- By Mark R. KennedyMark R. Kennedy is president of the University of North Dakota, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, was senior vice president and treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's), was a member of the Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiation under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and led George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.
Russia is playing chess with the United States. The United States is playing checkers back. Many in America see Britain’s recent vote to leave the European Union as a rightful release from the yoke of the Brussels regulatory machine. This single-country, one-dimensional view is the equivalent of checkers. Brexit advances Russia’s aim of a divided Europe and is the most recent Russian success in a line that started with its chess moves in Syria. Unless America starts playing chess soon, we may find ourselves in check.
Putin’s goals on the European chess board are to retain popular support at home and to avoid outside interference, so that he and his cronies can line their pockets with Russia’s wealth. His strategies to that end include convincing his own people that the West is out to get them, fragmenting and distracting Europe, dividing the United States and Europe, and causing enough Middle East turmoil to keep the price of oil high.
Bashar al-Assad’s Syria has been a useful pawn, with which Russia has skillfully maneuvered its engagement to achieve all of its aims. It acts knowing that a war-weary America is highly reluctant to aggressively engage in the region again.
At home, Putin sells his support for Assad as an effort to defend against Western domination. By preserving Assad without lessening the threat that the Islamic State poses to the West, Russia has helped spark an exodus of refugees that has overwhelmed Europe, heightening the perceived cost of European integration. Russia’s support for anti-immigrant parties may have contributed to the Brexit passing by a narrow margin. While independence may benefit Britain, the EU without an anglophone voice is less likely to be aligned with America, reducing the likelihood that a unified West would enforce sanctions against Russia. The EU will be preoccupied with negotiating Britain’s departure and addressing other separatist demands within both Britain and the EU, as the continent’s economic future darkens and the migration crisis festers. The resulting turmoil has helped bring the price of oil higher.
Russia also benefits from Turkey’s drift away from the United States under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. During a 2004 congressional visit to Syria, Assad asked about our vision for U.S.-Syrian relations. I told Assad, “Syria is a country surrounded by countries America considers friends. Someday I hope Syria is a friend.” America’s failure to assemble a robust enough coalition to address the Syrian challenge has reversed my logic, giving America’s friends that surround Syria less reason to remain friends. The migration crisis has also reduced the EU’s leverage to challenge Turkey’s tilt towards authoritarianism, as Europe has become dependent on Turkey as a shield to keep back refugees.
The surge of Syrian refugees, on top of ongoing concerns about immigration, has cleaved populist bases away from the more pro-market elements of both the Tory and Labor parties, reducing their effectiveness. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of the few leaders strong enough to stand up to Putin, faces reduced support because of her acceptance of refugees.
Three moves are required to reverse Russian gains: the use of the Brexit vote to prod EU reform, the recruitment of ground troop commitments from Sunni-majority nations willing to fight the Islamic State, and a commitment to rid Syria of both Assad and the Islamic State.
Ideally, Brexit could facilitate closer fiscal alignment between those nations sharing the Euro (to avoid future crises like Greece), and another membership tier for countries allowing open trade with lessened regulatory burdens. That approach could solve both the EU’s British and Turkish membership dilemmas. Not seeking to duplicate NATO within the EU would also be beneficial. Negotiating trade deals between the United States and both Britain and the EU could aid all parties.
Using Kurdish troops to secure Sunni populations is unrealistic. The existence of friendly Sunni rebels is illusory. Sunni-majority countries like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates must be convinced to commit troops. It is vital for success to avoid alienating these allies.
President Barack Obama has framed U.S. engagement in Syria as a fight against the Islamic State, but as 51 diplomats recently wrote in a letter intended for an internal dissent channel, Assad is the “root cause of the instability.” Assad’s brutalities created the Islamic State. Russia and Iran are keen to keep their puppet from the small Shia slice of Syria as dictator of its largely Sunni population. The U.S., NATO, and Sunni coalition must be strong enough to overcome this determined resistance. All coalition partners must agree to a sustainable governance framework for a unified Syria before stepping up military action.
The true consequences of Brexit will remain unknown for some time, but it is clear that the failed U.S. Syria strategy has left us with weaker allies, caused bitter divides both between and within countries, emboldened rivals, created a new terrorist threat in the Islamic State, and dug us into a much deeper hole out of which to climb. The shock to the status quo that voters in Britain delivered last week should be an opportunity for the United States and the rest of its European allies to embrace a more robust strategic approach — to play chess, not checkers.
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