For some reason, we are constantly invited, at least by public discussions, especially by politicians, to view geopolitics as a pretty simple morality play.
In this melodrama, at least for most of my lifetime, the United States is the captain of the Good Guy team, seeking to protect the weak, spread human rights and promote the spread of democracy.
The other team, the Dark Side, has mostly been led by the Soviet Union, and now by its much weaker surviving portion, Russia, which has evil anti-democratic intentions: to spread communism (formerly) and now just to promote the growth of its dark power.
How fortunate, for those who prefer to see things this way, that the despicable, murderous Syrian regime of the Assads is the only longstanding, still-standing, strong Mideast ally of Russia and has reinforced its dark reputation by (in all likelihood) using poison gas. In this good-guy-bad-guy framework, it made total sense for the good guys to bomb Syria as a statement of its horror at the use of banned weapons. It even helped stabilize the horrible approval ratings of the current incumbent captain of the good guy team. So far as we can tell at the moment, this one-off bombing mission did little to increase the likelihood of an imminent happy ending in which Syria gets rid of the Assads, becomes a democracy, and joins the Good Guy team.
A darker, more realistic view is available. In fact, it is rooted in a school of international affairs analysis known as “realism.” Realists generally avoid talking about good guys and bad guys. International relations are far less about good and evil; they’re far more about power. This view often puts one in a better situation to deal with certain realities that don’t comport with the morality play — for example, the reality that the United States has often overthrown democracies (if they were headed by unfriendly leaders unwilling to take guidance from Washington) and replaced them with dictators who were more willing.
Needless to say, considering the above, my own view of Syria and U.S. and Russian involvement there starts with a “realist” analysis, and that is very well summarized by a recent post from professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, a long-time analyst of the Mideast who expresses his views in his “Informed Comment” blog. The post is headlined: “Russia’s not Leaving: Syria is About old-Fashioned Sphere of Influence, not Oil.”
It makes the fairly obvious case that Russia, which is seeking to recover from a long, steep decline in its power in the world, has only one ally in the Arab world, namely Syria. All other Arab states (although it’s hard to call any of them democracies), are part of Team USA.
From a realist view, that’s why Russia is trying to preserve Assad and that’s why America would like to get rid of him. At the risk of overstating the argument, everything else about the case, from the U.S. and Soviet perspective, is window dressing.
Cole’s piece begins:
Russia is not going to yield its sphere of influence in Syria to Donald Trump or anyone else. Russia has all but won the Syrian War as we speak. There is no longer any feasible pathway for the rebels to take the capital of Damascus. The non-ISIL groups have lost all major urban areas except for Ghouta near Damascus. They are bottled up there and in rural northern Idlib province, and likely the regime will overwhelm them in both places over the next year, with Russian air support.
It ends thus:
Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, is a neo-nationalist who feels as though Russia got a raw deal from the US and NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia was reduced to a weak joke, and lost the spheres of influence that characterize a Great Power. It has lost even nearby assets such as the Ukraine. It lost Libya. Syria was a place where Putin could show the flag and bring home some victories.
Syria on the other hand is not important to the US. Syria’s alliance with Iran makes it inconvenient for both of the major US allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and Israel. But the Israeli security establishment is divided about whether it is better to leave al-Assad in power or to welcome the Sunni fundamentalists into Damascus in order to weaken the Shiite Hizbullah in Lebanon. After all, an al-Qaeda state next door would be much worse than a little isolated militia like Hizbullah. Saudi Arabia has no such reservations, but its proxies in Syria have mostly been defeated and it can’t do anything more there except play spoiler and encourage what will amount, after the war is over, to mere terrorism. Aside from the Iran consideration, the US has no stake in Syria except to deprive Daesh/ ISIL of a base there from which to attack Europe. But the US cannot defeat ISIL without de facto strengthening the al-Assad regime.
All this is why Russia will remain in Syria and will have most of it as its sphere of influence. Russia has clear motivations and clear goals there, a strong ally with most of the population under its control, and a practical plan for accomplishing them, which has worked well if sanguinarily so far.
In contrast, the US has no obvious motivation to be in Syria except fighting Daesh. Its policies are therefore muddled. It is damaging its relationship with a big important country, Turkey (pop. 78 mn., GDP $800 bn), by its alliance with the small PYD Syrian Kurdish population of some 2 million, for the instrumental purpose of rolling up Daesh. Maybe the military-industrial complex in the US would like a war just to make some money, and maybe the Neoconservatives would like a war to contain Iran. But neither of them is likely to be able to dictate to Trump, who likely hasn’t given up on better relations with Putin and doesn’t need either of those groups to be reelected.
My guess is that the Tomahawk strikes were impulsive and a one-off. The Russian-dominated status quo is not significantly affected, and there isn’t an early prospect of it so being.