In order to understand why the US and Russia have seemingly incompatible goals in Syria, we need to understand the broader trends in US-Russian relations since the end of the Cold War. In short, the breakdown in relations is a product of longstanding disagreements over each state’s national security and core interests.
Russia’s grand strategy can be boiled down to three main goals: remain a nuclear superpower, remain a regional hegemon, and remain a great power in all facets of international relations. The second and third goals are the ones that run against US strategy. Since the end of the Cold War, the US has expanded NATO and supported the expansion of the EU into former Soviet republics, violating what Russia sees as its sphere of influence in its “near abroad.” This is particularly salient with NATO, a treaty organization specifically designed to defeat Russia in a war. NATO has even expanded in states that were formerly part of the Russian soviet republic (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). In order to remain a great power, Russia has recast itself as a revisionist state, seeking to undermine the US-led order whenever it can. This in turn prevents the US from separating issues; it is harder for the US to work with Russia in Syria because of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. This ensures that cooperation between Russia and the US will be rare and difficult for both sides.
Pivoting specifically to Syria, the US and Russia have different goals because they view the conflict differently. Where the West sees human rights abuses and the responsibility to protect, Russia sees a regional geopolitical struggle, largely between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Further, the two states have different fears regarding intervention in the civil war. The US (at least under Obama) fears further entanglement and a repeat of the Iraq and Libya fiascos. In contrast, Russia fears that Syria could become a launching pad for radicalism into its own country. Both of these will be examined in detail in later summaries, but suffice to say here that where the US sees interests in preventing the Syrian Civil War’s spillover effects, it does not see an explicit interest directly in the war. Russia, however, sees a direct national security incentive to support the Assad regime as a bulwark against internationalized terrorism.
In summary, Russia and the United States have a history of conflicting national security interests that makes broad cooperation difficult. In Syria specifically, the two have different understandings of the war and different fears regarding its effects, which leads to fruitless negotiations since the two sides can rarely agree on a common endpoint for the war.