×

The 'real answer' to Russian threats against the US in Syria

  • After the U.S. forces in Syria inflicted more than 100 Russian casualties in breaking up an attack by mercenaries a few weeks ago, a Russian response was inevitable.
  • General Valery Gerasimov threatened that if the U.S. again struck Russians, there would be retaliation.
  • We should say nothing, and continue to work with our allies to finish off ISIS.
  • But as that mission winds down we need a clear strategy in the region going forward.
Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Wesley Clark speaks during the 2015 Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting
Taylor Hill | Getty Images
Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Wesley Clark speaks during the 2015 Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting

After the U.S. forces in Syria inflicted more than 100 Russian casualties in breaking up an attack by mercenaries a few weeks ago, a Russian response was inevitable. Putin was strangely silent, then Russian General Valery Gerasimov threatened that if the U.S. again struck Russians, there would be retaliation. What should the U.S. do?

Certainly no apology is necessary; the Russian mercenaries were warned and failed to halt their attack; the U.S. struck in self-defense.

So, we should say nothing, and continue to work with our allies to finish off ISIS.

But as the ISIS mission winds down, the U.S. finds itself badly in need of a clear strategy and the will and means to implement it. While the U.S. brought down Saddam Hussein, we lacked the means to contain Iran's hegemonic aspirations.

We left Iraq largely to Iranian influence, if not control. We failed to enforce our announced red line against Bashir Assad when he used chemical weapons. We opened the door for Russian military intervention in Syria. And now we are confronted by almost a new Cold War in the Middle East, with Russia making inroads not only in Syria and Iran, but also Egypt, Libya and even with American allies Turkey and Israel.

"As the ISIS mission winds down, the U.S. finds itself badly in need of a clear strategy and the will and means to implement it."

Russia's return to the region in force threatens more instability. Iran is emboldened, and Iran's Hezbolla is building up its strength against Israel in both Lebanon and Syria. Saudi Arabia feels more threatened. Assad is empowered to once more use chemical weapons. Turkey seeks to claim additional territory. And we are no closer to a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Some would focus on Iran, and suggest that we pull out of the treaty that constrains Iran's nuclear weapons development and attempt to negotiate something that better constrains Iran's efforts to meddle, terrorize and intimidate. But it seems unlikely that a go-it-alone American effort would achieve any better results, and might in fact accelerate Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Others ask, "Is there no way we can force Russia out of Syria and Iran?" Short of conflict, probably not, at least in the near term.

In fact, our best option is to strengthen relationships with traditional allies and friends, to enable them better to protect their own security. We should help Turkey with its refugee load, encourage more Kurdish economic development, continue to protect Jordan, encourage closer Saudi-Israeli-Egyptian cooperation, and work to settle the destructive conflict in Yemen. Our bases and relationships in the Gulf should remain, and where we can assist Iraq, we should.

Russian advanced weaponry has already somewhat impacted Israel's margin of regional military superiority. We must enable our allies to keep up with a renewed arms race, and simultaneously encourage renewed and deeper regional dialogue. Can we do more?

If we have learned one thing over the past fifteen years, it should be that military action often leads to undesirable outcomes. We should use force only as a last resort. But we should also have learned this: U.S. values and principles are important elements of U.S. national power.

We need to keep our word and fulfill our commitments. We should help the weak and struggling, and encourage others to defend themselves. And we should discourage the use of force by others to strike out preemptively. These principles provide the foundation for a new American strategy for the region, and provide the real answer to Gerasimov's threatening remarks.

Commentary by Retired General Wesley Clark, a former NATO Supreme Allied Commander and a Senior Fellow at the UCLA Burkle Center. Follow him on Twitter @ GeneralClark.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.