The danger of Russian and Turkish competitive machismo in Syria

The downing of a Russian jet by Turkish fighters has brought the dangers posed by Moscow’s intervention in Syria into sharp relief. While the Russian and Turkish Presidents trade insults and display their competitive machismo, the world faces the prospect of a military crisis between Russia and NATO. Although we do not yet know what Russia’s response will be, we can safely assume that it will not increase the prospects of peace and stability in Syria.

Cooler heads should put a stop to this escalatory spiral now. The United States should take immediate efforts not only to stop further conflict between Ankara and Moscow, but also to forge significantly greater cooperation between Russia and the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition. In so doing, Washington can both prevent incidents such as this one from recurring, and more effectively address the Syrian civil war and the fight against extremists there.

The proxy war that dare not speak its name

Notwithstanding the joint diplomatic efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, this incident actually fits into a pattern: The United States and its allies on the one hand, and Russia and its allies on the other have for months been engaged in a tit-for-tat proxy war in Syria. Despite the handshakes in Vienna, on the battlefield the United States and its allies, including Turkey, seem to consider Russia an adversary, with several steps taken to counter Russia’s intervention directly, including a major increase in the provision of anti-tank missiles to rebel groups. One such missile reportedly hit a Russian helicopter involved in the mission to rescue the downed pilots on Tuesday and killed a Russian marine.

Moscow has clearly been eager—almost to the point of desperation—for more cooperation with Washington and its coalition partners. Ever since the Russian bombing began, the Kremlin has been twisting itself in knots to engage the United States on Syria: Everything from a proposal to send a Prime Minister Medvedev-led inter-agency delegation to Washington for talks; a bid for enhanced military negotiations; and various ideas for deeper intelligence sharing. President Vladimir Putin, not someone known for a supplicant’s pose, has repeated his openness to enhanced cooperation with the United States over Syria like a mantra for almost two months—and he continues to do so, despite being consistently spurned by the Obama administration.

That spurning is certainly morally and politically justified. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea are brazenly illegal acts. Its intervention in support of a Syrian regime that is slaughtering its own people on a nearly daily basis lacks any conceivable moral justification. But in Syria, there is perhaps a higher moral and strategic calling—stopping further ISIS attacks, ending the war and the killing, reducing the flow of refugees, and avoiding a dangerous escalation toward a great power war. Those goals will require cooperation with Russia.

Current U.S. policy—escalating a proxy war by countering Russia’s moves on the ground, and conditioning cooperation on counter-ISIS strategy with progress in Vienna—rests on an assumption that Russia will eventually abandon its long-held positions on Syria and adopt U.S. ones, either due to setbacks on the battlefield or out of its desire to join up with the Western anti-ISIS alliance.

Similar efforts to change Russia’s calculus have been ongoing for over three years now. There has been precious little to show for them. Far from responding to pressure on the battlefield by compromising, Russia has doubled down in its support and escalated the struggle at every juncture.

A new approach to Syria

A new approach is necessary. This approach would have two simultaneous elements.

First, the United States and Russia would agree to set aside the issue of Assad in their bilateral relations and at the Vienna talks, declaring themselves neutral on the issue of his role in the political transition. Such a step would actually represent a return to the letter of the June 2012 Geneva Communiqué; since then, both countries’ positions have in fact departed from that compromise. Returning to it would mean that the future leadership of the country will be determined by a process of negotiation among the various Syrian parties, with outside powers playing only a mediating role. U.S. and Russian neutrality on this issue in the Vienna talks might not immediately produce an agreement—Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the various Syrian groups would continue to struggle over this and other contentious issues—but without it an agreement would be impossible.

Second, putting this issue aside in the Vienna talks should allow Moscow and Washington to focus on what they do agree on in Syria, namely the anti-ISIS struggle. The United States and Russia are not in a position to join each other’s anti-ISIS coalition, particularly since Russia’s contains the Assad regime. But they could serve as inter-coalition liaisons, attempting to find common ground between the coalitions on issues of targeting, military strategy, de-confliction and broader counter-ISIS and counter-extremism efforts in Syria and beyond. At best, such an effort might allow for a much more effective anti-ISIS effort; at worst, it would offer a more counterterrorism-focused channel for the United States to make the case to the Russian military to modify its approach to the conflict and for all relevant militaries to maintain the kind of regular communication that can prevent incidents like Tuesday’s clash.

Deepening engagement, however distasteful, with Russia on Syria must be seen as a necessary—even if not sufficient—step in bringing the nightmare there to an end; in preventing further terrorist attacks like those in Paris, Sinai, and Beirut; and in avoiding inadvertent escalation. It will not eliminate differences with Moscow, particularly on issues like Ukraine. But the other options available to the United States—countering Russia on the battlefield or doing nothing while hoping that President Erdoğan and President Putin can remain calm—will almost certainly make the situation in Syria worse, and could well lead to a much bigger calamity.