Tasteless and odorless, sarin gas is 20 times more potent than cyanide with effects both horrific and indiscriminate. The gas causes the victim’s muscles to function as if continuously receiving stimulation from the nerves. Immediately, “the nose runs, the eyes cry, the mouth drools and vomits, and bowels and bladder evacuate themselves.” Asphyxiation, paralysis, and death can follow within minutes. This was the fate of more than 80 Syrians—including 33 women and 18 children—in Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, 2017. The first rule of conduct within just warfare (jus in bello) is that one’s tactics must discriminate between combatants and civilians. The use of chemical weapons in Syria violated this fundamental rule of warfare.
The perpetrator was obvious: Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator whose grip on power has left hundreds of thousands of Syrians dead and half of the population displaced. Immediately after the attack, the United States sent Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to call on Russian President Vladimir Putin to abandon Assad. Of course, Putin ignored him.
Russia and Syria alongside a third ally—Iran—have successfully undermined American foreign policy for many years. They have resisted efforts to establish freedom and democracy, have stood staunchly against Israel, and have undermined the West’s nuclear nonproliferation efforts. This alliance must be broken if the US is to resume a leadership role in the Middle East, and simply sending Tillerson to ask Russia to break its alliance with Syria will not work. In order to break this alliance, American policy-makers must understand the depth of animosity Russia bears towards the United States.
Russia’s Perspective on the US
While Americans have come to expect hatred from the governments of Syria and Iran, few understand the depths of loathing, animosity, and fear the Russian population bears towards the US or the lengths to which the Russian government will go to degrade American influence. A brief glance at two of Russia’s propaganda sites, Sputnik and RT, reveals Russians are producing articles with titles such as “West eyes recolonization of Africa by endless war; removing Gaddafi was just first step,” “US ‘Making an Effort to Squeeze Russia Out of Serbia,’” and “Afghan-style West Africa invasion played out in US war college drill.” Russian news coverage sometimes advocates conspiracy theories such as the view that ISIS is a puppet of the United States. This propaganda reflects opposition to the US in Russia—according to a 2013 poll, 54 percent of Russians believed that the United States posed a greater threat to world peace than any other country.
This fear and dislike has been developing for two decades now. For a brief period during the early 1990s, Russia viewed the West and the United States positively as a source of modernization, liberal institutions, and investment dollars. Russian belief in Western reform collapsed with the ruble in 1998. The expansion of NATO and the bombing of Russia-allied Serbia to protect Kosovo sowed discontent against the west.
Parallel to the expansion of NATO, Color Revolutions like the recent Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine drove Russia’s distrust of the United States. The Color Revolutions were uprisings in former Soviet states which shifted countries’ orientations to the West. The Russian military sees these revolutions as “a new US and European approach to warfare that focuses on creating destabilizing revolutions in other states as a means of serving their security interests at low cost and with minimal casualties.” From Russia’s cynical viewpoint, smaller countries are merely pawns to great powers. Thus, revolts in post-Soviet states such as Ukraine only occur because of American involvement. The Russian government does not view these Color Revolutions in a vacuum; Putin sees the Arab Spring as a similar phenomenon which provides further evidence to him that the West is destabilizing regions to advance its own interests.
The Russian Federation’s leadership also has personal financial reasons to dislike the United States—a third of the government’s budget goes to bribes. The entire economy is riddled with corruption due to officials enriching themselves and exporting their wealth to be enjoyed internationally. The US targeted these officials with the Magnitsky Act in 2012, both restricting travel for and freezing the assets of these corrupt leaders. As a result, the relationship between Russian officials and the United States soured.
Some Americans may think that there is an easy way to patch relations with Russia, but George Barros makes an excellent case against efforts to align with Russia in his article, “Why Russia can’t be America’s Ally: What Putin Doesn’t Want You to Know About Moscow’s Persecution of Christians and Covert Support for Radical Islamists.” America’s legitimate actions have undermined it in Russia’s eyes, and relations have chilled to lows not seen since the Cold War.
The Syria Connection
The freeze in US-Russia relations has motivated Russia to undercut US hegemony and assert its own superpower status. These two motivations go hand in hand—as the US decreases, Russia increases proportionally. In order to expand its power, Russia turned to the Middle East and cultivated two allies: Syria and Iran. Syria and Iran possess an enduring hatred for America, making them reliable allies against US hegemony.
The conflict between the US and Russia revolves around Syria. Russia and the US have mutually exclusive plans for developing the Middle East: Russia’s allies are striving to form a Shiite Crescent while America’s allies are trying to form a Sunni Axis. The Shiite crescent focuses on building a land bridge from Iran to the Mediterranean. In this arrangement, Iran, Iraq, and Syria would be close allies. Iran would be the regional hegemon with Russia reaping all of the international rewards of having a powerful client.
America would prefer a Sunni Axis crossing from Saudi Arabia through Iraq or Eastern Syria into Turkey. In this Middle East, Saudi Arabia would be the regional hegemon with the US reaping the benefits of serving as the patron state. Recently, President Trump has worked to build a stronger alliance with Saudi Arabia, meaning that the US both has more to gain and more to lose alongside the Saudis. The two formulations of the Middle East are mutually exclusive—only one alliance can claim the middle region; only one alliance can get Iraq and Syria.
Russia, with the help of Iran and Assad, has essentially won this struggle for supremacy. Assad has retained power in Syria with the assistance of Russian airpower and Iranian-backed militias. Assad was already an ally of Russia and Iran before the war; now he is deeply indebted to them. Additionally, the expansion of ISIS into Iraq threw that country—which was already majority Shi’ite and historically inclined to side with Iran—into Iran’s arms for protection. Thus, through economic investment in and military support for the beleaguered Assad regime, Russia has successfully defied US hegemony in the Middle East.
Russia and Iran have already begun to crow in victory. Iran’s FARS News Agency published the remarks of a Lebanese military analyst to portray its outlook on the conflict: “In the current stage… Russia has strengthened and Iran has also grown stronger militarily and economically, cooperation between Russia and Iran is considered as a serious threat to the US plots and hegemony.” Russia’s gamble on Assad has paid off well—the Shiite Crescent is becoming a reality. Now the US must take Russia into account when planning policies in the Middle East and can no longer treat Russia as a mere regional power.
Putin sees his success in Syria as more than just an extension of Russian power—he sees it as a defense of Russia itself. Russians believe that revolutions around the world are the insidious work of Western powers. In this view, stamping out the revolution in Syria directly defended Russia. It is like the old domino theory the US held in regards to the USSR; once one state turned to Communism the rest would fall like dominoes. Now Russia fears that the dominoes of liberalism are falling rapidly toward them.
The Western dominoes threaten what Putin portrays as Russia’s identity. As mentioned above, after the collapse of the Ruble in 1998 Russia began to shift away from its positive outlook on the West and liberal values to an Eastern outlook—Eurasianism. The essential philosopher of this anti-liberal, anti-West philosophy is Aleksandr Dugin. Dugin idealizes Russia as a civilization-state in the heart of Eurasia. This state would presumably protect Russia’s identity and civilization from foreign influences.
Putin appears to subscribe to this philosophy. By working with Assad and Iran to stop the revolution in Syria, Putin argues that he has protected the Eurasian heartland from further Western intrusion and stopped the dominos of liberalism from reaching his homeland. It is no coincidence that an authoritarian would argue that Russia’s historical tendency to authoritarianism is ideal. Putin has another material reason to advocate Eurasianism—the doctrine allows him to maintain his kleptocracy.
Tillerson could not shame Russia into severing its ties with Assad in April—the alliance between Russia, Iran, and Syria is too deep to be easily broken. Even though the UN confirmed in October that Assad used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians in April, Tillerson would have no more success in Russia now than he did months ago. Simply put, America’s hands are tied when it comes to separating Syria, Iran, and Russia. The US cannot appeal to ideology or morality to pull the countries apart, for the primary goal of each state is unworthy of American support—Russia desires to be a Eurasian superpower, Iran pursues regional hegemony, and Syria is trying to maintain one family in power. Russia, Iran, and Syria stand directly opposed to US interests; there is no moral and practical method of using positive incentives to pull the alliance apart.
This means the US only has negative incentives at its disposal. It has already tried some of these negative incentives—all three states are under sanctions. However, each country has oil reserves and the ideological determination to stay the course in spite of heavy economic deprivation. Thus, the US must make recourse to hard power.
The US can carry this out in three ways: First, the US must make it clear than any aggression against its allies will be met with force. This will reassure allies like Egypt and Turkey which have begun to flirt with Russia’s sphere of influence. It is this very steadiness and reliability which has allowed Russia to transform its tentative relationships with Syria and Iran into a tight-knit alliance. By building a trustworthy and consistent foreign policy, Russia has claimed a place on the world stage once again. The US, in this regard, must follow Russia’s lead.
Second, the US should expand its network of alliances—particularly NATO. The expansion of NATO alongside an unequivocal reaffirmation of Article V would limit Russia’s imperialistic schemes by denying it ground to expand. If Ukraine had been part of NATO in 2014, Russia could not have implemented its designs against Crimea.
Finally, the US must support its allies right now. Every dollar invested in the Ukraine conflict will force Russia to sink another dollar into supporting its allies. Every dollar invested against Assad will inflict more damage on Russia, Iran, and Syria’s already failing economies. For all that Russia endeavors to look like a superpower, its GDP is lower than that of Italy, Iran’s GDP is only a little better than half that of its regional rival, Saudi Arabia, and Syria’s GDP doesn’t even bear mentioning.
In its last great conflict with the icy Eurasian giant, the US won by forcing the Soviet Union to break its economy by buying meaningless missiles and fighting worthless wars. The US has the same opportunity once again. If Russia buckles in Ukraine or Syria, it would lose its recently acquired international prestige. Right now Russia stands to become a superpower again, but if the US forces it to blink in Ukraine or Syria—and the US could, for Russia’s economy is too weak to bear prolonged strain—then Russia would be forced to either break its economy or its alliances. Once again, the Bear would leave the international stage. Without Russia behind it, Iran cannot become a regional hegemon, and Assad’s regime cannot survive. The alliance would break—all it takes is for the US to be willing to invest a little more.
Nathaniel Mullins is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in history from Patrick Henry College, where he is editor-in-chief of the undergraduate Alexandria Historical Review.
Photo Credit: “With President of the Syrian Arab Republic Bashar al-Assad,” November 21, 2017, from the Kremlin.