Bashar Assad has long had a reputation for not being the smartest strongman in the Middle East; in fact he would never have become Syria’s president if his older brother Bassel, who was being groomed to succeed their father Hafez, hadn’t died in a car accident in 1994. It is a safe bet that his ruthless father would not have allowed protests against him to spin out of control, as Bashar has done. One reckons that old man Assad also would have been bright enough to avoid doing what Bashar just did—which is to say, bragging in a television interview that Russia has delivered the advanced S-300 air-defense system to him.
The time to brag about the S-300 is once it goes operational; bragging about it before it’s actually online is simply an invitation to Israel to launch a preemptive strike, something that will almost surely happen whenever Israeli intelligence assesses that there is a good opportunity and pressing need to do so. As it happens, Israeli government sources are suggesting that Russia has only delivered some components and that the entire system is far from being ready to use. No doubt Assad hopes to rally Syrian and Lebanese supporters by building up an image of strength. But what he is doing is like waving a red cape at a bull—and if Israel takes out his vaunted S-300 system, as it should, it will undermine rather than enhance his aura of authority.
But even if Assad’s boasts are premature and ill-advised, they do highlight the deeply malicious, indeed repugnant, role that Russia continues to play in Syria where it has emerged as the No. 2 foreign backer—behind Iran—of a regime that has slaughtered its own people en masse, including through the use of chemical weapons. This brutally exposes just how farcical the Obama foreign policy team is if it thinks that Vladimir Putin is going to cooperate in any way in ending the Syrian civil war. Why would Putin want to lose such a good customer for Russian arms?