The long, the short, and the medium of the Syrian peace deal

We should all retain a hefty dose of skepticism whenever someone uses the words “Syria” and “peace” in a sentence.  Having becoming the world’s geopolitically favored proxy battleground, Syria’s civil war may not stop upon the say-so of Washington and Moscow.

There is, of course, the intractable, and resolutely murderous, Islamic State, whose entire recruitment strategy hinges upon more extreme human outrages.  Yet they are much more easily contained than the ranks of jihadists now clustered amongst the husk that is the Free Syrian Army.  At least IS has bothered with trying to set up borders; formerly al-Qaeda branch al-Nusra is mingled amongst American, Gulf Arab, and Turkish proxies.  Will they play nice just because the Americans and Russians say so?

But really, it’s the wider scene that warrants attention.  We’ve learned a lot about American and Russian priorities through this deal.  Let’s take a closer look.

First, the breakdown: the short-term, the medium-term, and the long-term.

It took a great deal of effort, energy, and risk for both powers to work this thing out.  Both had reasons for doing so, branching out across time like ripples across a pond.

The short term stuff is aimed at the 24 hour news cycle that most politicians live in.  For the Obama administration, that’s January 19th, 2017: the last day of his presidency.  For Putin, it’s March 11th, 2018, the first round of Russian presidential elections.

The medium term stuff differs for each side.  For the Obama administration, it’s the first term of the next president, which he doubtless presumes will be Hillary (the polls tend to agree).  For Putin, it’s the presidential term following the 2018 election, which he doubtless presumes will be him.

The long term is where the two sides really stray apart.  The timeline isn’t what’s so different: for both its the dimly lit 2020s and 2030s.  According to the Hofstede center (and born out by my own personal experience), Americans are superbly bad at long term planning: as a nation-state, they zigzag and meander strategically, like an unconcerned colossus trampling through the woods at night.

The Russians, however, are much better long term planners, both as a culture and a state.  This is partially the result of the fragility of the Russian political and economic system: you tend to plan more when the things you need the most are also the least reliable. While Americans have often just fallen into wealth and power, Russians have historically had to fight, scheme, and manipulate to scrape their great power status out of a tough geographical spot.

So let’s see what each side wants.

The short term: Obama wants to avoid being George W. Bush, and Putin wants to look like he kept Russia in Syria.

Obama’s second term is rapidly coming to a close, and legacy is obviously on his mind.  He desperately does not want to go down in history as a George W. Bush redux, spurring chaos and leaving behind wars, graves, and a legacy so toxic that even in the age of Trump Republicans are wary of bringing the former president up.

He has a fair few foreign policy success stories: Cuba’s opening, the Iran nuclear deal, the killing of Osama bin Laden.  But there are skeletons as well: Libya’s civil war, the failure to crush the Taliban in Afghanistan, and, of course, the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State.

Ready to walk off into the sunset.

This festering sore upon Obama’s legacy demands action, as much as the president can muster.  That isn’t much these days: few presidents dare to take on a war at the end of their final term.  Bill Clinton did in Kosovo in 1999, but that was a relatively low risk affair with a relatively clean outcome.  To start a war is to risk their historical legacy: either a new president wins it and gets all the credit, or a new president loses it and blames the prior administration.

Thus Obama and his foreign policy team, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, have long fished around for a diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war.  As the hours have ticked down on his term, Obama has given up on pushing Assad out of power: a “transition” is now emphasized, with Assadists remaining presumably the bulk of the recognized government.  Now he is content with preventing an accidental war with Russia and an inescapable quagmire in Syria.  “He kept us out of Syria” may well be the best he can salvage from this situation.

Putin also has his eyes on legacy as well as an upcoming election.  Crooked though Russian democracy is, a strongman is only strong so long as he can flex his muscles.  Putin could never have tolerated allowing a rebel force storm Tartus, the site of Russia’s only naval base outside the former Soviet Union.  This, and a desire to prove Russia could project power beyond the ex-USSR, is what caused him to double down on Assad.  When Assad appeared ready to collapse, he threw in yet more Russian power.  Hardly without cost: at least 20 Russian soldiers have died and some equipment has been lost in battle.

Yet the Russian electorate is willing to accept those losses should it allow their leader to appear to be powerful and capable.  Russian culture overwhelmingly devalues the Hofstede measure of indulgence: that is, they simply don’t care as much about life’s pleasures.  To suffer is acceptable, especially in the pursuit of larger goals.  Casualties have a far different electoral affect in Russia than the U.S.

That being said, there are natural limits to Russian power.  To deploy too much in Syria is to risk an Afghanistan redux: a marginal struggle that takes hold of Russia’s sense of self, and while the strategic gains are minimal, to lose is to accept weakness in a fashion that could unravel the state.  Putin has long been the strongman standing safely behind Assad, like the Macedonian phalanx of yore, able to project power ahead, but largely shielded by Assad in the frontline.

The medium term: an handoff to the next president in America, and a strategic gain in Moscow.

For the Americans, the medium term lasts as long as the next presidential term.  Obama surely expects Hillary will win; he will set her up for success as best he can by neutralizing the biggest and most dangerous complication of the conflict.  If the U.S. and Russia are in agreement over the broad outlines of Syria, the next president will have an easier job both destroying the Islamic State and bringing about some sense of order in Syria.

Moreover, the U.S. must avoid using up too much power in Syria.  It must continue to prop up tottering regimes in both Afghanistan and Iraq to retain credibility in the greater Middle East.  That is doable for the time being, but it means that it cannot dictate terms to Syria as much as it might like.  It must also finish redeploying power to East Asia, where Obama’s strategic pivot has taken place.  Finally, it must reserve power in Europe to ensure that NATO holds together and Russia stays in check.


Those calculations won’t change with the next president; doubtless some foreign policy crisis waits in the wings to siphon yet more American blood and treasure.

This means the U.S. under the next president will be forced to do the hard calculation of what it can achieve in Syria.  Initially, in the heady days of the Arab Spring, American elites believed that democracy was naturally swarming over the region.  They believed these new democracies would then naturally align with the U.S.  (Americans have a very strong tendency to believe functioning democracies are natural allies).

Obviously, that’s not the case.  Instead, the U.S. will have to settle.  It’s not going to get a democracy out of Syria’s ruins; nor can it overcome Assad so long as he has Russian backing.  The next president instead will probably allow Syria to become a lot like Lebanon, with a weak central government and a bunch of sectarian and political fiefs that largely keep the peace.  That will still mean destroying the Islamic State: much of their territory may end up in Kurdish or Turkish-backed Arab hands.

The Russians, on the other hand, will have gained much more.  First, the Russians will have once more outfoxed the Americans in Syria, preventing the U.S. from rolling over yet another Russian ally.  It will retain its naval base, which isn’t so important as a base but quite valuable as a symbol.  It will have saved an Iranian ally, building a much stronger bridge to Tehran.  Meanwhile, Putin will be able to show his leadership style pays dividends, giving him a much freer hand to rebuild Russian influence and power elsewhere.

Should the war against the Islamic State actually result in a joint U.S.-Russian effort, it will also prove Moscow has regained its abilities to be a great power problem solver.  This means it gains influence elsewhere: its seat at the table will no longer be symbolic.  It will gain most as the world debates North Korea, where it could play China off against the United States to gain better security and economic deals from Beijing.

Most of all, it will help cement the Putin political machine.  Putin is a mere 63 years old: he could well have a hand in Russian politics for 20 more years.  Should he formally step aside, his machine could carry on his style of leadership for years to come.

The long term: an America that needs a reordered Middle East, and a Russia that desperately needs to be a great power.

America and Russia behave very differently when it comes to grand strategy.  The U.S. often doesn’t actively have one.  It did during the Cold War, but only because the Soviet Union openly plotted to bring the U.S. into Communism.  Otherwise, the U.S. typically stumbles about, a giant on the world stage, reacting to fires under its feet rather than finding ways to avoid them, let alone stay the only giant.

This is how the U.S. became a superpower: not because it plotted well, but because Europe self-destructed and brought America into its world wars.  Still, that history proves that even when nations dawdle, geopolitical interests will invariably pull them in a direction.

Because the U.S. is so large and geographically secure, its mistakes rarely threaten its survival.  It has made multiple mistakes in the Middle East: invading and then suddenly withdrawing from Iraq were equally disastrous, and while Obama did not start the Syrian civil war, he hardly used American power to ease it.

Disloyalty in the ranks; anyone could jump ship.

Regardless of the personalities of those who occupy the White House, a geopolitical center of gravity will pull all leaders towards a single outcome: America must have an ordered Middle East.  It’s too close to Europe, too energy rich, too prone to take its conflicts to terrorism, and too likely to produce refugee crises to allow to fester.  This is in contrast with sub-Saharan Africa, where equally cruel wars have soaked the continent in blood but rarely brought much American interference.  This was starkly illustrated in spring 2003; as Iraqis braced for a U.S. invasion, Liberians begged for one.

Obama wanted to end the Iraq war, but the geopolitics of the Middle East post-Saddam pulled him back in.  The next president may feel the same way; they may pull American power further and further back, only to find that America is directly threatened by an unstable and war-wracked Middle East.  Over the next 20-30 years, the United States will, president after president, seek some kind of natural order in the Middle East.  That will invariably come about by choosing winners and losers and maintaining those choices.  Americans can make mistakes; they cannot remake geopolitics.  America will be forced to try to reorder the Middle East.

The Russians face a very different problem.  They are a colossus with feet of clay, and they know it.  There are fundamental weaknesses with the size, shape, and demography of the Russian Federation.  It’s not that a weak Russia will disappear from the map; it’s that it could shrink to becoming just a third rate European power, shorn of its Asian domain, shattered across the steppes of the European plain.

This is a big reason why Putin is not a second Hitler.  Hitler took power in a nation-state that can dominate Europe: even today, Germany does so peacefully.  Russia is not nearly as strong.  It hasn’t the economic or political strength to hold Europe in its orbit.  Putin can’t remake Russia through endless wars of aggression; it would crack apart at the seams.

The best security for the Russian Federation is twofold: a vast nuclear arsenal and being seen as a great power.  The former guarantees its physical security from outside invasion; the latter gives it leverage to pursue vital interests both inside Russia and overseas.  Nobody dared arm the Chechens for fear of stirring the Russian nuclear bear, yet the reality is, a determined enemy in the 1990s could well have done so and really knocked a few more teeth from Moscow.

The Russians must have the stature to keep others from taking advantage of its obvious weaknesses.  They also must have access to the markets needed to fuel the economy and keep their nuclear arsenal functioning.  Nukes eventually go bad; someone may well someday find a way to shoot them down.  On both counts, Russia must have markets for its energy supplies and raw materials and must be able to get the advantageous deals needed to keep its economy going and its military technology advancing.

Syria is a strong step forward in that regard: it proves Russia can still get big things done.  It will put pause to any quiet Chinese ambition to dominate its resource-rich Far East; it’ll still violent secessionists within the Federation, and take the wind out of the sails of the democrats who, if allowed to take over too quickly, might well allow secession votes across Russia.  It’ll also reassure allies in Central Asia, the Caucuses, and in Belarus: when the chips are down, they needn’t accept whatever the West tells them.

It also turns a small corner on the relationship with the United States.  Putin knows American policy isn’t disciplined.  He doesn’t have an aggressive ideology that demands the Russian tricolor in Washington.  He simply wants to keep Russia on the map as a great power (with all the privileges that pertains for himself and his inner circle).  So he can ratchet down the conflict and take the heat off from the formidable American alliance system now bearing down on him.

To join together and kill a common enemy is exactly the kind of breathing space the Russians need.  If Russia is to survive the 21st century, it cannot have a second full on Cold War with the United States, especially in its rump state.  Anything that lessens that possibility is a win for the Kremlin.

Regardless of what the Syrians do, American and Russian priorities are clearer than ever.

Should the deal fail, it will invariably become a blame game.  But the priorities are clear; America and Russia can live with a broken Syria, so long as its quiet.



2 thoughts on “The long, the short, and the medium of the Syrian peace deal

  1. I really like your website and your musings on geopolitics. However, I do think that you discount the impact of energy, the geopolitics of hydrocarbons, and the influence of the regional players in the proxy war that is Syria.

    Syria is also a desperate struggle for the control of the energy markets in Europe. Presently, Russia is the dominant provider of gas in Europe, able to dictate prices to a significant extent. Syria is the only viable route to transport gas from Qatar and the rest of the Arab League to European markets.

    Interestingly, the eruption of the civil war in Syria came soon after Assad declined to allow the construction of a gas pipeline from Qatar to Turkey. The construction would have created a major competitor for Russia for the European gas markets. This would have reduced Russian influence on Europe.

    The US has a vital interest to drive a wedge between Russia and Europe, and keep the European countries in its corner. Russian control of the European gas market creates a strong imperative for the EU not to antagonize Russia too much. For the US, Russia represents an (re-)ascending great power, whose progress must be stopped or contained.

    What many people don´t see is that a country can survive on exchanging BMWs and Mercs for Ladas, but it cannot survive if the heating breaks down in winter, or if the lights go out. Russia has a very strong negotiating position, despite the superior economic power of the EU. The EU must have trade relations with Russia to pay for its energy hunger. There is no alternative (TINA). This is what the Qatar pipeline should have been. Assad´s “No” threw a mighty spanner in that plan.

    This dynamic leaves only one conclusion: there will be no letup in the fighting, until there is a clear winner, or all players are too exhausted to continue. The stakes are too high. I would be very surprised, if, after Hillary Clinton is elected President, the war would not go red hot in an instant. Trump seems too stupid to understand the stakes.

    As an aside, from a European perspective the choice between Clinton and Trump could be condensed thus: with Clinton there will be another war, but it will likely not go nuclear. Trump is less likely to start another war, but if it comes it will be nuclear. Pick your poison.

    Also, Syria is, at the same time, the place for a showdown between Iran and Hezbollah on one side, versus Saudi Arabia and Israel on the other.

    Iran and Hezbollah need Syria with Assad at its helm to further their own regional influence. Saudi Arabia needs Syria destroyed to weaken its arch-rival Iran. One might even get the notion, that the US has difficulty controlling Saudi Arabia and its band of religious mercenary martyrs.

    Israel needs Syria to break apart, so that it can cut the Golan Heights, for its water, out of the country´s corpse.

    Turkey´s Erdogan seems to have made the calculation, that the putsch against him had the backing of the US, and that his reign would be more secure if he got closer to Russia´s Putin. A rational choice, from my perspective.

    Best wishes,

    1. There’s quite a bit to what your wrote. Thanks very much for your perspective and insights! Let me respond as I can:

      I’ve heard before this notion that Assad killed a pipeline deal, and this was the reason for both the uprising and the civil war, as Western/GCC interests fomented a rebellion against him in order to push this pipeline through. I’m not sure if that’s what your arguing – your post seems to state this is a reason the war has gained the stakes it has. But there are reasons why I don’t believe energy is the core of this particular conflict.

      1). The GCC has a reliable and safe route for Europe via the Persian Gulf, secured by the U.S. Navy. Iran’s saber rattling over Hormuz was a much greater threat to that vital chokepoint, yet if threats to energy were enough to propel war, why did the U.S. and its allies not use the nuclear program as a casus belli to regime change Iran and thereby permanently secure the Hormuz? Why negotiate – even empower – said regime? Certainly Saudi Arabia and the UAE favored a U.S.-led against the hated Iranian regime.

      2). The “war for oil” conspiracies can all be traced back to a war that truly was for oil: the 1991 Gulf War. This was very much a war for secure energy in the brief space of time the United States had as the USSR collapsed. George H.W. Bush was a well-versed statesmen who understood both the opportunities and risks for American power by liberating Kuwait.

      That being said, few other wars would qualify. While Donald Rumsfeld did state that he believed Iraqi oil could pay for the occupation, it never turned out that way. A great article on it is here (http://www.thenational.ae/business/energy/robin-mills-the-invasion-of-iraq-was-never-really-about-oil). Its possible the intentions were there, but today Western interests do not dominate Iraq’s oil marketplace. If oil companies could not succeed in Iraq, why would they believe they should expose themselves to risk by pushing for an uprising in Syria?

      3). The presumption that a combination of the GCC and West could manipulate the Syrian people so readily implies two things: that the GCC and West are extraordinary competent and the Syrian people are simpletons, sheep ready to be led astray by rich and powerful people. I don’t subscribe to such a notion of humanity: parts of Syria’s population began their rebellion precisely because it was in their interests to overthrow the Assad regime. That they needed outside help goes without saying, but to believe that the outside put the idea in their head, rather than giving the idea of rebellion an indigenous source, I believe is making the West and its Arab allies appear to be much smarter than they are, and the Syrian people to be much dumber than they must be.

      I still see Syria as a marginal conflict that sucks up headlines because the world is, on the whole, rather stable. NATO has not been truly tested; U.S. power is secure; Russian power is disciplined but not what its Soviet past once had; China is not overtly aggressive and not ideologically seeking conflict with the U.S.-led Pacific. I cannot imagine a president, even a Trump, considering that Syria is worth skirting World War III. To lose it back to Assad is to return to 2010; that is, for the United States, the worst case scenario. It will bolster Russia, but Russia still has a long, long way to go before it returns to its Soviet superpower status, and it may founder in much more important conflicts, like the battle in Ukraine.

      I very much agree the U.S. has difficulty controlling the Saudis – and so too, quite frankly, do the Saudis, who have faced both al-Qaeda and IS-bombings, despite claiming to be the most pure of Sunni Muslims and giving ideological birth to both groups. This is why I have low faith in the competency of nation-states: they success in the mass, through brute force, rather than the pinpoint precision most conspiracies require. Not that conspiracies don’t exist; it’s that they are tough to pull off and even tougher to get away with. Mostly, nation-states act on opportunity: when a rebellion against your enemy begins, you arm the rebels. You don’t have the power to start the rebellion, only to sustain it, help organize it, and possibly channel some of it.

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