The latest military adventure on the part of Russia’s Vladimir Putin involves sending troops to Syria in the support of Bashir Assad’s regime. The troops seem to consist of naval infantry, the Russian equivalent of Marines. Reuters reports that they have been involved in the fighting against Assad’s enemies, particularly ISIS. Media reports suggest that military air and sea transports are pouring in more troops and equipment into Syria.
The Obama administration is, understandably, alarmed at the sudden influx of Russian military power into the Middle East. It has already asked Bulgaria and Greece to close its airspace to Russian aircraft on their way to Syria.According to CNN, the Russians simply shifted the fight path of their planes to over Iran and Iraq on their way to the war zone. Secretary of State John Kerry and other American diplomats have expressed concern.
The policy of the United States has been that the Assad regime has to go. The complicating factor is that what might replace it, say an extension of the ISIS-ruled Islamic State, would be far worse from the point of view of American policy. American efforts to create a pro-western alternative have thus far been ineffective as have the few air strikes conducted against ISIS targets.
Putin’s strategic goals are far easier to achieve. He is not very finicky about who winds up running Syria, so long as that person remains a firm Russian ally. Putin cares not a fig that Assad has dropped chemical weapons on his own people. All that matters is that Russia maintain its naval base at Tartous on the Syrian coast. Keeping Assad as the ruler of a client state in the Middle East would be a great plus for Putin’s scheme to reestablish the Soviet Union.
As with virtually all foreign policy disasters of the past few years, the entry of Russia into Syria can be laid at the doorstep of President Barack Obama. When the civil war in Syria broke out a few years ago, Obama warned Assad not to cross “the red line” by using chemical weapons. Then, as the Washington Post pointed out, the president denied that he had set the “red line” after Assad crossed it. To add insult to injury, Putin stepped in and claimed that he had made an arrangement with Assad to secure Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. President Obama pretended to be pleased, but must have known that the move diminished American influence in the region and enhanced Russia’s.
The situation as it now stands is that Obama left a power vacuum in Syria with his dithering and his inability to influence the course of the conflict going on in that country. Putin has cheerfully filled that vacuum, despite economic problems at home that would tend to inhibit such imperial adventures.
Respect and influence in the Middle East always go to “the strong horse.” In the decades since the end of the Cold War, that horse had been the United States. America had used its military and economic power, sometimes less than wisely, to exert its influence. But now President Obama has drawn back and has failed to act. Now Putin’s Russia is aspiring to be the “strong horse” and thus the foreign power that matters in the Middle East. The United States needs to become more assertive to reestablish its influence and forestall Russia. Thus far, the administration seems unable or, more accurately, unwilling to do so.