Putin’s Syria Tour de Force

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Source: The Wall Street Journal (Putin’s Syria Tour de Force)

Before: Russia is ‘doomed to fail.’ Now: Obama is happy to talk.

Vladimir Putin doesn’t seem to share President Obama’s definition of “smarter.” Ten days ago Mr. Obama declared that the Russian President’s military deployments in Syria were “doomed to fail” and the Kremlin was “going to have to start getting a little smarter.” Mr. Putin then began sending fighter jets, and now it looks like Mr. Obama is the one who has been taken to school.

That’s the only way to read Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s call on Friday to Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu to explore what a Pentagon spokesman called “mechanisms for deconfliction” in Syria. In addition to the jets, Russia is sending T-90 tanks, howitzers, troop-transport and attack helicopters, a company of armed Marines, and further equipment to establish an air base near the coastal Syrian city of Latakia. Mr. Shoigu describes the build-up as “defensive in nature.”

Sure, as in Ukraine. Along with Iran, Russia is the Bashar Assad regime’s principal sponsor, providing weapons, diplomatic protection at the United Nations, and now direct military support. Mr. Putin sees an opportunity to rescue his client in Damascus, strengthen ties with Iran, establish a large military footprint along the eastern Mediterranean, further reduce U.S. influence, and create diplomatic leverage that he can use to ease Western sanctions imposed in response to his invasion of Ukraine. On present course he’ll accomplish all of the above.

A typical U.S. President would be angry and embarrassed. But Mr. Obama has gone from warning Russia that its intervention could “risk confrontation” with the U.S., to seeking face-to-face talks with Moscow in order to find “common ground,” as Secretary of State John Kerry said in London last week.

There is a need to make sure U.S. jets don’t become targets of Russian anti-aircraft missiles, but Mr. Kerry is walking into another Putin snare. After failing at two previous attempts, the Secretary of State wants to restart peace talks in Geneva to reach a political settlement for the Syrian civil war—and this time he’s willing to be especially flexible about Mr. Assad’s grip on power.

“We’re not being doctrinaire about the specific date or time, we’re open,” he said, discussing the timetable for the Syrian dictator to step down. Mr. Assad, he added, would not have to leave “on day one or month one or whatever. There’s a process by which all the parties have to come together and reach an understanding of how this can best be achieved.”

That sounds like an Administration moving to reverse its demand for Mr. Assad’s ouster. It also coincides with the Administration’s admission that its feeble attempts to arm a credible opposition to the Assad regime have failed—a failure for which White House spokesman Josh Earnest had the ill grace to blame on critics of Mr. Obama’s Syria policy.

Mr. Kerry says the new focus is targeting Islamic State and hoping that the 50-year-old Mr. Assad will shuffle himself off-stage, perhaps to return to his former ophthalmology practice. What the Secretary didn’t explain is why Mr. Assad’s opponents would stop fighting when their central goal is to oust the dictator and crush his power base. Nor did he explain how the Obama Administration intends to foster a political settlement in Syria that would necessarily involve groups such as Islamic State, the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

The only hope the U.S. now has of a decent settlement in Syria is to create no-fly and no-drive zones, on the model of what the U.S. did in northern Iraq in the 1990s, with the explicit aim of protecting civilians and arming a credible militia to destroy Islamic State and the Assad regime. Syrians would fight for such a group if they were convinced the U.S. was committed to victory. That’s not going to happen while Mr. Obama is President, but it’s the right formula for the next one.

Meantime, Mr. Putin must be amazed at his luck in having Mr. Obama as President. Look for Russian negotiators to link talks over Syria to U.S. support for the government in Kiev, or military deployments in the Baltics, or enforcement of the nuclear agreement with Iran. Mr. Putin will keep stealing Mr. Obama’s lunch money as long as this weakest of Presidents lets him.

Putin’s Syria Tour de Force


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