Engaging with the Russians is one of an array of unsavory options the United States faces in Syria. Given Russia’s aggressive behavior in his neighborhood, particularly inside Ukraine, and Moscow’s support for President Assad and his bloody campaign against his own people, extending a hand to Moscow feels both immoral and dishonest.
But the conflict in Syria has come to involve a sticky web of players, and the United States no longer has the ability to engage with only those it likes and trusts, nor the luxury of staying on the sidelines. America hopes that this conflict could somehow be contained, and our determination to avoid a direct role, have both been short-sighted. We have now reached a point where the United States must assume a leadership role and swallow the bitter pill of dealing with players it would rather avoid.
Creating a lasting diplomatic solution to halt the flow of refugees and destroy ISIS requires engaging Moscow, especially in light of its recent deployment of personnel and military assets into Syria. But working with Russia on these aims presents a dilemma. Do we work with the Russians to destroy ISIS, knowing that doing so would ultimately strengthen Assad’s hand and secure his future? In the short term, though, we will need to prioritize, and our first objective should be to reach a diplomatic settlement in Syria.
Before we launch negotiations, though, the U.S. will need to establish preconditions. Russia needs to understand that our pursuit of ISIS does not translate into love for Assad, and that the United States will continue to insist on his departure even if it would consider preserving some elements of his regime as he exits.
As with our work together on the Iran nuclear deal, nothing Russia and the United States do together vis-à-vis Syria will halt our efforts to stop Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Will Russia and the United States find a way to jointly accept a future for Assad? We don’t know. But as this conflict bleeds across the Middle East and deep into Europe, we have to try.