Aleppo has fallen to the Russian-backed forces of Syrian leader Bashar Assad. This defeat forecasts the end of wider opposition efforts in Syria and is a major victory for the brutal Assad regime. For the United States, a significant aspect of this outcome is the victory that Russia can claim in the Middle East, for it is now clear that Russian intervention in Syria is part of a greater objective to challenge the U.S. reign as global superpower and fundamentally undermine the Western democratic system.
By challenging U.S. hegemony in Middle Eastern affairs and supporting the Assad government after it crossed the Obama administration's ill-fated "red line," Russia made the U.S. look weak. At the same time, Russia is advancing against the U.S. on a far different front: using cyberwarfare to influence the outcome of the U.S. elections. Indeed, the CIA has concluded with "high confidence" that Moscow hacked the servers of both major political parties to help Donald Trump win the presidency. Not only has the Kremlin succeeded in sowing chaos throughout the highest levels of the U.S. government, it has exposed frailties in our democratic system and eroded American national security, resulting in serious questions about the relationship between Russia and President-elect Donald Trump. Mr. Trump's nomination of ExxonMobile CEO Rex Tillerson, a past business ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin's and recipient of the Russian "order of friendship," increases concerns that the Trump administration will take a staunchly pro-Russia foreign policy position.
On its European front, Moscow undermines confidence in liberal democratic institutions and creates influence by gaining the allegiance of pro-Russian politicians, many of whom benefit from illicit Russian financial support; opening local branches of Russian state-controlled media networks that spew pro-Russian propaganda; and supporting anti-EU populist movements in Europe. In fact, the Kremlin has even routed money to far-right parties in France and Italy that favor ending EU sanctions against Russia.
Brandishing its fresh victory in Aleppo, the Kremlin — not the U.S. — now sets the agenda in Syria, forcing the international community to acknowledge it as a potent international actor. How does the U.S. proceed in Syria?
Despite Russia's troubling behavior worldwide, if we are truly committed to stopping extremism in the Middle East and resolving the global refugee crisis, we must not give in to the red scare rhetoric now dominating discussions among Washington, D.C., legislators. Instead, we should look to join Russia at the negotiating table — while remaining clear headed regarding Moscow's seedier objectives. A failed state in Syria would be a disaster all around. A catastrophic humanitarian situation, combined with entrenched sectarian fighting in other parts of Syria, is a recipe for escalated conflict and the growth of extremist factions. Russia will need American support to undertake a massive assistance effort and negotiate the design of a secure Syrian state, which will substantially weaken the extremist threat and enable refugees to return home, thereby decreasing the potential for conflict in nations strained by the refugee crisis. A stable Syria is imperative for a stable Middle East free of extremist influence — a goal that both the U.S. and Russia agree on, despite Moscow's and Assad's focus on fighting opposition forces rather than extremist factions.
Furthermore, negotiations regarding Syria may yield further cooperative efforts between the U.S. and Russia around terrorism, cybersecurity and nuclear policy. The last is critical, given tensions over alleged Russian nuclear treaty violations and increased nuclear posturing by Russia in the Baltic region. Renewed productive dialogue with Russia could lead to future arms control discussions that reduce the likelihood of nuclear conflict between the two countries. As secretary of state, Mr. Tillerson could use his experience in negotiating with Russian leaders to facilitate such discussions. But the U.S. should remain committed to its support of Ukraine and NATO allies, and not agree to transactional agreements that sacrifice the security of smaller states vulnerable to Russian influence. Furthermore, confirmation hearings must fully address Mr. Tillerson's present conflicts of interest to assure that he will be a secretary of state for the United States and its allies — and not for ExxonMobil.
The Kremlin clearly is still smarting from President Obama's remark in 2014 that Russia is merely a "regional superpower." Embarrassment over the toll that economic sanctions have taken on the economy is also likely driving Moscow's resolve in Syria. How the nations cooperate over Syria will be the first sign of the direction in which their relationship is headed under the new administration. U.S. foreign policy toward Russia must cease to rely on the personal rapport between U.S. and Russian leaders, as it has for the past two decades. A new administration would best serve U.S. interests by taking a measured and long-term approach toward Russia. It must signal willingness for communication on crucial foreign policy matters while simultaneously communicating clear boundaries where the U.S. will not gratify Russian desires — like condoning the illegal seizure of Crimea or disregarding Russian attacks on American cybersecurity. Syria is an opportunity to pilot a middle-ground approach toward Russia that opens up dialogue for the future.
Maggie Tennis, a Baltimore native, graduated from Brown University, where she studied U.S.-Russian relations, in 2015. Her email is email@example.com.