There are two reasons for the U.S. to seek the demise of Bashar Assad’s regime — for what it would mean to Syria and for what it would mean to Iran. The first is insufficient reason for the U.S. to involve itself directly. The second raises the elephant-in-the-room question: “Would the Obama administration act against the expressed interests of Putin’s Russia to achieve a victory against Iran in Syria?”
The administration currently takes the approach that a serious American strategic objective can be achieved without direct American military involvement. Arming the “good rebels” is supposed to oust Assad and provide later influence in Damascus. But while the CIA was looking for the good guys (we didn’t have a serious presence in the area until August), the administration was outsourcing the political conversation and the transfer of aid and weapons from Saudi Arabia and Qatar to increasingly openly Muslim Brotherhood-supporting Turkey. That gave the Sunni-related — and maybe al-Qaeda-related — jihadi rebels a head start. So now we have to assume that the “good rebels” can defeat the Assad government and the “bad rebels.”
It would be simpler to aim a cruise missile at Syrian military HQ or have a USAF jet drop something heavy on Assad’s palace. We did it in Libya, where the strategic interest was much, much less. Why not Syria?
Because for the Obama administration, Syria is as much about Russia and the relationship with Vladimir Putin as it is about Syria, Iran, and the Shi’ite Crescent. This would be a good time to note that Russia is steadfastly opposed to the removal of Assad and resistant to White House cajoling, threatening, and attempts to embarrass Putin. He doesn’t embarrass, and he hasn’t moved.
- On 1 June, ABC News reported that Mrs. Clinton warned of “catastrophic” possibilities in Syria. “My argument to the Russians is — they keep telling me they don’t want to see a civil war, and I have been telling them their policy is going to help contribute to a civil war.”
- Just two days later, she was asking the Russians for help. “My message to the foreign minister was very simple and straightforward … we all have to intensify our efforts to achieve a political transition and Russia has to be at the table helping that to occur.”
- On 30 June, in an interview on the State Department website, Mrs. Clinton boasts of having gotten Russia (and China) in line. “I believe [that the Syrians] are shocked that Russia and China have signed onto this agreement, which so clearly says goodbye to them in this transition.”
- But in July she was back to lambasting them and looking for allies at the “Friends of Syria” Conference in Paris. She accused Russia of “standing up for” Assad and begged others countries at the meeting to “make it clear that Russia and China will pay a price. I ask you to reach out to Russia and China and not only ask but demand that they get off the sidelines. I don’t think Russia and China believe they are paying any price at all, nothing at all, for standing with [the] Assad regime.”
- In September, she accused Putin of supplying the regime with attack helicopters. “We have confronted the Russians about stopping their continued arms shipments to Syria. They have, from time to time, said that we shouldn’t worry — everything they are shipping is unrelated to [the internal situation]. That’s patently untrue. And we are concerned about the latest information we have that there are attack helicopters on the way from Russia to Syria, which will escalate the conflict quite dramatically[.]”
The fixation with the Russia position has had a surprising side effect — namely, driving a wedge between the administration and the government of Prime Minister Erdoğan in Turkey.
President Obama has made clear his affection for Islamist-leaning Erdoğan. He sided with Turkey against Israel after the Mavi Marmara incident and accepted a variety of Turkish maneuvers to limit U.S.-Israel security cooperation and Israeli cooperation with NATO. He placed Turkey at the center of U.S. policy on Syria. As late as March, the prime minister was welcomed by the White House as an “outstanding partner and an outstanding friend on a wide range of issues.”
More recently, though, as Turkey finds itself in a not-unexpected shooting war with Syria, the administration has tried hard to tamp down Turkish expectations of American support. Lee Smith, an astute observer of regional trends, asked rhetorically last week whether the Obama administration still “has Turkey’s back.” The administration, it appears, would dump Israel for Turkey but dump Turkey for Russia. That is an extraordinary abandonment of a friend (or two friends), and it strips the question of Syria to its essence.
The president must choose between the ouster of Assad, the discomfiture of the mullahs, and the wrecking of the Shi’ite Crescent on the one hand, and maintaining the “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations on the other. If he chooses the latter, the flexibility Obama whispered about to Medvedev when he thought no one was listening may include more than the missiles they were discussing.
The administration’s down payment for a hoped-for arms control deal in a hoped-for second term might be staying out of Syria and leaving it to Russian hegemony.