By William Tucker
Chief Correspondent for In Homeland Security
Last week the U.S. administration asked its advisors to rethink options for dealing with the Syrian conflict; namely removing Assad from his limited hold on power to better deal with the Islamic State. Though the Syrian conflict has drug on since 2011, the U.S. has shown a profound hesitancy in removing Assad. Prior experiences in Iraq and Libya have shaped U.S. foreign policy in such a way that the current administration prefers to take a hands off approach in a number of venues, and removing Assad may not have been a viable course to shorten the conflict. That view may be shifting with the rise of the Islamic State, however. Attempting to engage a non-state actor in a large portion of Syria without the support of the Assad government or local warlords is simply unwieldy and rethinking Syrian policy makes sense, however there are other issues that could potentially drive this shift in policy. The Russian military actions in Ukraine are on the rise yet again and the cease-fire, which has never been adhered to, is all but dead. Again, just last week, Alexander Pankin, the Russian representative to the UN Security Council, continued to deny any direct Russian involvement in the Ukraine conflict despite the numerous eye witness accounts from international observers, intelligence agencies, and the media.
Like the case with Syria, the U.S. has shown hesitancy to get directly involved in the Ukraine conflict, but for different reasons. In the case of Ukraine, regime change or the rise of a transnational militant movement isn’t providing the impetus, rather it is Russia’s moves in former Soviet Bloc countries that could pose a direct threat to Europe as a whole or NATO members specifically. Furthermore, the U.S. administration must also deal with an aggressive China asserting itself in the South China Sea, an Ebola outbreak, and a change in congressional control. In essence, the U.S. is swamped, but must still pursue its interests and international treaty obligations. This means the U.S. must look for a viable option to deal with the Russian’s, while setting a course for undermining the growth of the Islamic State. Removing, or threatening to remove, Assad – a marginal Russian ally– may be one such option in forcing Russia to rethink its current policy in Europe generally and Ukraine specifically. Russia was supportive of the no-fly zone over Libya, but was vehemently opposed to unseating Gaddafi. With Syria, Russia has more a bit more at stake. It is not a coincidence that the suggestion of removing Assad came on the same day of Russia’s defiant act and counteraccusations at the UNSC. It is also no coincidence that Moscow, once again, stated that it will help Iran build another five nuclear reactors in the midst of Western – Iranian talks over the latter’s nuclear program.
From the Russian perspective removing Assad is not desirable, but it wouldn’t be disastrous. Moscow would certainly enjoy having direct naval access to the Mediterranean, but the situation in Syria is so complex and violent that the reality of maintaining a naval installation in Tartus has diminished. That said, Russia does run some risk if the U.S. were to pursue Assad’s removal – namely watching Moscow’s perspective readily dismissed in yet another international crisis. This dismissal does play a role domestically in Russia (one need only to look to the Yeltsin years for an example of how badly things can get in Moscow if the opposition senses weakness), but there is also an international dynamic. Russia is concerned that its economic woes and population decline will weaken the state in the future, thus Putin, and his allies in the Kremlin, must act now if they are to ensure Russia’s national security and position in the world. The U.S. understands Russia’s vulnerability – as VP Biden as stated on several occasions – but the methods by which Moscow is pursuing its interesting is directly conflicting with the U.S. Of course, the reverse of this is true as well. With Russia engaging in increased risky behavior by probing the air space and territorial waters of its adversaries near and far, the potential that something could go wrong and force the U.S. to respond more forcefully increases dramatically. There is certainly the concern that Russia does something against a NATO member that would invoke the collective defense article of the NATO treaty. We haven’t yet reached that point, but for now both the U.S. and Russia are uncertain how far the other is willing to go. Putin perceives the U.S. as being weak and his remarks on U.S. politics seem to reinforce that misguided belief, but such a belief can lead to miscalculation. As the U.S. and Russia continue to needle one another the risk of a more conventional conflict increases. Such a situation doesn’t bode well for any party involved and the next few weeks will be especially tense.
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