The Putin Solution
What Russia is up to in Syria.
SEP 21, 2015, VOL. 21, NO. 02 • BY LEE SMITH Weekly Standard
A photograph of a drowned 3-year-old boy washed up on a Turkish beach after his family failed to find refuge from the war in Syria seems to have finally gotten the world’s attention. The conflict has been an unfolding humanitarian catastrophe for more than four years. A quarter of a million are dead, and millions have been driven from their homes, either displaced within Syria or moved to flee abroad, where they take their chances on reaching shelter. The Europeans don’t want the refugees, but they also don’t want images of more dead children washing up on their shores.
Still, there’s no end in sight, and that’s largely because the leader of the free world has sat on the sidelines since March 2011, when the Syrian opposition first took to the streets in peaceful protest and the regime hunted them like animals. Thus the Syrian conflict has also become a strategic catastrophe for the United States and its allies. It threatens to unravel the state system of the Middle East, jeopardizes America’s half-century-old regional security architecture, and has put a terror-sponsoring soon-to-be nuclear Iran on the border of three longtime U.S. allies—Israel, Jordan, and Turkey.And now Russia has thrown down its gauntlet. Last week, Obama administration officials expressed concerns about Russia’s military build-up in Syria, comparing it to Vladimir Putin’s incursion into Crimea. In recent weeks, Moscow has sent ships, planes, drones, and portable housing units for an expeditionary force of up to 3,000 men, including special forces units. The Russian president’s immediate goal is to help Bashar al-Assad regain Idlib—a strategically vital city on the corridor connecting Damascus to the regime’s stronghold on the Mediterranean coast. The presence of Russian troops may well attract more Sunni foreign fighters—especially Central Asians—but contrary to the assessments of many analysts, Russia’s campaign has little to do with ISIS, which doesn’t even have a presence in Idlib. Russia’s long-term goal, as evidenced by the engineers dispatched to build, among other things, an air base in Lattakia, is a military presence in the Mediterranean, for the first time since the Soviet era.
Even after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Damascus stayed close to Moscow, which continued selling weapons to Hafez al-Assad, father of the current dictator. Putin has helped arm the Syrian regime since the uprising against it began, and had previously sent military advisers. This deployment, however, takes the Russian military presence to a much higher level and is a rebuke to the White House slogan that there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict. Putin believes, to the contrary, that there can be no political solution without force. Put another way—there is no diplomatic entreaty not backed by force that will compel Putin to withdraw his troops from Syria. Accordingly, he has made himself the indispensable interlocutor on the Syrian conflict, which he will resolve only on the most favorable possible terms to him, regardless of how that affects American interests and allies or Syrian infants.
What we’re watching emerge is novel—not Russian ambition, of course, but American indifference. Indeed, the entire thrust of America’s Cold War policy in the region was to keep the Russians out and push them out when they were already in. But for Obama, well, it’s not so bad.
Yes, the White House says it’s worried about Putin’s advances, but as deputy national security adviser and Obama confidant Ben Rhodes explained in 2012, “Our interest in Syria is not the end of any kind of Russian influence.” Indeed, Russia has been helpful to the White House since the beginning of the Syrian uprising. Obama was able to use Russian intransigence at the U.N. Security Council as a reason to avoid actions against the Syrian regime that he didn’t want to impose but also didn’t want to reject openly for fear of appearing callous.
Specifically, Obama opposed any action against Damascus that might endanger his nuclear deal with Iran, the main backer of the Syrian regime. He worried that targeting Tehran’s lone Arab ally might drive the Iranians away from the negotiating table. The Russians helped Obama save the nuclear deal when they offered him a way out of striking Assad in the summer of 2013 after Assad violated Obama’s red line by using chemical weapons. Putin proposed that the Syrian regime destroy its unconventional arsenal under Russian and international supervision. Sure, Assad is still using chemical weapons, but the only thing that mattered to Obama was the nuclear deal, and Russia’s fig-leaf was invaluable.