Putin just played Obama, again

The Week | By Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

Those red lines sure are thick! The Obama administration just took another step toward appeasing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — and in doing so played right into the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin, validating his Syrian gambit.

Since the civil war in Syria began, the Obama administration has sought the ouster of Assad. But it has played its card wrong at every turn. It tried to back what it claimed were moderate, vetted rebels, but ended up mostly supporting Islamist ones. Obama said that Assad using chemical weapons was a “red line,” implying the U.S. would topple Assad if he crossed it — until Assad called Obama’s bluff.

And now we hear Secretary of State John Kerry, in Moscow Tuesday, saying that the U.S. does not support regime change in Syria, instead settling for a mealy-mouthed assertion that Assad’s future should be decided by his own people. We’re a long haul from “Assad must go.”

Now, on the merits, this is the right policy at this point. Assad is probably the least bad option available, at least without committing the U.S. to a program of nation-building in Syria that it’s not willing to undertake. The really clever, Machiavellian option would have been to turn the Syrian regime into an American puppet, but that ship has probably sailed.

But it remains the case that the United States is playing into the hands of Assad’s biggest supporters, Russia and Iran. And in particular, the U.S. is right where Putin wants it.

Why did Putin go into Syria? To protect Russia’s base there and thereby his country’s access to warm waters, a concern as old as Russia itself? Yes. To inject himself into the Middle East’s great game? To show off his military capabilities? Because he’s a gambler who knows when to trust his luck? To be a pain in the ass? Sure, all of these and more.

But you have to look at the whole board. Since Russia invaded Crimea, the United States has tried (half-heartedly) to unite the rest of the international community to isolate Russia, both financially and diplomatically, as punishment.

By becoming such a key player in Syria, Russia has won itself a free hand in Ukraine, and probably a few other places besides. It’s clear that any future settlement of the situation in Syria will now have to involve Russia, which means that the U.S. must coddle Russia, as John Kerry is presently doing.


The U.S. wanted to isolate Russia but Russia has de-isolated itself. Under pressure from their business lobbies at a time of economic sluggishness, many Western European nations — particularly Germany under the pro-Russian Angela Merkel — want to lift or shrink the already mild sanctions against Russia. Sunni nations in the Middle East, already distrustful of the United States because of its reneged promises and its open hand towards Iran, are starting to see Russia as a credible power-broker.

What’s so frustrating about the whole thing is how effortless Putin makes it look, and how the U.S. walks right into the obvious trap every time. It’s like watching the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote.

The U.S.’s hands are now tied in both Syria and Ukraine, and the Obama administration did everything to make it happen.

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This article first appeared in The Week

 

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