Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, October 20, 2015. (Reuters)
Guess who just popped up in the Kremlin? Bashar al-Assad, Syrian dictator and destroyer, now Vladimir Putin’s newest pet. After four years holed up in Damascus, Assad was summoned to Russia to bend a knee to Putin, show the world that today Middle East questions get settled not in Washington but in Moscow, and officially bless the Russian-led four-nation takeover of Syria now underway.
Does the bewildered Obama administration finally understand what Russia is up to?
President Obama says Russia is doomed to fail in the Syrian quagmire. But Russia is not trying to reconquer the country for Assad. It is consolidating a rump Syrian state in the roughly 20 percent of the country he now controls, the Alawite areas stretching north and west from Damascus through Latakia and encompassing the Russian naval base at Tartus.
It’s a partition. It will leave the Islamic State in control in the interior north and east. Why is this doomed to failure?
Putin’s larger strategy is also obvious. He is not reconstructing the old Soviet empire. That’s too large a task. But he is rebuilding and reasserting Russia’s ability to project power beyond its borders. Annexing Crimea restores to the motherland full control of the warm-water Black Sea port that Russia has coveted since Peter the Great. Shoring up a rump Alawite state secures Russia’s naval and air bases in the eastern Mediterranean. Add to that Russia’s launching of advanced cruise missiles from warships in the Caspian Sea to strike Syrian rebels 900 miles away and you have the most impressive display of Russian military reach since the Cold War.
For Obama, of course, these things don’t matter. “In today’s world,” he told the U.N. last month, “the measure of strength is no longer defined by the control of territory.” That he clearly believes this fantasy was demonstrated by his total abandonment of Iraq, forfeiting U.S. bases from which we could have projected power in the region (most notably preventing, through control of Iraqi airspace, the Iranian rearming and reinforcement of Assad’s weakening regime).
While Obama counts on the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice, Putin acts. As soon as the ink was dry on the Iran nuclear deal, Iran’s Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani flew to Moscow (a sanctions violation that we blithely ignored) to plan the multinational Syria campaign he is now directing. His Shiite expeditionary force is comprised of Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Iraqi Shiite militias and Lebanese Hezbollah fighting under the cover of Russian airpower.
The immediate Russian objective is to retake Aleppo, the eastern part of which is the rebels’ last remaining urban stronghold.
Russia is not fighting the Islamic State. On the contrary. Its attacks on the anti-government, anti-Islamic State rebels have allowed the Islamic State to expand, capturing rebel-held villages north of Aleppo, even as the Shiite expeditionary force approaches from the south.
Apart from the wreckage to Obama’s dreams of a “reset” with Russia, think of how these advances mock Obama’s dreams for Iran, namely that the nuclear deal would moderate Iranian behavior.
What has happened since the signing of the deal in July? Iran convicts an American journalist , contemptuously refusing to offer even the most minimal humanitarian gesture. Iran brazenly tests a nuclear-capable ballistic missile that our own U.N. ambassador said violates Security Council resolutions. And now Iran’s most notorious Revolutionary Guard commander takes control of a pan-Shiite army trying to decimate our remaining allies in the Syrian civil war.
Obama’s response to all this? Nothing. He has washed his hands of the region, still the center of world oil production and trade, and still the world’s most volatile region, seething with virulent jihadism ready for export. When you call something a quagmire you have told the world that you’re out and staying out. Russia and Iran will have their way.
“60 Minutes” asked Obama: Are you concerned about yielding leadership to Russia? Obama responded dismissively: Propping up a weak ally is not leadership. I’m leading the world on climate change.
Upon hearing that, anyone in any conflict anywhere who has put his trust in the United States should start packing his bags for Germany.