is because we are accustomed to viewing problems in the Middle East as national security problems, while discounting problems in Latin America as political and law enforcement problems).
Put simply: actions matter more than words. And our actions do not indicate that ISIS is a very big threat, or even a major threat. If it were, then we would not be passively accepting Russia’s targeted violence toward the very people we’ll need to remove ISIS and thus consolidate the rebel groups against ISIS. If ISIS was really the gigantic apocalyptic threat “experts” say it is, then we would be looking at what we could trade Russia and Iran (or use to coerce them) in return for their giving up Assad. I’ve laid out some of these options before:
- Subsidize and support European energy independence from Russia, then implement a total embargo on Russian energy sales in dollars;
- Issue ICC arrest warrants for every single Russian, Iranian, and Syrian official and officer who has ordered, approved, or carried out a deliberate attack on civilian targets inside Syria;
- Impose a total financial ban on every single Russia, Syrian, and Iranian official worldwide so that they cannot hold a bank account, carry out a transaction, or move any amount of currency denominated in dollars;
- Remove Russia from SWIFT and kill their ability to conduct foreign trade; and
- Have Russia and Syria join Iran on the state sponsors of terrorism list;
There are some more ideas. We could consider trading Ukraine in return for Syria: tell Moscow they can have Crimea uncontested and that we will stop supporting Ukraine’s defense against Russian aggression in the Donbass if Russia gives up Assad. Same with Iran: give up our remaining sanctions and offer them full diplomatic relations in return for ending their support to Assad.
Does all this sound far fetched? Absolutely! The U.S. government will never do these things. And to be frank I don’t think they should: Syria is horrible, yes, but I do not think it is the kind of threat that justifies upending so many international agreements and disrupting the global economy to the extent that these measures would require.
But that is precisely my point: yes, Russia is being a jerk, yes Syria is horrifying, and yes we all wish the carnage would stop and everyone would unite around killing ISIS. But Russia doesn’t think ISIS is the threat; they think the Syrian rebels are. Iran doesn’t think ISIS is a threat, they think the Syrian emails are. And the White House does not think Russia or Iran are the real problems; they’d rather park a brigade of troops in Iraq and send drones into Syria than do anything decisive.
And that’s fine! We should use the impossibility of peace in Syria as an opportunity to reassess our actual interests, and to be honest about the actual threats and challenges we face, not simply to double down on the same old neoconservative pathologies that created this gigantic mess in the first place. But I also don’t think we’ll do that, either; complaining about Russia seems to be far more attractive to most analysts than either accepting that we have limited stakes or making a bold move against actors who have clearly higher stakes.
Maybe we can start to shift the conversation a bit toward honesty about how impossible peace is in Syria and a bit away from the years upon years of reckless war mongering. I am skeptical, though.