Obama: Stay Strong on Russia
Today, Bashar al-Assad met with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in a unannounced meeting at The Kremlin in Moscow. This meeting, in concurrence with Russia’s recent actions in Syria, highlight Putin’s long-term goal: force the West to legitimize Russia’s actions.
Putin’s end game in Syria is unknown. Will he allow a political transition to take place? Doubtful, but possible. One thing is for certain, however: Syria is his path back into the West’s good graces. After his disastrous strategy in Ukraine, he needs to take the world’s focus off his actions there and establish himself as a power broker in the Middle East. This strategy is bold, but wise. His actions in Ukraine have irritated the West, but it is not a critical piece of their national security. The stability of the Middle East is.
Putin is also well aware he has a significant advantage over Western forces in Syria. By being the partner of Assad’s regime, he is able to place significant infrastructure and military assets directly in the country, something that the U.S. coalition would desire greatly. He also has the incredible advantage of not having to differentiate between the plethora of forces on the ground. Currently, coalition forces must use extreme caution to avoid targeting friendly opposition forces. For Russia, any enemy of the Syrian government is a worthy target. In fact, the majority of Russia’s air strikes to date have been focused on rebels, rather than ISIS. In addition, Russian air assets can coordinate with Syrian Army units to provide cover during ground attacks. This is exactly what the U.S. has desired with the failed training of moderate rebel forces: to be able to train a cohesive and disciplined military force that works in sync with air support. With these advantages, Putin has radically stabilized the Syrian government.
Russian military presence also changes the options available to the U.S.-led coalition. A no-fly zone is now a much more risky venture. While the attacking of Syrian aircraft entering such a zone would have led to minimal consequences, the same cannot be said for Russian warplanes. This kind of confrontation could lead to an escalation that nobody wants.
Because of these factors and more, President Obama is under more pressure than ever. Some voices have even advocated for the U.S. to partner with Russia in an effort to end this conflict quicker. Of all of the choices available to the President, this is the worst. No one wants a incessant war plaguing the Middle East, but allying with Russia and legitimizing their actions is exactly what Putin is looking for. By doing so we will be validating his position at home that he is waging a legitimate campaign for the Russian people; all the while crushing dissidents as the economy crumbles. Worse, it will weaken our positions internationally for sanctions against Russia’s crimes. On Tuesday, Russia expressed dissatisfaction that a memorandum on flight safety over Syria did not go further. The Russian government is clearly seeking to validate its position by including itself in the international coalition involved there. President Obama has been wise to stick to the bare minimum level of cooperation with Putin. His policy of “strategic patience” is playing out nowhere better than Russia. Putin needs a victory, and soon. We need a victory as well, but we don’t need to compromise our values and integrity to achieve it.