While Donald Trump is wrong on a large number of issues, he is right on a few. One of those issues is our relationship with Russia. While Hillary Clinton consistently calls for more military pressure on Russia in Syria, which could start a potential direct conflict between the two powers, Trump is actually is in favor of improving relations and developing some sort of bilateral cooperation between the US and Russia. Currently, Russia is involved on two fronts that are very concerning for the the US and the world as of recent. The first being the war in the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. The second and more critical situation is the war in Syria. On both fronts the US and Russia are arming, supplying and sharing intelligence to opposing sides, fueling two proxy wars and leaving many to wonder, did the Cold War ever really end, or has it just entered a new phase? If that is the case, the US should not be escalating tensions with our former Cold War adversary when there are far more pressing issues that face both nations, such as ISIS, al-Qaeda and its affiliates, al-Shabbab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, the civil wars in Libya and Yemen, the war in Afghanistan, as well as the Middle East's own Cold War between Iran and Saudi Arabia. While Russia is far from an ally, the US can cooperate with it on a number of fronts including counter-terrorism, counter-piracy, and ensuring stability within certain areas of the world.
In the case of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, we should remember that before the Ukrainian revolution in February 2014, the president, Viktor Yanukovich was very much under the influence of Putin's Russia. After his ouster, a new, anti-Russian Government took power, which eventually led to the current pro-western President Petro Poroshenko being elected. Russia's annexation of Crimea through masked Russian troops without insignias was a last ditch attempt to scoop up wherever they could after their puppet government in Ukraine collapsed. Crimea being majority ethnic Russian was overwhelmingly in favor of the annexation. Additionally, Crimea plays a strategically important position role for Russia's military, as it has hosted the Russian Black Sea fleet in the city of Sevastopol since the years of the Russian Empire. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian government allowed the Russian Navy to lease former Soviet Naval facilities in the country until 2017. In 2010, the Yanukovich Government extended the lease until 2042, but became null after the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. The uprisings that followed in the Oblasts of Luhansk and Donetsk were backlashes of the Ukrainian revolution and the Crimean annexation, as those regions have large ethnic Russian populations as well. The whole world knows without a doubt that the Russians are arming the rebel groups in these regions, which have set up their own de facto nation states in their areas of control (the People's Republic of Luhansk and the People's Republic of Donetsk). This gives Russia a little more control of the land they lost after Yanukovich's ouster. The reality is, for the indefinite future, Crimea will be a part of the Russian Federation and the two “People's Republics” will be under Russian control. There is nothing the US or its NATO allies can do about it, unless we want to start a war with Russia. The positive aspect from a western perspective is that now, instead of the entirety of Ukraine being under Russian control, only three small regions in the eastern part of the country are. What we can do is try to maintain the fragile, but largely holding, ceasefire between Ukraine and the two breakaway regions. By having a dialogue with Russia, mutual exchanges and agreements can be made that both the US, Ukraine, and Russia would most likely agree on.
The first being that the US, Ukraine, and NATO should cease pressure on Russia to return Crimea to the Ukraine. It will most likely never be returned, and it is a waste of energy to try and gain it back. This would require a lot of persuading for the Ukrainians, but it is possible to convince them to let Crimea go. In addition to this, maintaining the current ceasefire lines decided in the Minsk II Protocol between the Republic of Ukraine and the two “People's Republics” should be upheld for an indefinite time until a future border can be agreed upon by both sides. In exchange for this, Russia should agree to allow the remainder of Ukraine join NATO if it chooses to. As the current government is very anti-Russia, pro-western, and has been conducting military exercises with the US, this scenario has a high likelihood of happening. This is a variable sum scenario, as both sides will receive something they want, and lose something they want. It may not be an exactly even exchange, but it will ease tension between the two major powers and ensures the safety of Ukraine under US protection and Crimea and the “People's Republics” under Russian protection. This type of agreement can lead to more cooperation over other conflicts like Syria.
The Syrian civil war is a much more complicated conflict that has many state actors intervening, making it all the more difficult to resolve. However, there are a number of actions that the US can take to help end the conflict. The unfortunate reality of the conflict is that Assad is a brutal, tyrannical dictator whose actions should not be condoned in any way. However, with the exception of the Kurdish People's Protection Forces (YPG) and their affiliated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Assad Regime is the only reliable, secular, and stable military force in the conflict that can bring stability back to the nation. If he is overthrown, a stable, democratic Syria will not take its place. We can look at Iraq, Libya, and Yemen as examples of secular dictators being overthrown and the results aren't pretty. Even Obama's closest advisors have admitted that before the outbreak of the war, Syria under Assad was relatively stable. At this point in the war, the US's only option and primary goal should be to decimate ISIS and eliminate all of its leadership as well as ensure stability in the nation. One action the US must do to ensure that the conflict ends is to not interfere in the military operations of the Assad Regime and Russia in taking out opposition forces. Yes, they are killing scores of innocent civilians, but there is nothing the US can do about it, unless we want to go to war with Russia, Syria and Iran simultaneously.
In addition to not interfering with Syrian-Russian military activities, the US must cut off all support for any and all rebel groups in opposition to the Assad regime, such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The FSA as well as others have proven to be unreliable, disparate organizations comprised of dozens of armed militias, many of which are violent jihadists or have direct ties to such groups. The US has tried to train these “moderate” rebels to fight ISIS, but to no avail. This has been an abysmal failure. Even though the Obama administration has hoped that these groups will take the fight to ISIS, most of them don't see ISIS as their immediate problem and are more focused on fighting Assad. Our arming of these groups is not only contributing to the fight against Assad, but is also strengthening jihadist groups like Jabhat Fetah al Sham (al Qaeda's Syria affiliate until it broke off in 2016) and others. The reality is, we have no idea who we are arming, as militia members are not strictly loyal to one group (anyone that can accurately decipher this seemingly never ending list of militant groups deserves a gold medal). Often times, militias merge with others, or members defect to another faction. There are even cases of our arms ending up in the hands of ISIS as a result of this. Furthermore, our so-called “allies” Turkey and Saudi Arabia are directly arming Jabhat Fetah al-Sham, Jaish al Fatah and Ahrar ash Sham. Continuing down this trajectory is a recipe for disaster.
The immediate cessation of arming the opposition would allow for the Assad regime to restore order to conflict areas. The Obama Administration is relying on the American public's ignorance of the complex situation on the ground. They are giving the impression that the opposition is a united group of democracy loving patriots that are leading the valiant fight against the brutal Assad regime, and we must help them establish a democratic Syria after Assad is overthrown. This is simply not the reality of what is occurring in Syria. This may have been the case within the first few months of the FSA's existence back in 2011, however it has since fallen apart into the disparate mess that it is now. Furthermore, if Assad and the Ba'ath Party were to be overthrown, there would be another war between the dozens of factions over whom should succeed his regime. This would be a repeat of what happened with NATO's intervention in Libya. After Moammar Gaddafi was overthrown, the rebel factions began fighting over the formation of a new government. This conflict still rages today and has allowed jihadist groups like ISIS to take advantage of the power vacuum and seize even more land. If Assad is removed, an even worse conflict than Libya would take place, as Syria is far more sectarian than Libya is. For that reason the only viable option is to allow Assad and the Russians to take back lands from the opposition and ISIS in the western portion of the country, while the US focuses on taking out ISIS positions in the central and eastern parts of the of county.
The only reliable group on the ground that that the US should be arming is the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). The YPG has proven not only to be a unified formidable fighting force against ISIS, but a reliable ally in a conflict which practically no other opposition group can be trusted, because of direct links to jihadists. The YPG is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) who has the sole goal of creating an independent, or at least autonomous Kurdish region within Syria along the entire stretch of its northern border with Turkey. The Syrian Kurds have proven to be a largely secular, stable ally, which currently has a form of detente with the Assad Regime. There have even been cases of the Russians and Syrian Government cooperating with the YPG on military operations around the Aleppo area.
Taking these actions will most definitely allow for an easing of tensions between the US and Russia, and give both nations the ability to focus on taking out ISIS. A unified military operation, or at least information sharing, should take place between the US and Russia in order to take out key ISIS positions. ISIS should be our main focus in this conflict, not regime change, as this will result in an even worse situation. Have we not learned from our past mistakes in Iraq and Libya? The only viable option is to cooperate with Russia to ensure that ISIS is taken out and a stable regime remains in place in Syria. The US will not lose anything by leaving Syria under Russian and Iranian influence, as it remained that way before the war, and things were far more stable then.
Ronald Reagan managed to end the Cold War by cooperating with Mikhail Gorbachev on a number of issues, easing tensions and allowing for a cessation of hostilities between the two nations. While Vladimir Putin is more like a Khrushchev than a Gorbachev, there are plenty of opportunities to have rapprochement with him. The United States faces an immense amount of foreign policy issues, not the least of which being radical Islamic terror. If the US can end the needless hostilities that it has with Russia, it can better allocate its time, resources and efforts on pressing issues like eliminating ISIS, containing China's attempts to take over the South China Sea, and preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, among many others. If Hillary Clinton is elected however, the window of opportunity to have detente with the Russians may be lost.