Instead of shaking hands with President Obama in New York on Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin might as well have poked him in the eye. Two days later, Russian aircraft were raining bombs not on ISIS strongholds in Syria, but rather, according to the United States, on the territories of other groups that oppose President Bashar al-Assad.
In Putin’s view, the enemy — Mr. Assad — of his enemy — the United States — is his friend. It’s that simple, and exceedingly complex. Most important, it’s a dangerous one-upmanship that puts at risk the lives of Syrian civilians; further damages the already-iffy U.S./Russia relationship; and helps ISIS and Mr. Assad — whom Mr. Obama, in vain, has called on to step down — consolidate power.
There is no reason to believe that Mr. Putin’s foray into Syria will end any better than the disastrous intervention in Afghanistan that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yes, it’s daring, and, yes again, it makes the United States and President Obama look weak and indecisive, but look where our own “decisive” interventions in Iraq and Libya and elsewhere wound up: with the entire Middle East in turmoil.
Mr. Putin’s actions are likely to make matters worse, and it shouldn’t take long to make that apparent. He’s likely to realize, sooner rather than later, that he can’t “solve” Syria any more than Mr. Obama can. Meanwhile, bombing Mr. Assad’s enemies is likely to turn the wrath of the majority of people in the Middle East — members of the Sunni sect, just like Mr. Assad’s foes — against Russia, which managed to benefit from the hatred aimed at the United States by its military presence in the region.
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Mr. Obama should keep shouting a loud No to those urging greater U.S. involvement in Syria. Been there, done that. (See above.) There is no cheap or easy solution in Syria for the obvious reason that there are not enough moderates around to make a deal that we can live with.
When — rather than if — Mr. Putin realizes his mistake, he’s going to look for a way out, a partner that can come up with a solution to remove Assad. If it happens while Mr. Obama is still in the White House, the outgoing president can have the satisfaction of saying, “I told you so.”
The president has made many mistakes in his Syrian policy, trying to find some sort of middle ground to appease hawks without making a full military commitment in Syria. But that has been a grave error. There is no middle ground. Having a decisive impact would require having boots on the ground, and that would be a tremendous misstep, even if John McCain and other hawks don’t realize it.
The president should stop drawing red lines in the region and pretending that training and arming some sort of Syrian democratic force is going to be an answer. There’s no evidence that there are enough of these kinds of Syrians to make a difference.
What the president should do, however, is outline a clear and articulate U.S. position for Syria. He owes that much to the American public, and it’s something he’s done only in bits and pieces, but never spelled out fully.
Also, he must step up support for those stable or near-stable governments in the region threatened by the turmoil in Syria. That includes Jordan, Lebanon and, above all, Israel. We can’t “save” Syria, but we can still help our friends.
Finally, he has to do something about the refugee tide threatening European unity and stability. Which, of course, brings the challenge full circle: If the United States, as part of a multilateral approach, cannot help put an end to Syria’s civil war, then it will be next to impossible to put an end to the flood of migrants fleeing their country. Unfortunately, Mr. Putin will see to that.