Practitioners and foreign policy experts are vehemently debating the intentions behind Russia’s recent campaign to make explicit its support of Syria and the regime of its embattled ruler, Bashar al-Assad. Although it is still unclear what may have motived Russia’s actions, it seems as if they have had an unexpected, beneficial effect for Russia’s ostensible competitor, the United States, and its leader, President Barack Obama. Noninvolvement has quickly emerged as Obama’s preferred policy on Syria, most likely due to the high risks of pursuing an alternate course during an election year. Russia’s commitment to Assad then, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, comes at the right time: it may very well provide Obama the political cover he needs, both domestically and internationally, to continue his administration’s Syria policy.
Many point to the Libyan intervention as evidence of better, more active policy options vis-à-vis Syria. In this regard, Libya has become a problem of success for the Obama administration. In a little more than six months, the international community, with American leadership “from behind,” deposed the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and helped effectively end the ongoing civil war. Less than a year later, Libyans voted in their first free elections in decades. While much remains to be done, much has also been accomplished. Unfortunately, or fortunately for the Libyans, Libya owes much of its success to a perfect storm of geopolitical, strategic, economic, and diplomatic conditions. To its credit, the Obama administration has not been eager to try to re-create that complex confluence of conditions or the intervention itself.
For liberals in favor of Libyan intervention, Libya was “Iraq done right.” In this view, several key factors, not present in Iraq, were present in Libya: international consensus, limited ground troop involvement, and the existence of an organic opposition movement foremost among them. Thanks to Russia, Syria resembles Iraq more than Libya on at least one front. International consensus does not and will not exist by virtue of Russia’s membership on the Security Council, even if other members, notably China, changed their stance. Russian anti-air weapons would either necessitate the involvement of significant ground troops or present substantial risks (and likely losses) for any air operation. As such, the United States would be hard pressed to find support among all of its allies, as it did with Libya. Thus, liberal calls for intervention in Syria—premised in large part on the idea that if it worked in Libya, it could work in Syria—hold little sway with voters on the left.
Russian support for the Assad regime also shields Obama from the right. While some Republicans agree with the Obama administration’s caution, others continue to press for increased involvement. In particular, Mitt Romney recently criticized the Obama administration’s approach as a “policy of paralysis.” Obama can easily deflect such attacks, however, by pointing to the undeniable consequences of the Russian commitment to Syria. Russian support would make any intervention a costly endeavor in both blood and treasure. During tough economic times, on the heels of two long and expensive wars, it is difficult for any presidential hopeful to win many votes with such appeals, even among more moderate and conservative citizens.
On the international front, several key American allies have taken progressively more hawkish stances against the Assad regime. As it did with Libya, the United Kingdom has taken the lead among the United States’s European allies in condemning Assad’s actions. While it remains unclear how deeply they want to become involved militarily, British officials have made Syria a key area of concern internationally. While Britain will continue to put forth Security Council resolutions condemning the Assad regime, Russia’s guaranteed veto assures that no resolution will pass. Thus, because of the Russian Security Council veto, the United States can safely support any UN resolution against Syria, saving face both with the international community as well as with a key ally.
More critical, of course, is the increasingly toxic dispute between Turkey and Syria, highlighted by Syria’s shooting down of a Turkish reconnaissance plane last month. In response to the incident, Turkey invoked Article IV of the NATO charter, necessitating an emergency meeting of NATO leaders. This put Turkey’s allies, particularly the United States, in an awkward position. However, Obama administration officials can utilize Russian support to frame military involvement as an undesirable option for Turkey. After all, Syria most likely used Russian weapons to shoot down the Turkish plane.
By all accounts, the Obama administration remains earnest in its disapproval of the Assad regime. Moreover, political cover notwithstanding, Russia’s commitment to Syria does make noninvolvement the most prudent policy. That being said, thanks to this aforementioned cover, Russian policy on Syria, intentions aside, has become highly beneficial for the Obama administration.
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