American cable news stations devoted a lot of airtime today to Senator John McCain’s surprising visit to Syria where he met with the leader of a moderate rebel faction. The trip was supposed to focus attention on the effort to influence the West to aid the rebels, or at least those rebel factions that are not tainted by association with Al Qaeda terrorists. But while McCain restarted the conversation about the need for the U.S. to stop pretending it can ignore the crisis in that war torn country, his venture was actually overshadowed by the Russian announcement that it would persist in its determination to sell air defense missiles to the embattled Assad government.
It is still possible that the West will act to prevent more bloodshed and to make good on President Obama’s prediction. But the Russian decision to stand by their Syrian ally effectively renders McCain’s quest moot. Though Israel has issued a warning to Russia that any such missiles — and by extension the personnel servicing them — could be targeted by airstrikes, Moscow’s willingness to stake its reputation on Assad’s survival is likely enough to deter even the possibility of action by President Obama with the added bonus that doing so humiliates Secretary of State John Kerry after he trooped to Moscow to plead with the Russians not to do it. Though the Russians may not want to tangle with the West or even the Israelis, they seem to be betting that a U.S. president that prefers to lead from behind can be counted on to stay out of any conflict where there is a risk of confrontation. They may be bluffing but it’s hard to argue with their reasoning.
There is a case to be made that the time has past when U.S. intervention in Syria could shape events to our liking. Had President Obama acted at the outset of the protests against the Assad regime there was a reasonable chance a moderate government could have been put together to replace the dictator. But two years and 80,000 dead later, the conflict has become a bloody standoff with Al Qaeda types taking an increasingly large role in the rebellion and Assad’s forces being stiffened by Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah “volunteers.” Though I believe Assad’s victory — and by extension the boost that would give Iran and Hezbollah — would be worse for the United States and the region than the creation of Iraq-style chaos if the country disintegrates, it is difficult to argue that either outcome is to the benefit of either the West or America.
The shipment of advanced missiles to Syria may be intended to deter the West from using air power to help the Syrian rebels or even from instituting a no fly zone inside the country. But the wild card here is that Israel has its own priorities and they don’t concern which band of cutthroats is running things in Damascus. What they can’t tolerate is having advanced weaponry placed in the hands of Assad’s terrorist allies.
Of course, it may be as long as year before the missiles can be delivered and Syrian crews are trained to use them. A lot can happen between now and then. But the main point is that Russia is hoping that its intervention will nevertheless serve to keep its friend afloat while frustrating a timorous American administration that would prefer to pretend that its conflict with Islamist extremists is over. The net result is bound to not only keep a butcher in power in Damascus to embolden an Iranian government that is the prime threat to peace in the region.