By Benjamin Haddad and Hannah Thoburn*
On Sept. 30, Russian jets began airstrikes on rebel-held territories in the Syrian cities of Hama, Homs, and Latakia. This should have come as no surprise. During his speech at the U.N. General Assembly on Monday, Vladimir Putin laid out his plan for a “genuinely broad international coalition against terrorism,” a catch-all term that now appears to include the Islamic State, al-Nusra Front, and the Free Syrian Army — anyone and everyone who opposes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The bombings followed weeks of military buildup in Syria and years of verbal and lethal support for Russia’s ally Assad.
Much has been written about the multiplicity of potential motives behind Putin’s military buildup in Syria: defending his interests in the Middle East, shoring up Assad’s regime, making Russia the power broker in the Syrian conflict, sustaining his power at home, and filling a power vacuum left by U.S. disinterest. These are all correct, to varying degrees. But they underestimate the geographic extent of that power vacuum. Beyond the Middle East, Putin’s move in Syria could also strengthen him on a second front: Europe.
Dividing and disrupting the post-Cold War European security architecture has always been one of Putin’s major strategic goals. While this may not be the driving force behind his moves in Syria, it certainly has the potential to be one of its side effects. Unlike European leaders themselves, the Russian president takes the EU’s transformative power seriously, especially in his neighborhood. Why else would he have spent so much effort fighting Ukraine’s 2013 attempt to negotiate a simple trade agreement with the EU?
For Moscow, a Europe united behind the auspices of the EU or NATO represents a dangerous potential opponent — and a threat to its corrupt autocracy. No wonder, then, that the Kremlin has begun to finance and promote nationalist and anti-EU political parties, extend its propaganda enterprise into Europe, and pursue energy projects to pit European nations against each other. A strong transatlantic alliance is likewise undesirable for the Kremlin. As the ties that bind it fray, Russia’s relative power in the region grows stronger. Putin’s decision to act in Syria, coupled with American vacillation, has offered him yet another opportunity to drive a wedge between Europeans and Americans.
In recent months, Europe has begun to feel the collateral damage from the conflict in Syria. As its governments struggle to find a way forward with the refugee crisis and as the terrorist threat from European-born jihadis returning from the Middle East increases, public pressure to formulate a response to the Syrian crisis has intensified. Polls show that a large majority of the French favor intervention against the Islamic State in Syria. There is even increasing support for “boots on the ground” among war-weary Britons. On Sept. 27, France announced its first airstrike against an Islamic State training camp in Deir al-Zor, Syria, claiming “self-defense” against attacks being prepared on European soil. France had previously refrained from strikes on Syrian soil over concerns that they would reinforce Assad’s regime.
The few European leaders still holding a strong line on the necessity of Assad’s ouster appear increasingly isolated. At the General Assembly, French President François Hollande spoke unambiguously of the connection between Assad’s repression and the rise of the Islamic State, calling the leader the “the origin of this problem [who] cannot be part of the solution.” In principle, Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel also see Assad’s ouster as a requirement for a solution to the Syrian crisis. In an interview on Sept. 29, Cameron said he agrees with the U.S. position that Assad could play a role in a transitional government, but he resisted the notion of working with the Syrian president to defeat the Islamic State and backs his departure. Merkel, similarly, has called for talks with Assad. For his part, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi seems to back Russia’s support of Assad, saying, “It is impossible to achieve peace without Russia involved.”
Doubtless, the portion of Putin’s visit to Paris on Oct. 2 that dealt with Syria was designed to move Hollande away from the American stance and into line with the Kremlin. At this point, that remains unlikely. For Europeans, joining Putin’s “coalition” to save Assad would be akin to sanctioning bombing runs that will only exacerbate the refugee crisis and increase the number of strikes targeting Western-backed rebels and civilians.
But while the French government has called out the Russians for their hypocrisy, Washington appears much more hesitant to confront Moscow. How long can the United States expect its allies to support a line it barely cares to defend? Its failure to intervene after Syria crossed the “red line” on the use of chemical weapons, leaving its partners hanging, had already eroded its credibility. Washington then turned down its allies’ calls for more robust involvement, from enforcing no-fly zones to providing wider support for moderate rebels. The new facts on the ground created by Russia will soon render all those previous options obsolete.
Should Russia’s narrative on Syria carry the day, the consequences will test the reliability of U.S. leadership. European governments that have spent political capital supporting Washington’s position from the start of the Syrian crisis, now pressured to prioritize the fight against the Islamic State instead of ousting Assad, are left to ponder if Putin has been right all along. Is he a more reliable ally than Washington? In any case, Russia’s move is less of an enigma to European policymakers than it is to the White House. “If I [were] Russia and Iran, I would act exactly the same way,” a senior European diplomat told Foreign Policy.
But, more dangerously, this goes beyond Syria. Russian involvement in Syria is inextricably linked to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
Miraculously, Russian-backed violence in eastern Ukraine died down at the very same time that the Russian military began expanding its presence in Syria. Despite the relative quiet in eastern Ukraine, the bloodshed continues, and OSCE monitors believe that the Russian-backed separatists grow stronger by the day. Should the Ukrainian situation remain calm, European leaders will have a hard time explaining why they must maintain sanctions on the very country they’re counting on to solve the Syrian problem. Generating such confusion is surely one of Putin’s goals.
Sanctions don’t come cheap for European economies. The European Commission projects that Ukraine-related sanctions cost European economies 0.3 GDP points in 2014 and 2015 — a non-negligible cut, when eurozone GDP is only expected to grow by 1.5 percent in 2015. In short, the sanctions regime is expensive, divisive, and European leaders are beginning to make noise about their desire to rebuild trade relations with Russia. Their business communities demand it, and Europe’s attention span for the conflict in Ukraine is waning.
Weakened European resolve on sanctions plays right into Putin’s hands: The removal of sanctions would both aid his reentry into polite international society and remove the heavy pressure on his economy. In essence, he is asking Europe and the United States to forget about Ukraine, creating a de facto frozen conflict, in exchange for his assistance with the Syrian conflagration. It is already in motion. In Paris, the Russian president discussed both issues with his European counterparts amid diplomatic rumors of new plans that would further weaken the requirements that Russia and its proxies in eastern Ukraine agreed to in the Minsk II protocols.
Although Peter Altmaier, Merkel’s chief of staff, has rejected the idea that cooperation with Russia on Syria would change Berlin’s position on sanctions, this has already been proposed by Sigmar Gabriel, Merkel’s coalition partner and economy minister. The EU’s sanctions regime comes up for renewal in January 2016; countries like Hungary, Greece, and Slovakia have already expressed their opinion that sanctions are unproductive.
Even more worrisome for the future of European liberal polities, Putin’s moves in Syria will only embolden the voices that turn to Moscow as an alternative to Washington and Brussels. The populist, nativist, and anti-EU political parties that have gained in popularity in the past years have actively digested and relayed Russian propaganda to their followings.
Putin’s Syria ploy will provide fuel to those who have criticized the confrontation with Russia that has animated European chancelleries since the annexation of Crimea in March 2014. Relations with Russia, as well as Putin’s polarizing persona, have increasingly become a domestic political issue in many European countries. Leaders like Britain’s Nigel Farage or France’s Marine Le Pen have long called for an alliance with Putin against Islamic terrorism. Putin has gleefully egged all this on, arguing that Europe stands for nothing but nihilism and decadence and that its national values and sovereignty are being undermined. In a Europe wracked by self-doubt, this message is starting to resonate.
As tempting as it could be for Washington to outsource the resolution of external crises to nations like Russia that it sees as more directly affected by the issue, these decisions cannot be viewed in isolation from one another. After his recent move, Vladimir Putin seems like a more coherent, reliable player than Washington. But the cost of American restraint is expanding beyond the Middle East and may damage European and transatlantic unity for many years to come.
*About the authors:
Benjamin Haddad, Research Fellow
Hannah Thoburn, Adjunct Fellow
This article was published at Foreign Policy and the Hudson Institute.