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.
There’s an unfortunate tendency among foreign policy decision makers in Washington to believe that all options remain on the table indefinitely. Hence, President Obama may believe that the same debates and policy options that occurred two years ago, at the start of the Syrian uprising, still exist today.
The fact of the matter, be it in Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, or anywhere else is that realistic policy options and opportunities to achieve the most favorable outcome for the United States diminish over time. Two years ago, it made sense to support the Syrian opposition. President Bashar al-Assad, far from being the Western-educated reformer in which the Clinton administration and State Department officials placed so much hope, was a brute who supported Hezbollah, transformed Syria into an underground railroad for Al Qaeda terrorists infiltrating Iraq, and sought to build a covert nuclear program.
The United States is never the only player in the sandbox, however. By standing on the sidelines, the United States took a pass as supposed allies like Qatar and Turkey aided not the more liberal or nationalist Syrian opposition, but rather the most extreme elements. Qatar did so for ideological reasons, and Turkey did so both because of its leadership’s ideology and because it would rather support religious radicals than allow more secular Kurds to establish a canton across the border in Syria.
The latest round of the P5+1 talks between the West and Iran over efforts to persuade the Islamist regime to give up their nuclear ambitions is scheduled to begin again later this month. Notwithstanding the spectacular failure of this negotiating process last year, speculation is rife as to what, if any, leverage can be exerted over Tehran. According to Haaretz, the scuttlebutt from last week’s Security Conference in Munich, Germany is leading some to draw some interesting conclusions about whether the fate of embattled Syrian dictator Bashar Assad is somehow linked to the nuclear program of his Iranian ally.
It’s hard to get a grip on what scenarios the rumors emanating from Munich would entail, but the gist of it is that some people are beginning to assume that Iran might be inclined to make some nuclear concessions in order to save the Assad regime. The assumption is based on the idea that both Iran and the United States have a common goal in Syria in keeping radical Islamists from taking power in Damascus that would owe nothing to either country. But given recent developments in Syria and the importance of the nuclear project to the prestige of the Iranian government, the idea that linkage between the two issues will lead to any progress toward Assad’s exit or an end to the nuclear threat seems far-fetched.
Over the weekend, provocations on two of Israel’s borders presented the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with new challenges. In the Golan Heights, what was described in reports as “erratic mortar fire” from Syrian army positions brought a sharp, though limited, response from the Israel Defense Forces. In the south, Hamas launched a rocket offensive aimed at Israeli civilian targets. But while the Syrian incident made headlines in the international press since it threatened to drag Israel into the Syrian civil war, it was the situation in Gaza that was the more troubling.
As troubling as the possibility that Israel could be dragged into the ongoing chaos of Syria is, the country’s Gaza dilemma is far more worrisome. Rockets continued to fall on Israel Monday as the Hamas rulers of Gaza continued their own attempt to provoke Israel into an offensive. While both Israel and neighboring Egypt have little to gain from either a repeat of the 2008 Operation Cast Lead, in which Israel knocked out terrorist positions inside Gaza, or a more far-reaching offensive, in which the Islamist terrorist group would actually be deposed, the possibility that at some point Netanyahu will have to do something to stop the rain of fire on his country is very real.