The only language Putin understands on Syria

Steven L. Hall writes: Reasoning with Vladimir Putin will not make him support Bashar al-Assad’s departure. The specter of additional economic sanctions against Russia just might.

Indeed, when considering where to begin addressing the myriad problems in Syria, Russia is a good place to start. Syria, of course, is dominated by an authoritarian dictator more than willing to slaughter his own population using horrific methods, including poison gas and barrel bombs.

And Russia, which continues to claim that Assad’s government is legitimate, has shored up the brutal regime — putatively in its fight against ISIS, but largely for its own strategic advantage in the region.

The recent sarin gas attacks, launched by Assad forces from a base where a Russian military contingent was present, makes it difficult for any reasonable person to believe Russia had no idea what was going on. The White House has used the attack to underline the need for the Kremlin to take some sort of action against the Assad regime, and of course Russia is resisting.
As is clear from Wednesday’s Russian veto in the United Nations Security Council, Russia will go no further than calling for an international investigation of the incident.

It is unfortunate in the extreme that the United States and the West have to include Russia in the context of solving problems in Syria, given that rarely if ever has the Kremlin been helpful in resolving issues important to Washington. But let’s face it: we did it to ourselves by allowing Putin — an authoritarian dictator with much in common with Assad — to move into the power vacuum in Syria when Western countries chose not to do so.

To be clear, Russia’s most significant interest in Syria is not in warm water ports or military bases, but rather in using the tragic conflict to gain a seat as a great power at the international table. Russia wants to show the world it is to be taken seriously, and that it is key to resolving Middle East crises. Russia is expert at creating crisis and unrest, making sure it remains involved in the conflict, and then painting itself as a necessary part of any solution. (Take a look at any of the so-called frozen conflicts which Russia authored — Abkhazia, Transnistria, Ngorno-Karabakh, Georgia, and increasingly, eastern Ukraine.)

Given the remaining gulf between the Kremlin and Washington on Syria, the United States needs to speak in the language that Putin understands best: power and the inevitability of concrete consequences. The United States and its allies should use one of the few diplomatic tools that may still be capable of influencing the Kremlin: economic sanctions. [Continue reading…]

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