Putin’s deafness on Syria

It would be easy to get the impression from media coverage that Putin’s decision to intervene militarily in Syria is some kind of genius strategic move — a bold and brilliant gambit that will weaken the US in the Middle East, or at least dramatically limit its influence in the region. Headlines this week have blared that Putin has “blindsided” Obama, that Putin is now “controlling the game” in Syria, and that Obama is “humiliated” as Putin “resets the Middle East.”

But as Jeremy Shapiro, a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Project on International Order and Strategy, explained to me, the truth is far different. If Russia did manage to “blindside” the Obama administration, he argues, that’s only because the Russian intervention is so incredibly stupid that it took the US by surprise that Putin would actually do it. And while Putin’s actions may be bold, that doesn’t mean they’ll be effective, much less worth their costs.

In fact, Shapiro argues, if the US is going to take a cue on its Syria policy from a despotic foreign leader, it shouldn’t be Putin, but Napoleon, who once famously warned, “When your enemy is making a mistake, do not interrupt him.”

Below, Shapiro explains why Putin is making a mistake in Syria, why the US should refuse to be drawn into a “pissing contest” on foreign policy, and what would really need to happen to bring Syria’s civil war to a close.

Amanda Taub: There’s been a lot of commentary worrying that this means the U.S. is losing the Middle East to Russia, or that the U.S. will lose influence because Putin is willing to act more boldly. Do you think those concerns are warranted?

Jeremy Shapiro: A Russian intervention in Syria is a significant thing. It’s going to have an impact, certainly on the Syrian civil war and on U.S.-Russian relations. So a certain amount of wroughtness is warranted.

Nonetheless, it’s a little bit troubling that everything gets framed in terms of sort of “boldness” and “machismo” and “stolen a march.” You know, these headlines in the Washington Post that Putin is “surprising” the Americans and “wrong-footing” them and all these things.

Well, I think that certainly the Americans have been surprised—but the reason they’ve been surprised is that this is incredibly stupid stuff, and we had not understood that the Russians were this self-destructive.

The Russians have made a serious mistake, I think, for Russia, for Syria, and for the region. We shouldn’t be glad about that, because it’s going to make life more difficult for the United States, too, and certainly for Syria.

It’s a little bit depressing that on both sides we’ve gotten into this kind of machismo foreign policy, where we think that whoever appears strongest and most macho is winning. As if that has any meaning in international relations. This is not a pissing contest. Boldness rarely has benefits in international relations, particularly for status quo states like the United States. Caution is a good thing, and boldness is rarely rewarded.

Amanda Taub: Why do you consider this intervention a mistake for Putin? What makes it so “stupid”?

Jeremy Shapiro: I think they’ve made a mistake because they’re banking on coercing the United States and its regional allies into accepting that [Syrian President Bashar] Assad has to be part of any eventual solution because he has too much backing to be overthrown.

So what they’re attempting to do is to change the situation on the ground in order to negotiate from a position of strength. They’re attempting to get the United States, but also what they view as its proxies—Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE, and Qatar—to come together with them and Iran and create a sort of Taif settlement [the 1989 accords on ending Lebanon’s civil war] that involves Assad.

The United States, by the way, has the exact same but opposite strategy: to change the situation on the ground so that Assad and his backers understand they can’t survive militarily and they have to get into a negotiation.

And that strategy didn’t work for the United States because, essentially, the Russians and the Iranians escalated, rather than allowing themselves to negotiate from a position of weakness. And I think the Russians are just contributing to that cycle.

This is a very, very familiar proxy war cycle from the bad old days of the Cold War, and it’s incredibly damaging to the country in question. That’s obviously who suffers the most. So this is the worst news for Syria, but it’s not great news for the supporters, either. Russia could get themselves into some sort of quagmire without any very good options.

I don’t know what the Russian domestic politics looks like when one of their Sukhoi fighters falls out of the sky—which happens, from time to time, with Russian airplanes—or gets shot out of the sky, and some pilot gets burned alive on video, so they have to escalate beyond where they wanted to go.

So, you know, it’s a nightmare.

Amanda Taub: It seems like Russia has less capacity to engage in this kind of proxy war; its military is smaller than America’s, and it’s a poorer country that has been suffering economically. You said Russia’s strategy in Syria is similar to ours, but does that mean this is going to have negative ramifications for Russia more quickly than it is for the United States?

Jeremy Shapiro: I do. It’s worse for Russia than it is for the United States. What they’re doing is trying to demonstrate a strength that they don’t quite have, whereas what we’re doing is trying to demonstrate a strength that we have but don’t want to use.

But they don’t even have it, so it’s even worse. They’re going to have difficulty supporting their forces, they’re going to have difficulty escalating beyond where they already are. That’s not the kind of thing we’re going to see in a couple of weeks. But they must be banking on this idea that they’re going to bring us around, and I don’t think they are. And they’re certainly not going to bring the Saudis around.

Amanda Taub: So what does an eventual solution or compromise look like?

Jeremy Shapiro: I think it’s actually pretty easy to envision a solution or compromise here. It’s not that far from the Geneva Communique that they signed in 2012 [calling on the parties of the Syrian war to find a political agreement to end the conflict]. It does involve a real compromise on Assad, particularly from the United States, in which we say, “Look, we’re going to design a political process, and we’re not going to demand a guarantee that Assad will not come out the other end of it.”

But again, it’s a little bit harder for the regional countries, the Iranians and Saudis, particularly. They’re actually the key piece. If the United States and the Russians had the interest and were willing to force those two to compromise with each other, then that’s the critical route. It’s hard to do, and I don’t think either side is actually interested in it. They’d prefer to fight this war to the last Syrian—and I think they’re getting there.

Amanda Taub: We’re heading into an election year, and can anticipate a lot more of what you referred to as “macho” posturing on foreign policy. What are the political implications of that, or the policy implications?

Jeremy Shapiro: The truth is that everybody’s critical of the Obama policy in Syria, and nobody has a better alternative. I’ve never f***ing heard one. And if you heard something that even resembles a good idea on Syria in the Republican debate I would eat my head.

There is a lot of pressure in U.S. politics, particularly under a presidential campaign, to “do something,” to look tough. And one of the advantages of being a powerful country is that you can do stupid things for a long time and it won’t affect you that dramatically.

So we have a history in this country of doing things that aren’t good for us, but we don’t suffer on the scale that some countries experience. So the Vietnam War, we survived it pretty well—the Iraq War, ditto. We have the possibility of doing that again [in Syria]. It won’t be the fall of the American empire if we do, but how many times can you make these kinds of mistakes?

As a great sage said not too long ago, “Don’t do stupid sh**.” And I think you might amend that with, “Don’t do stupid sh** just because your enemy is doing stupid sh**.”

And another aphorism, that I think is attributable to Napoleon, is, “When your enemy is in the process of making a mistake, do not interrupt him.”

Amanda Taub: Seems like good advice.

Jeremy Shapiro: Yes. But I think the part that doesn’t work is the humanitarian part of it. What we’re talking about here is incredible suffering, and it’s already overflowing not just into neighboring countries, but into Europe. The United States and Europe have an urgent need for a humanitarian solution. So I think that does put some pressure on us.

Amanda Taub: Is it possible to find an effective humanitarian solution if there’s no end in sight to the war?

Jeremy Shapiro: It depends on what you mean by effective. I think the disease is the civil war, and the symptom is the refugee crisis. And as long as the disease continues, the symptom will continue.

But even if you can’t cure a disease, you should treat the symptoms. And we can treat the symptoms much better than we have been, particularly in the neighboring countries, in terms of assistance to them, but also in terms of pressure on them to do more in terms of integration.

I think basically every country in the world has shirked its responsibilities in this regard, except the neighboring countries, and needs to step up. And the United States is certainly one of them. I think that we can do more here in bearing our share of the burden, not just monetarily but also in terms of refugees.

That’s not a solution to the civil war, but I would say that we need to stop focusing on curing the disease and start focusing on the symptoms. Because, actually, we don’t have the cure. We don’t know what to do.

This interview was originally published by Vox.