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Don’t Start a New Cold War over Syria

Ted Galen Carpenter

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived in Moscow this week for
his previously scheduled official visit with Russian officials. His
journey came at a time when the chill in bilateral relations is
especially acute following the U.S. missile strikes on Syria in
response to the Assad government’s alleged use of chemical
weapons. Kremlin leaders were extremely annoyed at
Washington’s action, and they hintedthat Tillerson’s expected meeting
with President Vladimir Putin might have to be canceled. Instead,
his talks would be confined to sessions with his counterpart,
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

The Russians relented at the 11th hour, but to describe the
Tillerson-Putin meeting as tense and contentious would be an
understatement. The same was true of his interaction with Lavrov.
Not surprisingly, Syria policy was the main irritant. Lavrov set
the tone at the welcoming ceremony, which usually is a polite,
vacuous ceremony. Instead, he used the occasion to direct pointed criticism at the Trump administration.
Not only did he express concern about “ambiguous and
contradictory ideas” coming out of Washington regarding
international affairs generally, but he added, “apart from
words, we saw some very alarming actions regarding the unlawful
attack in Syria.”

The Trump administration
needs to return to its original course and seek to improve
relations with Moscow. Tillerson’s abrasive performance is a
textbook example of what to avoid.

Tillerson did not retreat from the administration’s newly
adopted hardline policy regarding that country. Indeed, he insisted
that Russia sever its alliance with Bashar al-Assad’s
government. Even before arriving in Moscow, Tillerson stated that
Russian leaders needed to face the reality that the Assad
family’s rule had reached an end. Both Putin and Lavrov flatly
rejected that demand. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova
stated bluntly that “there is no use giving us ultimatums.
This is simply counterproductive.”

Beyond resentment at Washington’s brusque behavior, the
Putin government’s stance reflects major policy differences
between the two countries. Russian officials warn that ousting
Assad would risk making Syria yet another playground for ISIS and other radical
Islamist factions. That fear is well-founded. Despite
Washington’s longstanding search for “moderate”
Syrian rebels, fighters with that orientation are few on the ground
and, with the exception of the Kurdish units in the Syrian
Democratic Forces, they lack meaningful military capabilities. And
the Kurds are pursuing their own agenda—securing a de facto
independent state in northern Syria, just as they achieved in Iraqi
Kurdistan following the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

The Russians are right. Although Assad is a brutal dictator,
removing him would create a dangerous power vacuum in Syria. Even
if ISIS did not succeed in filling that vacuum, most of the U.S.-backed rebels (with the exception of
the secular Kurds) are nearly as radical. The leading, most
powerful, non-ISIS faction is Tahrir al-Sham, formerly the Nusra
Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. Together with its
smaller, equally Islamist allies operating under the umbrella
organization Ahrar al-Sham, the Nusra militants would likely
dominate any post-Assad government. The only way to prevent such an
outcome would be to send a large contingent of U.S. forces to
occupy the country, and no sane American should embrace that
option.

Although the Syria issue was the greatest source of animosity in
Tillerson’s meetings, it was not the only one. Frictions also
resurfaced regarding Crimea, Moscow’s alleged cyber espionage
against the United States, the Kremlin’s reported flirtation
with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and NATO’s new military
deployments in Poland and the Baltic republics. Although the joint
closing press conference sought to portray the discussions as a
constructive, albeit candid, exchange of views, it was difficult to
hide the reality that U.S.-Russian relations appear to be at their
worst level since the end of the Cold War. Even Tillerson conceded that the relationship was “at a
low point” and needed to be improved in the interests of both
countries.

The ongoing chill should deeply disappoint all Americans. Given
Donald Trump’s conciliatory comments regarding Russia during
the 2016 presidential election campaign, there was the widespread
expectation of a U.S.-Russia rapprochement. Indeed, Trump and his
foreign-policy team have had to fight off a concerted campaign by
both neoconservative Republicans and hawkish Democrats who accuse
them of being Putin’s puppets. Perhaps the
administration’s new confrontational stance toward Moscow is
an attempt to erect a defense against that assault. If so, it is
likely to be a futile effort. Trump haters are not going to be
placated by belated hawkish posturing against the Kremlin.

Even more worrisome is the substantive damage to an already
troubled bilateral relationship. The last thing that Americans need
is another cold war with the one nation that has the military
capability to eradicate American civilization if that confrontation
ever turned hot. We were fortunate to have survived the initial
cold war without it erupting into a horrifying conflagration. We
might not be so lucky this time around. The Trump administration
needs to return to its original course and seek to improve
relations with Moscow. Tillerson’s abrasive performance is a
textbook example of what to avoid.

Ted Galen
Carpenter
, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy
studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 10 books and more
than 650 articles on international affairs.