Tensions between the U.S. and Russia over Syria have risen significantly over the last several weeks, and it’s pretty clear why.
Take the well-thought-out machinations of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the absolute lack of a strategy by the Obama administration, mix in some extreme U.S. incompetence and lack of will, and the result is a conflagration of vanities in the Levant and the Fertile Crescent. Secretary of State John F. Kerry fecklessly threatened to break off “contact” with Russia over Syria, did so, and then started talking again less than 48 hours later.
Russia thought that its military adventure in Syria would solve several problems. Mr. Putin is betting that a war in the Middle East against “terrorists” will excite the Russian people enough to make them forget about the shrinking buying power of their pension checks.
It worked, for a while.
It’s long been clear that Russians will bear any burden when they believe it protects the Rodina or Motherland. However, Mr. Putin’s Syrian idyll may be getting long in the tooth as the average Muscovite and those outside the Russian capital continue to see their paychecks cut, their schools close and their health care system steadily eroding. The Kremlin just announced an increase in military spending and a reduction in welfare payments. Most likely there will be more such announcements as Mr. Putin continues the modernization of Russia’s military and pursues conflicts in eastern Ukraine and Syria.
Russia also thought that it had maneuvered the White House into helping it attack the Islamic State. An American president dependent on Russia to solve a vexing problem in Syria would be more apt to reduce sanctions imposed on the Kremlin following the annexation of Crimea and the support for pro-Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.
All of this fell apart over the last two weeks. The killing of scores of Syrian officers by an “errant” American airstrike enraged Mr. Putin. Was the bombing a message to Moscow from Mr. Kerry and Mr. Obama that we mean business? That seems doubtful, but Mr. Putin then bombed an international aid convoy and hospitals in Aleppo, making it impossible for the U.S. to continue working in any capacity with Russian efforts against Islamic State. The announcement late last month by a Dutch investigative panel placing the blame for the downing of a commercial Malaysian Air flight in July 2014 squarely on Russia and its Ukrainian separatist allies did nothing to ease the animosity.
Now we face a good ol’ fashioned global conflict, spawned from a brutal civil war, in an area important to both Russia and the U.S. President Obama is making noises about striking Syria once more, although it remains highly doubtful our president has the resolve to back up his threats. Russia is moving advanced air defense weapons systems into the area while warning about “tectonic consequences” if an American strike happens.
The Obama administration clearly thought it could just run out the clock in Syria and let the next president deal with the mess Mr. Obama and Hillary Clinton created. But they did not count on calculation that there is effectively now a four-month window for any two-bit dictator or aggressor to get what they want without fear of retribution by the United States. President Obama the Nobel Peace Prize laureate has morphed into Barack Obama the warlord.
Does Russia want war? I seriously doubt it. But the Russians, starting with Mr. Putin, do very much want the Western sanctions lifted. They have a year, maybe two, of rainy-day funding to ride out the sanction-induced economic crisis. The bear is backed into a corner — and that’s when the bear is most dangerous.
Syria could turn into a quagmire for both sides. But no one should doubt Mr. Putin’s determination to achieve his objectives and cement Russia’s influence in the Middle East. For, as he told the Russian parliament this week, power is the key to Russia’s existence. How far he is willing to go to achieve that power is about to be tested.
Originally posted in The Washington Times