Vladimir Putin opened a new game of high stakes geopolitical poker. He is using military force to support Syria’s President Bashir Assad and counter U.S. backing for Assad’s opponents.
Russia’s intervention could, and likely will, turn out badly, but Washington has no complaint. America has been meddling in Syria’s tragic civil war from the start with little effect, other than to impede a negotiated settlement. Moscow has the same geopolitical “right” to make a mistake.
At the end of the Cold War Washington was anointed as the “unipower,” “indispensable” and “essential” nation, and “sole superpower,” and acted as such. The U.S. intervened anywhere anytime for any reason. Washington considered international support, whether from the United Nations, NATO, or the “willing,” to be convenient but wholly unnecessary.
Of course, the U.S. insisted that only it could act this way. Everyone else was obligated to follow America’s lead. Further, Washington decreed that aggressive U.S. military action—against Serbia, for instance—should not be considered a precedent by others. America not only got to attack any nation for any reason. Only America got to attack any nation for any reason.
But that world has passed away. Perhaps more than any recent event, Russia’s dramatic intervention on behalf of Syria’s beleaguered Assad government formally buries any illusion that “what Washington says goes,” even in the Middle East.
Moscow has moved military forces to Syria and begun bombing regime opponents. Instead of focusing on the Islamic State, as it initially claimed, Russia targeted “moderate” insurgents backed by the U.S. and other Western governments. Sounding almost like the George W. Bush administration, the Putin government insisted that it was fighting terrorism and there really wasn’t a “moderate opposition.” Rather, you either stood with the Assad regime or with terrorists. Although Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov insisted that his government was fighting terrorism, not “defending the regime,” Moscow obviously views defending the regime as the best way to fight terrorism.
This is not likely to be a short‐term commitment. As America unfortunately discovered, fighting “terrorism” can be a well‐nigh permanent occupation. Moreover, having put its credibility on the line Moscow cannot easily disengage, irrespective of the cost.
Russia also has indicated its willingness to get involved in Iraq, whose authorities praised Moscow’s Syria participation. Said Prime Minister Haider al‐Abadi: “Our message to the Russians—I met with Putin—please join this fight against Daesh.” The group threatens the entire world, so “it is time that we all join the same forces to fight Daesh,” added al‐Abadi. In fact, Russian military forces are said to have done more than just train Iraqis to fly helicopters and aircraft last year as Iraq scrambled to block the Islamic State’s advance on Baghdad.
In contrast, Russia’s intervention has resulted in much wailing and gnashing of teeth in Washington and other allied capitals. In a joint statement America, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and United Kingdom claimed that Moscow’s intervention would “only fuel more extremism and radicalization.” The Gulf States separately warned of more “violent extremism” and “terrorists” and increased refugee flows.
The many pots are calling the kettle black. Promiscuous American military intervention in the Middle East long has promoted the worst forms of violence and terrorism. Further, for years Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been important sources of finance for “extremism and radicalization,” including Syrian jihadists. It’s hard to imagine Russia doing worse than these nations.
In fact, in June Putin threatened to “respond in kind” to American efforts. But no U.S. official can admit that Russia is only following America’s lead. Certainly no one hoping to win the Republican Party presidential nomination can admit that Washington cannot dictate international events. Yet there’s little the U.S. actually can do, at least at reasonable cost, to stop Russia. Which means caterwauling is the only practical option.
President Barack Obama declared that “A military solution alone, an attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population, is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire, and it won’t work and they will be there for a while if they don’t take a different course.” Probably true. Of course, the U.S. understands quagmires, having spent 13 years unsuccessfully attempting to bring democracy to Afghanistan and being drawn back toward a combat role in Iraq more than a decade after foolishly invading.
Secretary of State John Kerry intoned that “Russia has made a catastrophic mistake because they will be siding with Assad, with Iran, and with Hezbollah against the entire rest of the community in that part of the world,” which mostly means the dictatorial Gulf monarchies, highlighted by totalitarian Saudi Arabia. He also complained that “these actions could further escalate the conflict, lead to greater loss of innocent life, increase refugee flows and risk confrontation with the anti‐ISIL coalition operating in Syria.” Of course, he knows of what he speaks, given Washington’s extraordinary record in destabilizing the region, destroying nations, spreading conflicts, creating refugees, and harming noncombatants.
“Any military support to the Assad regime for any purpose, whether it’s in the form of military personnel, aircraft, supplies weapons, or funding, is both destabilizing and counterproductive,” asserted White House spokesman Josh Earnest. Actually, U.S. support for Assad’s overthrow is destabilizing. Just like invading Iraq and intervening in Libya. As for being counterproductive, everything depends on the objective: if destroying ISIL is the most important goal, backing Assad makes ugly sense.
Sen. John McCain, who has backed U.S. participation in almost every imaginable war over the last three decades, complained that Moscow’s air attacks had hit “groups that have been armed and trained by the CIA.” He evidently was, as always, angry, complaining: “This is the ultimate disrespect” and “testimony to the lack of concern that Russia has about America’s reaction to their actions.” Precisely how concerned have he and Washington been about Russia’s reaction to America’s actions?
Sen. Lindsey Graham, the uber‐hawk whose presidential candidacy has earned an asterisk worth of public support, complained that Russia had “no respect for the United States.” Sen. Tom Cotton, perhaps an even more enthusiastic proponent of constant conflict than McCain, insisted that “The U.S. must reject Russia’s interference and rally our partners to do the same.” Should Putin care if America’s allies “reject” his strategy?
The U.S. could push for more sanctions, as Lindsey proposed, but Europe is unenthusiastic about harming economic relations with Russian over Moscow’s dismemberment of Ukraine, which matters far more to the Europeans. They aren’t going to destroy what remains of their relationship with Moscow over Syria.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich took a large step toward the crazy camp in calling for establishment of no‐fly zones with the demand that Russia comply or else. However, even the most war‐happy neoconservative hasn’t called for blasting the Russian planes out of the sky. To do so would trigger almost certain retaliation and possibly a real war. Normal Americans, those not living in thrall of American global domination, would not understand why the U.S. was battling a nuclear‐armed power for the privilege of overthrowing a government whose fall likely would bring anti‐American terrorists to power.
The Assad regime is bathed in blood, but U.S. officials cannot credibly claim that their policy will yield a better result. Washington has intervened repeatedly in the Middle East, with almost uniformly disastrous consequences. “Do you realize now what you have done,” asked Putin before the UN?
Washington’s participation in the 1953 coup which ousted an elected government and handed the Shah dictatorial power in Iran set that nation on a path toward violent Islamic revolution. Fear of the new Islamic republic caused Washington to back Saddam Hussein’s Iraq against Tehran in their gruesome war. That support caused Hussein to assume he could attack Kuwait with impunity, which in turn triggered America’s attack on Iraq in the first Gulf War. Washington left U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, which became one of Osama bin Laden’s grievances, maintained economic sanctions, which were criticized by Muslims for harming innocent civilians, and launched constant allied aerial attacks on Iraq, which maintained a constant state of war.
To “drain the swamp” Washington invaded Iraq in 2003, wrecking that society, triggering violent sectarian conflict, generating millions of casualties and refugees, expanding Iranian influence, and empowering a new sectarian Shia government. The Sunni insurgency morphed into the Islamic State which, with the aid of former Baathist soldiers, grabbed control over much of Iraq and Syria. Washington then organized an anti‐Islamic State coalition which left most of the fighting to Americans. Regular if not particularly heavy U.S. airstrikes have killed numerous ISIL combatants but done little to roll back the group’s gains, while countries with the most at stake, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, have proved more interested in ousting Assad, whose forces remain the most effective barrier to an Islamic State victory.
Over the years the U.S. also intervened in the Lebanese civil war, only to be driven out by attacks on the American embassy and Marine Corps barracks. Washington’s reflexive support for Israel left the U.S. identified with a half century long occupation over Palestinians, which inevitably created hostility and encouraged terrorism. After 9/11 Washington correctly targeted al‐Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, only to shift focus and spend the next 13 years attempting to nation‐build. As America leaves that fight, Afghanistan looks in possibly terminal decline.
The U.S. and its European allies misled Russia and China when seeking Security Council approval for intervention in Libya to protect civilians, turning the intervention into a campaign for regime change. After months of heavy civilian casualties came Moammar Qaddafy’s fall—as well as atrocities, two competing governments, civil war, weapons proliferation, and another fertile ground for growth of the Islamic State. In Yemen Washington is backing Saudi aggression which has turned a long‐term civil war into another sectarian conflict, killing thousands, wounding tens of thousands, and creating what observers call a “humanitarian catastrophe.”
In Syria Washington’s insistence on Assad’s ouster reduced the willingness to negotiate all around. The administration apparently dismissed an early Russian initiative to ease Assad out of power. Former Finnish president Martti Ahtisarri held talks in February 2012 with representatives of the UN Security Council’s permanent members, during which Moscow proposed replacing Assad as part of peace talks. Alas, the allies believed victory was near and rejected Russia’s overture. Since then Washington has delivered weapons to supposedly moderate insurgents, many of whom have surrendered, along with their U.S.-supplied arms, to ISIL forces. Washington’s latest initiative to vet and train insurgents resulted in 54 combatants in the field, only four or five are thought to be still fighting. This plan “did not work the way it was supposed to,” admitted President Obama. Yeah.
Yet Washington is filled with voices demanding that Washington intervene more. Provide more arms for Syrian rebels. Create safe havens and humanitarian corridors for Syrian refugees. Establish one or more “no fly” zones for Syrian forces. Embed U.S. forces with Iraqi units. Return combat units to Iraq to battle the Islamic State. In the Mideast Washington has consistently made problems worse. Certainly Americans have no credibility in criticizing others for intervening.
Of course, Moscow’s efforts in Syria are likely to have ill effects—on the Syrian and Russian peoples, and perhaps far beyond. Russia’s campaign will change the balance of forces in the Middle East. Opined Ali Khedery, who served five U.S. ambassadors in Iraq, “this is the beginning of what will be a long‐term Russian strategic presence in the Middle East.”
That may be bad for Washington, but the people bearing most of the blame for its occurrence are the American architects of past interventions which wrecked nations and destabilized regions. Russia’s intervention is merely the latest unintended consequence of continuously foolish, irresponsible U.S. behavior. Maybe Vladimir Putin will inadvertently make Washington policymakers finally learn from their many mistakes.