How should the US respond to Putin?
Russia has deployed a forward operating base and ground troops in Syria, bombarded opposition forces that the United States supports, allegedly attacked hospitals, violated Turkey’s air space and launched long-range cruise missile attacks from the Caspian Sea. Russia is at war in Syria and signalling determination to win at any cost.
How should the United States respond?
Direct military action such as destroying the Russian base near Latakia is out of the question. The United States will not go to war with Russia over Syria. Great power wars have a way of spinning out of control, with unintended consequences — such as a possible nuclear confrontation. But short of a direct attack on Russian targets, what options does the Obama administration have?
1 - Do nothing. Continue to denounce Russian behaviour as self-defeating and counter-productive and warn Moscow that it is entering a quagmire from which it will be difficult to emerge without costly consequences. The problem with continuing this policy is that it projects an image of weakness and invites more Russian aggression. And it is not likely to do much for US President Barack Obama’s legacy, either.
2 - Pressure the Syrian opposition to reach a negotiated solution that leaves Syrian President Bashar Assad in place. Some close to the administration have argued for this. It is the most likely result of current UN mediation efforts. But it would effectively surrender Syria back to Assad and solidify Moscow’s and Tehran’s holds on the country. Worse, it is unlikely to end the war, because a large part of the opposition — especially its most extreme elements — will continue fighting. To the broader Sunni world, this outcome would confirm America’s bad faith, dramatically reducing Washington’s influence in the Middle East.
3 - Mirror Russian behaviour in Ukraine. Moscow has installed a forward operating base in a third country and is acting against US-supported forces at the request of a friendly government in Damascus. The United States could respond by installing a forward operating base in Ukraine and even act against the rebel forces Russia supports, at the request of the friendly government in Kiev. This would risk a direct clash with Russian forces but it is interesting that Russian President Vladimir Putin calmed the war in Ukraine before striking in Syria, suggesting that Moscow doubts its capability to act in both places at the same time. The US military would not have the same problem.
4 - Mirror Russian behaviour in Syria. Like Moscow, Washington could strike against people it considers terrorists inside Syria: Hezbollah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps are both designated by Washington as terrorist organisations and both operate inside Syria. There is no logical reason to limit US action to Sunni extremists; the Shia variety is no more appetising. Moscow’s action will make it an enemy in the Sunni world. The United States is already an enemy in Iran and has little to lose there. And some Iranians would be happy to see the more extreme elements of their Islamic Republic forced to withdraw from Syria.
5 - Ratchet up sanctions. Putin is upping the ante in the hope of proving himself indispensable to a solution in Syria and then using a political solution there to wriggle out of sanctions. The United States should not allow him to get away with this. Washington could instead work with European allies, who likely will face an even greater refugee influx as a result of Russia’s military action, to double down on sanctions. Moscow is feeling the pinch of both sanctions and lower oil prices. If the Europeans and Americans stick together, Putin will either break or the Russians will break him.
6 - Prevent Syrian helicopters from flying. The Syrian Air Force drops its barrel bombs on civilian areas from a relatively few remaining helicopters. The UN Security Council has demanded that it stop. Making clear that if the helicopters fly they will be destroyed, either in the air or on the ground, would be a relatively easy move and would rebalance the military equation in the opposition’s direction.
7 - Increase support for the Syrian interim government. The war in Syria is unlikely to be won or lost on the battlefield. Who governs best will win in the end, both at the negotiating table and in the hearts and minds of the Syrians. US allies in the Syrian opposition need a much more concerted effort to help win the civilian contest. Their capabilities have improved but support arrives fragmented and irregularly. It should be constant and unified. It would require perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars per year to make a real impact — but that is a lot cheaper than war.
Options 5, 6 and 7 seem the most realistic, and option 4 is also worth exploring. All of these options should be on the table. If Putin keeps pushing, sooner or later the United States must push back. Force is a last resort but it should not come too late to make a difference.