Vladimir Putin is nothing if not nervy. To justify Russia’s military incursion into Syria — the Russians are now in the process of setting up a new air base in Latakia and bringing in tanks and troops — Putin claims to be fighting terrorism and working to reduce the flow of refugees.
“Without an active participation of the Syrian authorities and the military, it would be impossible to expel the terrorists from that country and the region as a whole, and to protect the multi-ethnic and multi-confessional Syrian people from destruction,” he said, adding that “without Russia’s support for Syria, the situation in the country would have been worse than in Libya, and the flow of refugees would have been even bigger.”
In reality, of course, Putin is propping up the Bashar Assad regime which is itself a terrorist state that draws support from terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and the Quds Force. Assad has killed far more people than ISIS, and created far more refugees.
Putin is not, of course, motivated by a desire to fight terrorism or stop refugee flows. He simply wants to prop up Russia’s traditional ally, the Assad regime, and he is no doubt worried that without Russian intervention, Assad, whose regime continues to suffer military defeats, is in danger of falling. Presumably this was the subject discussed when Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the arch-terrorist who heads the Quds Force, visited Moscow last month (and reportedly again this week) in violation of United Nations sanctions.
While unexpected, Putin’s foray makes perfect sense from his standpoint–he is a natural predator who acts amorally to expand his influence wherever possible. Power vacuums are perfect for him: whether in Ukraine or Syria, he rushes right in. The fact that there is a power vacuum in Syria is, of course, a byproduct of the fact that the U.S. and its allies have done nothing substantial to end the fighting that has raged since 2011, producing a humanitarian and strategic disaster. Gen,. Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, confirmed as much when he admitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee that all of the U.S. efforts to train and equip Syrian rebel fighters — designed to produce a force of 5,000 in the past year — have produced all of “four or five” fighters in the field. A more ineffectual foreign policy is hard to imagine.
It is grimly amusing to see the Obama administration, which has looked clueless for so long in Syria, react with shock and surprise to Putin’s gambit. As the New York Times notes, “The Obama administration was caught off guard by the Kremlin’s move into Syria, and Secretary of State John Kerry spoke on Tuesday with Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, for the third time in recent days to complain that it was unhelpful.”
By this point — two years after Obama allowed Assad to get away with crossing his “red line” on chemical weapons (which Assad continues to employ) — it is safe to assume that intimations from Washington that the U.S. finds something “unhelpful” don’t carry much weight with Putin or anyone else.
The Russian move, it should be noted, further circumscribes American options in Syria. The possibility of Russian and American warplanes operating in the same battlespace is potentially worrisome since there is no procedure in place to coordinate air operations. And of course the possibility of Russian aircraft bombing rebel positions makes it all the more unlikely that Obama will ever declare a no-fly zone–something that would be easy to enforce against Assad’s meager air force but that would be potentially dangerous to enforce against Russian aircraft.
So the most likely consequence of the Russian foray–beyond a few stiffly worded protests from Washington — is to further enforce President Obama’s exiting proclivity for inaction. Every time the situation gets worse in Syria, it further strengthens the hand of those in the White House who want to do nothing — they can claim that measures that might have worked a year or two ago are now futile. This means that the Syrian nightmare will only get worse, and that Putin will be emboldened for further mischief in other countries.