Should the U.S. Cooperate with Russia on Syria and ISIS?

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Carnegie Corporation, long committed to improving U.S.-Russia relations, has invited experts to weigh in on this key question.

US President Barack Obama with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the 2014 APEC summit in China
US President Barack Obama with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the 2014 APEC summit in China (GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)


1Nancy Gallagher

Interim Director, Center for International and Security Studies at University of Maryland

Last spring and the year before, a group of students from the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy addressed this basic question in joint policy exercises with their Russian counterparts from the Institute of U.S. and Canada Studies’ School of World Politics. Both times, they quickly agreed on the structure of the problem. The United States and Russia share important interests in defeating the Islamic State, protecting civilians from violence and hunger inside Syria, and preventing chaos there from spreading to other countries, but the United States sees Assad as a cause of these problems, while Russia believes that keeping him in power is essential for their solution.

In spring 2014, the American and Russian students settled on a lowest-common denominator recommendation to cooperate on humanitarian aid. By spring 2015, The Islamic State’s position had strengthened substantially and the civilian death toll had topped 200,000 with no end in sight, so the American students decided to follow Secretary of State Kerry’s lead by signaling some flexibility on Assad long enough for an international coalition to defeat ISIS and negotiate a political settlement to the Syrian civil conflict. Almost immediately, though, the Obama administration got so much criticism from both ends of the U.S. political spectrum and from some key Middle Eastern countries that it resumed insisting on Assad’s departure from power as a precondition for cooperation, so the Islamic State got more entrenched, the killing continued, and refugees began flooding into Europe.

It was hard for the students to understand how world leaders could prioritize the political fate of one man more than hundreds of thousands of human lives, let alone peace and prosperity in neighboring countries. They were only slightly more accepting of their leaders’ inability to compromise when they acknowledged the broader consequences of giving up on either principle at stake. Putin has justified blocking any type of international action besides talking as defending the norm of non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states (except at the request of their leaders or with Security Council approval.) The United States counters that the responsibility to protect civilians is part of what makes a sovereign legitimate and the international community worthy of that name. Few Americans, Russians, or Syrians would want to live in a world where either principle always trumps the other, but the current situation violates both principles and many other values.

Given the political challenges of balancing these conflicting principles and interests enough to achieve even lowest-common-denominator forms of U.S.-Russian cooperation in Syria, it is no surprise that both countries have been providing their preferred set of actors in the Syrian civil war with progressively more significant military aid, hoping to change the facts on the ground enough to achieve their political objectives without having to compromise their core values. The United States has progressed from giving moral support and humanitarian assistance to those it identifies as the “democratic opposition,” to military training, weapons, and airstrikes. Russia has provided progressively more advanced weapons to Assad and now is conducting airstrikes, too, against those it calls “terrorists” in parts of Syria where the U.S.-supported insurgents are strongest. Putin’s primary objective may be to underscore that the United States and its allies cannot advance any of their objectives in Syria without respecting Russia’s interests and requesting Putin’s help. But each Russian airstrike makes that politically harder for the Obama administration to do. Maybe it is time to change the focus of conversation from a thumbs up or down on Assad, or from abstract arguments derived from competing principles, to a set of specific behavioral rules that could make it possible for Obama, Putin, Assad, and other international leaders to coordinate and cooperate enough to protect Syrian civilians from violent non-state actors.

As a practical matter, that would require the United States and other countries that want a political transition in Syria to agree that they would subordinate that objective until more vital objectives have been achieved so long as the Assad regime and its allies agree not to target Syrian civilians or engage in other specified actions that undermine the two common objectives, regardless of whether or not that’s the intended effect. It’s hard to envision how to blend principles, power politics, and pragmatic joint actions to advance shared objectives when U.S. and Russian interests and values seem starkly at odds in Syria and many other parts of the world. But it was equally hard to imagine that the United States and Russia could convince Assad to give up his chemical weapons until it actually happened.

2Rajan Menon

Professor of Political Science, City College of New York/City University of New York and Senior Research Scholar, Columbia University

Russia’s operation in Syria is not that of a lone wolf; nor is it impulsive. And all signs are that it has been coordinated with Iran and Iraq, whose interests in Syria converge with Russia’s in important respects. Journalists and pundits who depict Moscow’s military moves in Syrian as a product of Putin’s machismo, his desire to divert attention from Ukraine, or his fear that a Moscow spring could follow Assad’s fall are puerile. The Soviet Union and then Russia has had a major strategic stake in Baath-ruled Syria since the mid-1950s. The Kremlin has been the chief source of aid and arms (sales started in 1955) for successive Baathist regimes for six decades running. The Russian navy’s access to the Syrian port of Tartus dates back to 1971. And the ties between Russia and Syria remained strong after the Soviet Union imploded.

Read the full article at Foreign Affairs

3Kimberly Marten

Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Political Science, Columbia University

Perhaps Putin’s actions are influenced, as some commentators have suggested, by his abhorrence of popular revolt in any form. But that seems a flimsy reason for the expense and risk that Putin’s actions entail.

Instead we should remember that all politics are local, and foreign policy begins at home. Putin’s primary goals are to stay in power as long as possible, while going down in history as the man who made Russia great again. Demonstrating his strength as the Syrian regime’s patron serves both of those ends. 

Read Putin as Patron in Syria at the University of Nottingham's Ballots and Bullets blog.

4Steven Pifer

Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center on the United States and Europe, and Director of Brookings' Arms Control Initiative


The United States and Russia have a common interest in defeating ISIS and promoting an end to the conflict and chaos in Syria, and the U.S. and Russian militaries have a specific interest in cooperating to deconflict their respective military operations in and over Syria.  But finding a path to broader cooperation will prove a challenge.

Washington and Moscow hold very different views regarding the future of Bashar al-Assad.  The United States sees no place for Assad, given the violence he has committed against his own people.  Russia is not ready to simply throw him under the bus.  That difference poses an obstacle to broader cooperation.  A second question concerns the conduct of military operations.  The U.S. military is targeting ISIS, but Russian forces may well target a wider spectrum of opposition groups.  Coming to terms on which groups they are fighting could pose a second obstacle.

Even if broad cooperation proves elusive, it makes sense for Washington and Moscow to stay in touch on Syria and ISIS, and try to manage their differences.  The bilateral agenda does not need another big problem issue at the moment.

Follow on Twitter @steven_pifer

5David Speedie

Senior Fellow, Carnegie Council for Ethics and International Affairs

The first month of the New Year brought tumult to the global financial markets, to the extent that the various political crises—Syria, Ukraine, the Middle East and Gulf— received scant attention.  Buried under the at times apocalyptic economic headlines were three interesting, and to an extent intersecting, sets of political statement.  First, there was the collective oratory of the Republican Presidential campaign; second, President Barack Obama’s valedictory State of the Union address to Congress; and third—virtually invisible to American audiences—a wide-ranging interview to the German newspaper 
Bild by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia.

The U.S., Russia and the American Political Cycle on the Carnegie website.

What is evident is that while the United States and Russia disagree over one "elephant in the room" aspect of resolving the Syrian crisis—the fate of President Bashar al-Assad—they share an equally obvious, self-interested resolve to de-fang and defeat the ISIL forces that now control large swathes of eastern Syria. In this regard, it is, to say the least, frustrating to look on as two world leaders snipe at each other over how this is to be accomplished. It is rather like two Neros fiddling while Rome, or in this case Damascus, burns.

Read Messrs. Obama and Putin: Put Syria and Syrians First at the Carnegie Council for Ethics and International Affairs

6Jeffrey Mankoff

Senior Fellow and Deputy Director, Russia & Eurasia Program
Center for Strategic and International Studies


If Atlanticists were back in charge of Russia’s foreign policy, or if U.S. decision-makers were possessed by the spirits of Talleyrand and Metternich, movement in one direction or another might be possible. But at present, unless ISIS becomes such a threat that Assad is seen as a lesser evil, or Russia’s ability to sustain its policy in the region is compromised, there will be little basis for common action.

Given Russia’s military deployments to Syria and efforts to establish a new coalition, the United States has little choice but to engage. Washington’s current strategy of conducting airstrikes and supporting moderate rebel groups has utterly failed to stem the advancing tide of the Islamic State or bring peace to Syria. This failure has damaged Washington’s credibility in the region, creating an opening for Russia and others to insert themselves into the conflict. Whether Washington likes it or not, Russia is an increasingly important player in Syria, and any political solution will have to take account of its equities.

Russia of course has its own agenda, which largely centers on maintaining Syria as a strategic partner, keeping its naval base on the Mediterranean coast at Tartus, checking the continued advance of extremist forces, and using its intervention to establish Russia as a regional power broker. Both publicly and privately Russian officials have said they do not see the maintenance of Bashar al-Assad’s rule as a core interest. Moscow cares more about preserving the Syrian state structure—which it argues the U.S. failed to do in Iraq and Libya—along with Russian influence in Damascus. It also seeks to take Western (and domestic) attention off the conflict in Ukraine, which threatens to become more and more of an albatross for the Kremlin. The U.S. should have no illusions about Russia’s intentions, but with Russian forces present in Syria, Moscow has already established that is going to be part of the conflict’s next phase. Washington has little choice but to accommodate itself to that reality, and should explore whether a basis exists for cooperation that could improve the chances for a political solution to the Syrian conflict.

7Nikolas Gvosdev

Professor, National Security Affairs, U.S. Naval War College


U.S.-Russia cooperation on Syria can only occur when both countries share a similar assessment of the threat and its causes and come to an agreement about how best to remedy the situation. The fact that the United States, Europe, and Russia are all menaced by the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is, in itself, not a sufficient basis for joint action. As long as Washington maintains that the regime of Bashar al-Assad is the cause of the Syrian crisis, and that its removal from power is the only way to move to a solution—while Moscow insists the exact opposite—there is no basis for anything other than limited, short-term tactical cooperation. The dialogue initiated between Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and the direct meeting between Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin show no signs of narrowing these gaps.

Unlike in the aftermath of 9/11, both sides, at present, see the price of cooperation as higher than the projected rewards. Moscow sees nothing on offer from the United States that would cause the Kremlin to abandon its support of its partner in Damascus (or scale back its efforts in Ukraine) in order to help the United States salvage its Middle East policy by facilitating Assad’s departure. In Washington, there is little enthusiasm for forging a partnership on Syria if it means conceding a de facto sphere of Russian and Iranian influence in the region and accepting a continuing role for Assad in determining Syria’s future given that U.S. policy remains committed to his complete departure from power.

Read Moscow's War in the Air: Russia Sends a Message in Syria in The National Interest.

8Paul Saunders

Executive Director, Center for the National Interest

Russian President Vladimir Putin has demonstrated though action that it will be quite difficult if not impossible to find a political settlement to the Syrian civil war without some form of U.S.-Russia cooperation. Indeed, Moscow may be positioning its new bases to allow for ongoing support to the Syrian government even if Damascus should fall. At the same time, facts on the ground have demonstrated that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has much more support, and is much more resilient, than most Western observers apparently expected.

This presents the Obama administration with a clear choice: continue to support relatively weak opposition forces fighting both Assad and the Islamic State, with support from key regional allies but at cross-purposes with Russia and Iran (which are supporting Assad against the Islamic State and others), or work together with Moscow to try to build a unified coalition to fight the Islamic State and give less priority to ousting Assad. In practical terms, this means moving away from previous U.S. insistence that Assad’s departure should be a precondition for any negotiations toward a political settlement. The current policy approach has not yet succeeded after four years and few expect dramatic changes in the foreseeable future. The alternative would force the administration to confront significant political opposition inside the United States and likely from some U.S. allies. And it would not be easy to find a common approach with Moscow.

That said, successful U.S.-Russia cooperation could substantially alter the dynamics of the fight against the Islamic State and, hopefully, accelerate its defeat. This cooperation could include some form of coordination of international air strikes with ground operations as well as joint U.S.-Russia efforts to persuade other regional states to participate in the fight and to facilitate talks between the Syrian government and non-Islamic State opposition forces.

Read "The Politics Behind Russia's Support for Syria" by Paul Saunders at the Tokyo Foundation

Follow on Twitter @1796farewell

9Daniel Treisman

Professor of Political Science at UCLA and Director of the Russia Political Insight project


The US and Russia share an interest in limiting and ultimately defeating ISIS. They also share an interest in a return to stability in Syria, but they differ fundamentally on what that stability would look like. However, Russia’s interests in Syria and even with regard to ISIS are not the most salient objectives for Putin at the moment. The central goal of Russian actions—both military and diplomatic--is to reduce Russia’s international isolation and achieve victories on the international stage that can be used domestically for propaganda purposes. The almost seamless segue from the conflict in Ukraine to the conflict in Syria observed in both the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Russian media was revealing.

In such circumstances, the US should be ready to explore any possibilities for coordination (cooperation is probably too much to expect) with Russia on ISIS and Syria—but at an appropriate level. Conversations should continue between Secretary Lavrov and Secretary Kerry and between the military leadership of the two countries. Meetings between presidents should only occur when significant agreements have already been negotiated at a lower level and should be arranged in such a way as to minimize the potential for Russian media to exploit these for propaganda purposes. Any attempt to “change the subject” from Ukraine should be resisted. And the policy of economic sanctions, which has over time been bearing fruit, needs to be sustained.

Follow on Twitter @dtreisman

10Henry Hale

Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, Elliott School of International Affairs

The current leadership of both the US and Russia agree on the need to combat ISIL. This provides grounds for cooperation. Complicating cooperation are: (a) that the leaderships disagree on what an acceptable alternative to ISIL is and (b) whether cooperation itself is undesirable because it could bolster Putin’s international and domestic standing less than two years after Russia grossly violated the European security order by annexing Crimea. For Russia, therefore, the question is whether defeating ISIL is worth giving up Assad. For the US, the key question is whether Russian support would make the decisive difference in defeating ISIL. If not, then why risk throwing Putin a political lifeline and ending its punishment of Russia over Crimea? Not to mention effectively acquiescing to Assad, which could mean either new massacres of the opposition or continued civil war. It seems to me that Russia could be decisive for the anti-ISIL coalition only if its leadership is willing essentially to give up Assad, forcing him to come to the table for a compromise with the non-ISIL opposition to pose a united front against ISIL. But this is possible only if the non-ISIL opposition can be forced to agree to something other than the complete ouster of people Assad represents, and it is far from clear that the US can credibly deliver that, in which case support from other countries will be crucial as well. In short, what is needed is a grand diplomatic bargain that is unlikely to happen but that policymakers should strive for with energy and creativity. While Putin now appears to think defeating ISIL is not worth giving up on Assad, his public does not support a Syrian military adventure, giving him at least some incentive to consider a compromise in addition to other realities of Syrian politics. From the American perspective, including Putin in such a bargain would not enhance his international or domestic status enough to outweigh the potential benefits. Putin would of course spin it in a way that makes him look good, but then again, he spins everything that happens in the world that way.

11Rajan Menon

Professor of Political Science, City College of New York/City University of New York and Senior Research Scholar, Columbia University


What’s truly surprising about the Kremlin’s latest military moves in Syria is that anyone who has paid the slightest attention to Soviet and Russian policy in the Middle East should find them the least bit surprising. Moscow has a long history with Syria, based on multiple modes of cooperation that preceded Bashar al-Assad, and even his wily, pitiless and long-reigning father, Hafez (prime minister from 1970-71, president from 1971-2000).

The Damascus-Moscow alignment has endured for various reasons. During the Cold War, the Kremlin regarded Syria’s Ba’ath Party, whose ideology is a mélange of pan-Arab nationalism and socialism, as a “progressive force.” This assessment was reinforced by the Syrian government’s refusal to participate in Washington’s Containment strategy. Furthermore, Syria is geopolitically significant. When the civil war began in 2011, its population was 23 million, making it the eighth most populous Arab country. It has a long Mediterranean coast and good ports. Its military has relied almost completely on Soviet and Russian armaments, the cumulative tally of its purchases totaling billions of dollars. Its leaders have been willing to provide Russia (and the USSR before it) access to naval bases and airfields.

As a result, Moscow has what economists call substantial “sunk costs” in Syria: interests acquired, political contacts cultivated, markets (for arms and trade) nurtured and access to strategic installations—above all the naval facility at Tartus—gained.

Read "Why Russia's Actions in Syria Are No Shocker" by Rajan Menon in The National Interest

12Thomas Graham

Senior Fellow, Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, Yale University


Russian President Vladimir Putin is remaking the Middle East by boldly creating facts on the ground. The recent military buildup and the initial airstrikes against targets inside Syria mark Russia’s return as a major strategic actor for the first time since the Yom Kippur War of 1973 that pitted Arab nations against Israel.

The Kremlin is finding it hard to hide its self-satisfaction with its rapid military intervention in Syria. Tactically it took the United States by complete surprise – even today Washington professes not to know what Russia is up to – and Putin must be bemused as Washington flounders for a response while issuing empty threats and warnings backed up by no concrete action. 

Putin stole the show at the United Nations General Assembly. Who remembers that Chinese President Xi, Indian Prime Minister Modi and a host of other world leaders had gathered to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the UN's founding? 

Putin boxed in President Barack Obama, compelling him to agree to a bilateral meeting on Syria and Ukraine, thereby making a mockery of the 18-month-long US effort to isolate him diplomatically. Contrary to earlier expectations, Putin escaped widespread scathing media criticism of his actions in Ukraine. Indeed, Western commentators write as if he holds the keys to stability in the Middle East and peace in Ukraine, even as many continue to demonize him. In short, Russia matters – and that matters much to Putin.

Excerpted with permission from YaleGlobal Online, a publication of the MacMillan Center. Read the full piece, Putin’s Dramatic Syria Move Raises Russian Profile - With Risks, on YaleGlobal Online.

13Simon Saradzhyan

Research Fellow, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University

As Thomas Graham and I noted in a recent article, neither the U.S. nor Russia can afford to tolerate the existence of a terrorist quasi-state in either Syria or Iraq, especially as ISIS is actively  recruiting and training nationals of their countries while also seeking weapons of mass destruction.

The agreements on Syria’s chemical weapons and Iran’s nuclear program have demonstrated that Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and his U.S. counterpart John Kerry and their colleagues can negotiate win-win solutions for their countries on issues of high importance for not only the  U.S. and Russia, but also the entire international community, despite initial skepticism. Perhaps, the upcoming meeting of U.S., Russian, Saudi and Jordanian senior officials to discuss what Kerry has described as "real and tangible options" for a political solution in Syria could become the first step toward achieving such a solution, as well as a step toward joining forces in battling the common threat that ISIS’ continued existence within and without Syria poses to the national security of the U.S. and Russia.

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Much has been said about Russia’s intensified military involvement in Syria and its call for building an international coalition to confront ISIS. As usual, opinions have varied. Some have viewed this as an opportunity to seek a solution to Syria’s intractable conflict; others have voiced alarms about Russia’s actions and motivations and cautioned against cooperation. And, as usual, the reasons and context for both positions and those in between are complicated, nuanced, and ever changing.

Carnegie Corporation of New York asked a number of leading Russia experts to weigh in on this urgent debate. Do Russia and the United States have a shared objective concerning Syria? If so, how can they settle the most divisive element in their current positions, which is the future of Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad? And Is it possible for the United States and Russia to cooperate in ending conflict in Syria and defeating ISIS and, if yes, what are the necessary steps toward it?

-Deana Arsenian, Vice President, International Program and Program Director, Russia and Eurasia, Carnegie Corporation of New York

Read and respond to these expert opinions, and explore their other writings on this and related topics.