In case you were among those gullible souls who have bought the administration’s claims that its acceptance of Russia’s offer of a plan to take charge of Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpile was a reflection of American strength, the Putin regime isn’t interested in letting you hold onto your illusions for long. Rather than allow President Obama a decent interval after his retreat from a call to arms on the threat of Syrian atrocities in order to save face, Moscow seems intent on immediately showing the White House who’s the boss. That became apparent with the announcement that Vladimir Putin has decided to supply Iran with advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles and to build an additional nuclear reactor at the Bushehr plant. Moreover, during a debate in the Russian parliament on the sales held today, Putin ally Alexander Pushkov, the chief of the body’s foreign-affairs committee, said that if Washington dares to back away from the deal offered by Moscow on Syria to President Obama, the Kremlin will consider expanding arm sales to Assad-ally Iran and to make it more difficult to supply U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
These moves remove the thin veil of bluster that was enabling the president to justify his backing away from a strike on Syria. Far from the Russian diplomatic gambit being the result of American toughness, its acceptance by the president is seen in Moscow as more than just an obvious sign of weakness. It is being interpreted as having handed Putin carte blanche in the Middle East and allowing Russia to grant impunity to Iran as the West was supposedly gearing up to pressure it to surrender its nuclear ambition.
The Russians don’t have much to worry about when it comes to the administration’s willingness to go down the garden path with them on Syria’s chemical weapons. President Obama lacked the will to strike Syria on his own and the small chance that Congress might authorize the use of force evaporated when he put off indefinitely the notion of the “incredibly small” attack (in the words of Secretary of State John Kerry) on the Assad regime by accepting the Russian lifeline. Though they are talking tough now, the chances that Washington will abandon the faux-diplomatic solution offered by Russia no matter how fraudulent it might be are minimal.
But rather than, as some have hoped, the president’s reticence on Syria being a prelude to aggressive action on the even more dangerous Iranian threat, Russia’s assertiveness shows that their joint interest with Tehran in protecting Bashar Assad means they will use the Syria issue to restrain the U.S. on Iran.
It’s not just that the missiles Russia is selling Iran will complicate any future attack on nuclear targets by either the U.S. or Israel. Their victory in Syria is feeding Putin’s ambition to reconstitute not only the old Soviet sphere of influence in the Middle East but a rough balance of power that would serve to deter the West from muscling the ayatollahs. Though Washington has always spoken of Russia having just as much to lose from a nuclear Iran as America, by getting into bed with Putin on Syria, Obama is about to discover that Moscow’s main interest in the region is to weaken U.S. influence more than eliminating a nuclear threat.
When President Obama said last night that Syria’s use of chemical weapons constituted a threat to the security of the West, he was right. But he failed to understand that Russia’s offer that allowed him to weasel out of his pledge to punish Assad might present even more of a danger to U.S. interests than anything Syria might do. The last few weeks have exposed President Obama as a weak leader. What follows from that weakness will increase the power of Vladimir Putin and his unsavory Middle East allies.