The arguments between the West and Russia over what to do in Syria resemble the old proverb of the two bald men arguing over a comb. In truth, neither side knows what to do. Both, however, respond to their lack of a plan in their traditional fashion: Russia, with stonewalling; the West, with empty rhetoric.
The West is right to believe that the Baath regime in Syria cannot continue in power without endless savagery, and that an agreed departure of Al Assad dynasty is greatly to be desired. Russia is right to fear that its fall may lead to an even worse regime and a nightmare for Syria’s minorities.
However unpalatable this may be to Washington, the Kremlin is also correct in arguing that if there is to be any chance of an international deal over Syria working, then Iran has to be part of it. This is because of Tehran’s close ties with the Syrian regime and because Iran has a legitimate stake in the future of the quasi-Shiite, Alawite minority.
When listening to Washington and Paris on Syria, it is worth remembering US and French policy towards their ally Algeria in the 1990s, when the military cancelled a democratic election and engaged in a ferocious campaign of repression against the Islamist victors, leading to more than 150,000 deaths. There was no question then of the West isolating or intervening in Algeria.
This record casts an ironic light on present western rhetoric. Perhaps before Hillary Clinton called Russia and China “despicable” for opposing international action over Syria, she might have taken a quick look in the historical mirror. It also does not help that Clinton publicly accused Russia of selling attack helicopters to Syria, only for US officials to admit privately that she deliberately exaggerated the claim to put pressure on Moscow. Is this supposed to increase mutual respect and confidence?
The case of Syria is of great human and geopolitical importance in itself, and has serious implications for the wider issue of the West’s relations with Russia. Sections of western opinion are engaged in another round of furious rhetoric against the Putin administration, mainly because of its semi-authoritarianism, but with Syria supplying additional ammunition. This is by no means wholly unjustified, given some of the odious aspects of the Russian state, but it needs to be qualified.
As both Russia’s election results and the composition of the opposition demonstrations make clear, an overwhelming majority of Russians support a mixture of nationalists and Soviet loyalists. Even if they are sick of the corruption of the elites, most are not going to vote for pro-western liberals. This underlying Russian reality — and the relatively good performance of its economy under Vladimir Putin’s cautious management — not only gives the Putin administration residual strength, it also means that in the unlikely event that it fell, Russian foreign policy would not change by one iota.
The West needs to seek compromises with Russia in part because the West is weaker than it was. Among other things, the idea of Nato and EU membership for Georgia and Ukraine, or even any significantly enhanced partnership, is dead. This in turn requires a change in Western policy from expansion vis a vis Russia to a strategy of jointly containing crises: for example, the real danger of a new Armenian-Azeri war over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Current developments suggest two other things: that if we wish western democracy to retain its global influence, we need to work urgently on improving its performance at home; and that the world will in future have a plurality not only of great powers but also of political systems.
So, if there is to be any chance of international cooperation, we must learn to treat each others’ systems with respect. Talks with Russia and China over Syria would be a good place to begin.
Anatol Lieven is a professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London and author of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism.