A New World War? Russia and the US Look for a Way to Cool Down Syria

A New World War? Russia and the US Look for a Way to Cool Down Syria

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Two things emerged from the Munich security conference last week, which seem to make little sense when considered side by side.

One, the major powers agreed to a “cessation of hostilities” in Syria. Skeptics think this will amount to little because those waging the war on the ground weren’t there, but a penny’s better than an empty pocket.

Two, the danger that the Syrian crisis will escalate beyond Syria is suddenly too real to be ignored any longer. A local war has already gone regional by no one’s design; the risk that it could turn global is now unacceptably high.  

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The short of it is that Syria must be put—and urgently—into the wider context of East-West relations. We can no longer think about Syria separately from Ukraine or the weirdly familiar buildup of military forces on either side of Russia’s borders with Europe.

The new imperative falls to Washington and Moscow. Both must transcend the ever-worsening tension between them, if only temporarily, in the interest of addressing a security environment whose perils now supersede narrow strategic ambitions.  

There are signs both sides may be moving in this direction. On Saturday President Obama telephoned the Kremlin to engage Vladimir Putin in an apparently wide-ranging exchange on Syria, Ukraine, a united front against terrorism—among the Russian president’s favored themes these days—and greater contacts at Defense Ministry level.

The early reports were sketchy, but the telephone encounter appeared to be more cooperative than confrontational. We’ll have to see.   

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The agreement to halt hostilities in Syria, which doesn’t have the formal structure even of a ceasefire, was an achievement under the circumstances. But it was instantly dwarfed by the week’s other events.

On Saturday The Independent reported that Saudi Arabia, having hinted a couple of weeks ago that it might deploy troops in Syria, has begun sending fighter jets and ground units to Incirlik, the air base in southern Turkey from which U.S. warplanes already fly sorties into Syrian airspace.   

The London daily quoted Mevlut Cavusoglu, theTurkish foreign minister, confirming the deployments and Riyadh’s declared intentions—plural—to attack the Islamic State and oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This is bad news three times over.

First, Saudi Arabia has so far shown little desire to attack ISIS, which is its ideological offspring, and remains focused on fomenting a coup in Damascus. Second, throwing in with the Turks augurs more of the same. Over the weekend, Turkey began shelling Kurdish troops allied with the U.S. and the Syrian army.

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For once, Damascus may have it right: On Saturday, the foreign ministry sent a letter to Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary-general, asserting that the Turkish artillery campaign “is direct support of terrorist groups.”

Third, one of Moscow’s unstated intentions in Syria is to put Washington on notice that the era of “regime change” in the Middle East and elsewhere is over. This was repeatedly made plain when I reported from the Russian capital in December.

No surprise, then, that the Russians warned at the Munich conference last week that a Saudi intervention in Syria risks “a new world war.”  In an earlier interview with Handelsblatt, Premier Dmitry Medvedev asserted, “The Americans and our [Arab] partners must think hard about this: Do they want a permanent war?” (The original German is here.)

The threat of escalation is clear. Whatever one thinks of the Russian intervention in Syria, this has to be taken seriously. (Step 1: Stop indulging the Saudis and the Turks as they fight on the wrong side in Syria in the name of Sunni nationalism.)

The extent to which great-power rivalry has come to define the Syrian crisis is now beyond question. Syria must therefore be placed on the negotiating table alongside Ukraine and the Obama administration’s just-announced decision to refortify Europe’s eastern borders with Russia via NATO.

Related: How Saudi Arabia’s Troops Could Swing the Fight Against ISIS

Neither case is as urgent as Syria, but both are getting there.

Angela Merkel has signaled European frustration with the Kiev government’s failure to implement promised reforms and constitutional revisions for many months. After Economics Minister Aivaras Abromvicius resigned two weeks ago, asserting that the government remained awash in corruption, IMF Director Christine Lagarde bluntly warned that the fund’s $40 billion bailout was in jeopardy.

Medvedev, the Russian premier, stated last week that we’ve already begun “a new Cold War.” It’s hard to argue otherwise, and the Russians don’t appear to be the only ones unsettled by the thought.

Javier Solana, the former secretary-general of NATO, took issue with NATO’s planned expansion in an interview Saturday with RIA Novosti. It’s contrary to the alliance’s founding act, he told the Russian news agency, “and it is this document that gave us the opportunity to have a structure of cooperation with Russia.”

I get a distinct whiff of a changing mood wafting through the air between West and East. There’s talk of ending sanctions against Russia as early as this spring, and Obama’s call to Moscow Saturday was a long way from his huffy-and-puffy refusal to meet Putin at a scheduled summit three years ago.

The two sides remain at odds on numerous questions: This is inevitable. But these contacts have just become essential—the main event in world affairs, in my view—and they are no longer treating such questions as Syria and Ukraine as if they were separate. They never truly were.