Can America and Russia Cooperate in Syria?

President Vladimir Putin’s decision to intervene in Syria marked a major turning point in Russian foreign policy in 2015. In the year ahead, the US should seek an alliance with Russia to defeat ISIS; but it should do so with no illusions about the probability of success – and real concerns about the cost of failure.

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STANFORD – President Vladimir Putin’s decision to intervene in Syria marked a major turning point in Russian foreign policy in 2015. Over the last 15 years, Putin has increasingly relied on the use of military power to achieve his domestic and foreign-policy objectives, starting with the invasion of Chechnya in 1999, then of Georgia in 2008, and then of Ukraine in 2014. Putin’s Syria gambit was the logical, if dramatic, next step in Russia’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy.

Syria, however, is supposed to be different from these previous interventions. While Putin correctly calculated that most of the world would condemn his military actions in Chechnya, Georgia, and Ukraine, he hopes for solidarity and support from the international community for his actions in Syria.

Pro-Kremlin commentators point to US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent trip to Moscow as proof that military intervention to fight terrorism in Syria has ended Russia’s international isolation and generated new respect for its standing as a responsible global power. Russia is back, so the argument goes, because the world needs Russia.

Such conclusions are premature. In the long run, Russia could become a partner in the global fight against terrorism. And, in principle, the United States, the European Union, and countries around the world should welcome Russian cooperation in this mission. In practice, however, several key short-term issues must be resolved before the long-term goal of cooperation with Russia can be achieved.