Donald Trump wants to make a partner of Russia in Syria. One of Trump’s most consistently expressed foreign policy ideas, both during the campaign and now since his election, is that the United States and Russia are natural counterterrorism allies, and that the obvious place to begin such cooperation is in Syria, against the Islamic State. Both the United States and Russia are waging war against the Islamic State, Trump’s reasoning goes, so the best way to hasten the defeat of that organization, and perhaps to launch a broader U.S.-Russia rapprochement, is by bringing Russia into the counter-Islamic State fold and undertaking more coordinated military action targeting the group. In a recent Fox interview, in which Trump controversially drew a moral equivalence between the United States and Vladimir Putin’s Russia, he said “it’s better to get along with Russia than not and if Russia helps us in the fight against ISIS which is a major fight, and Islamic terrorism all over the world, major fight, that’s a good thing.”
Trump’s sentiments on this score are not new. But in the past four weeks, there have been repeated hints that such cooperation might simply be part of a larger U.S.-Russia “grand bargain,” in which Moscow agrees to provide enhanced cooperation on counterterrorism and counter-Islamic State operations, and Washington does away with economic sanctions related to Russian aggression in Ukraine. On Sunday, Vice President Mike Pence suggested that the Trump administration’s decision on sanctions would depend on whether “we see the kind of changes in posture by Russia and the opportunity perhaps to work on common interests,” including making common cause against the Islamic State.
This idea fits squarely within the overarching themes of Trump’s grand strategy, which we described in a previous article. The idea that the conflict with “radical Islamic terrorism” is all-consuming and existential; the willingness to cut transactional deals with any actor with whom the United States shares even the most passing interests; the aspiration to get other countries to do more in the world so that the United States can slough off some of the burdens of superpowerdom — all of these concepts are at play in Trump’s advocacy of a counterterrorism partnership with Putin. But hopping in bed with Russia in Syria is an ill-considered and potentially dangerous proposition, and trading away Ukraine-related sanctions for this cooperation would be an even worse idea, for several reasons.