The report this morning on the front page of the New York Times that Russia is sending a new batch of advanced arms to Syria is very bad news for those who hoped international isolation would lead to the fall of Bashar Assad’s regime. Despite constant predictions over the past two years from President Obama and others in the West that it was only a matter of time before this evil dictator would be forced out, Assad is holding his own. The rebels have not only failed to push him out of Damascus but, if recent accounts of the fighting there are true, they have lost ground as the regime has rolled back the tide of unrest all across the country. Though the rebellion may have fractured the country, as a separate front-page story in the Times testifies, with Iran and its Hezbollah auxiliaries doubling down on their backing for Assad on the ground and emboldened by Russia’s diplomatic support as well as its efforts to resupply the regime’s military, it’s hard to see why anyone would think the dictator is going anywhere in the foreseeable future.
But the implications of Russia’s move, coming as it does only a week after Secretary of State John Kerry visited Moscow to plead for restraint on their part, is a devastating blow to American diplomacy. It’s not just that the Russians are flouting the will of the international community as well as a sticking a finger in the eye of President Obama. Such mischief making is the hallmark of Russian foreign policy under Vladimir Putin since creating the illusion that Moscow is returning to the status of a major world power is integral to his own regime’s legitimacy. But the spectacle of Kerry playing the supplicant to Putin and then being humiliated in this fashion marks a new low for the administration’s prestige. It calls into question not just the direction of the American approach to both Russia and Syria but highlights the secretary’s blind belief in his own diplomatic skill despite abundant evidence to the contrary.
Kerry came into office determined to flex his muscles as a diplomat with an ambitious Middle East agenda both in terms of the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the civil war in Syria. That his hopes were based in hubris rather than a reasonable assessment of reality almost goes without saying since there is no reason to believe the time is ripe for a diplomatic solution on either front.
But whereas his predecessor Hillary Clinton was known for racking up frequent flyer miles, she rarely put herself in a position to be embarrassed in such a degrading manner as Kerry has done. Just as the Turks stiffed him when he was there in the last month asking them to be helpful with the Palestinians, so, too, the Russians saw no reason to treat the secretary of state with any deference.
There will be those who will argue that Russia’s determination to save its client is one more sign that should warn Americans to avoid further entanglement in the Syrian mess. Doing so would be a mistake, since backing away from Syria in this manner would constitute a crucial victory for Iran. Nor should the United States view the prospect of the Russians being emboldened to continue to make more mischief in the Middle East with equanimity.
With Assad in possession of new missiles that would make it much harder for the West to enforce a no-fly zone or to resupply the rebels the way the Russians and the Iranians are backing up the regime, the immediate prospects for change in Syria are indeed dim. But it is also hard to escape the conclusion that one of the main hindrances to America’s efforts to influence the situation is a secretary of state who is hopelessly out of touch with reality and viewed with contempt by our adversaries. Though Clinton was something of a cipher during her four years at State, it must be admitted that she never flopped as badly as Kerry has done. That may not ruffle Kerry’s seemingly indomitable belief in his own ability, but the consequences of his incompetence for the Syrian people may be considerable.