Misperception and Reality

US and Russia: Competing agendas in Syria

October 22, 2015

On October 14, the White House dismissed a proposal by President Putin to send Prime Minister Medvedev to the United States to discuss military cooperation in Syria. White House spokesman Josh Earnest called the proposal a sign of "desperation." Said Earnest: "We're not interested in doing that, as long as Russia is not willing to make a constructive contribution to our counter-[Islamic State] effort," <http://www.rferl.org/content/white-...>


But where is the evidence of Russian "desperation?" Russian policy in Syria doesn't seem to be failing--at least not yet.


"Russia has their own agenda," continued the White House spokesman... "It's not particularly surprising to me that President Putin would resort, in some desperation, to try to send the second-highest ranking official in the Russian government to the United States to try to convince us to join them."


Yes, the Russians do have their own agenda, but their willingness to send their second-highest ranking official suggests not desperation, but rather serious interest in harmonizing their agenda with that of the US. The Russians have clearly stated their objectives in the Syrian conflict, and have provided supporting argument. US officials and spokespersons have been ignoring these arguments and, as far as I can tell, have not provided an alternative scenario beyond defeating ISIS and getting rid of Assad. Putin recently said he didn't understand how the U.S. can criticize Russia's actions in Syria when they themselves refuse to engage in a dialogue http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/....


Why are the Americans so intransigent. Why are they unwilling even to enter into discussion? I can see two standard lines of argument--both inadequate: (1) "Assad is killing his own people." (2) ISIS rebels are terrorists while US-supported opponents of the Assad regime are not. But, Abraham Lincoln and Petro Poroshenko also killed their own people. The difference is not that Assad is "killing his own people," but rather that his cause is considered illegitimate. Maybe it is, but I don't know enough about the conflict to make a judgment. But the question of why an internationally-recognized government should not have the right to defend its sovereignty is crucial. The question of which Syrian opposition groups are terrorists and which are the freedom fighters also depends on how one evaluates the conflict.


I suspect that the real reasons for US determination to get rid of Assad are not those being publicly stated. Not that US motivations are necessarily sinister. Most likely, they follow from aims and objectives that are not unreasonable, but which would not wash well in public debate. Those who make foreign policy decisions know very well that international relations are more about power, prestige, and economic interests than about high-flown moral principles. They also know that such motivations do not usually sound good in public. Arguments from morality usually work better.


Clearly, the US and its EU partners are interested in maintaining the existing world order, with the US as undisputed leader. Clearly, the US is interested in the Middle East for economic and strategic reasons. Clearly, the Syrian regime has long not been a friendly one for the US. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, the US foreign policy establishment has grown unaccustomed to competition in the international arena--even competition that could be good for the US.


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