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Obama's Syria Policy: Ask Putin

Lee Smith

Some have argued that last week’s massacre in the Syrian city of Houla, where Bashar al-Assad loyalists killed more than a hundred people, a third of whom were children, may in time come to mark the moment when world opinion turned irrevocably against the Syrian strongman, and the democracies finally decided to bring down the regime in Damascus. Perhaps, some say, it will be Assad’s Srebrenica. Maybe. But not if Obama keeps deferring to the Russians.

The U.N. Security Council criticized the slaughter, as did the White House and State Department. Many world capitals, from Paris and London to Canberra and Berlin, expelled Syrian diplomats, and the Obama administration followed suit, giving the highest-ranking Syrian diplomat in Washington, charge d’affaires Zuheir Jabbour, three days to leave the country.

Syria has not had an ambassador in Washington since the departure of Imad Mustapha several months ago. Mustapha was reportedly under investigation after evidence surfaced that he and his staff at the embassy were spying on Syrian dissidents in the United States. That alone should have compelled the administration to expel Mustapha and the rest of Syria’s diplomatic mission. But that would have meant taking a stand; it would require, as Douglas Murray writes in the Wall Street Journal, American leadership.

Instead Obama has premised America’s role in the world on an abstraction, an Orwellian euphemism standing for the lack of leadership—leading from behind. Thus, the administration’s actions regarding Syria and its statements, its condemnations of the massacre “in the strongest possible terms,” are incommensurate with the reality of the situation. In response to a bloodbath, the White House has joined a coalition of diplomatic expulsion.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, hinted that atrocities like the Houla massacre might trigger military intervention—but why? What, from either a strategic or a humanitarian point of view, has changed with Houla? Sure, it’s believed that many of the casualties were children, but the uprising started after the regime tortured teenagers in Deraa. And what did the Obama administration do then or in the 14 months since the uprising first began? Yes, more than 100 people were killed in Houla, but by some estimates, the regime has already killed 15,000. So from the administration’s point of view what’s really changed? Nothing.

And indeed, as if to qualify Dempsey’s statement, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters yesterday, military action against Syria “is always an option”—but he cautioned that the administration believes that “it would lead to greater chaos, greater carnage.” In other words, the people of Houla should consider themselves fortunate that the Assad regime kept the casualties relatively low. If the United States actually did something to try to stop Assad, who knows how many the regime might kill?

That is to say, from Obama’s perspective, the United States is, at best, impotent. And therefore the administration has plenty of reasons not to do anything about Assad. First there was the idea that the Syrian opposition may have been infiltrated by al Qaeda. Which is to say, the American intelligence community is incapable of distinguishing between al Qaeda and other members of the opposition, so we shouldn’t arm anyone. Then there was the notion that the Syrian army, with 600,000 armed men and air defenses, is a powerful fighting force, indeed mighty enough to give American military planners pause. Nonetheless, the opposition refers to this ragtag sectarian militia fighting at a very small fraction of its stated power as “the army of the sandals.”

The way the White House sees it, there’s little we can do to help the opposition, or for that matter advance American interests by helping to topple Assad. The Iranians boast that they’re sending reinforcements to sustain the regime in Damascus, and the administration seems to admit as much. So why won’t Obama counter Tehran’s moves? If the administration believes it can contain and deter Iran that will mean not only presenting a credible threat of military action but the actual support of proxy forces to take on Iranian allies. Tehran gets it, which is why it is throwing its weight behind Assad; why doesn’t the White House? Perhaps it’s because Obama has invested so much in engaging the Iranians that he fears getting them angry now. After all, he’s made good on another pointless promise from the 2008 campaign so why risk it now, in the midst of very delicate negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear weapons program, by backing the Free Syrian Army?

Instead, the White House is betting on Russia. The premise is that Moscow is close enough to the Assad regime that it could pull off a soft coup that would get rid of the Syrian strongman. What should make it attractive to the Russians, the administration contends, is that such a coup would preserve an Alawite minority regime and ensure Russia’s interests in the eastern Mediterranean. The problem here is that Vladimir Putin doesn’t want to get rid of Assad, and even if he did, it’s not at all clear he has the ability to do it.

The administration hopes that it is possible to appeal to the better angels of Moscow’s nature and that Houla compels them to change their position on Assad. Instead, the Russians are sending more arms to the regime. It’s hardly surprising, then, the Russians won’t even admit that Assad is behind the massacre. Russian deputy U.N. ambassador Alexander Pankin “rejected the idea that the evidence clearly showed Damascus was guilty.”

The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, has served as the administration’s point man in the public campaign meant to shame Russia into doing the right thing, but all the White House has proven is that it knows nothing about the men who rule Moscow. Almost a decade ago, Chechen separatists stormed a theater in the Russian capital, and the Russian security services responded by filling the theater with a chemical compound that killed at least 33 Chechens and close to 200 hostages. If Putin cares so little for his own people, why would he be shamed by using the Syrian opposition to leverage his own prestige?

David Ignatius, a sort of Obama White House press surrogate, writes in today’s Washington Post that the Syria situation “is Russia’s failure, not America’s.” But this is incorrect. It is Obama’s failure for leading from behind in the first place and then leaving the matter in the hands of the Russians. The only question is whether the administration is culpable because of its cynicism or naiveté.

“Russia wants to have a continued influence in Syria,” one administration official told the New York Times. “Our interest is in stabilizing the situation, not eliminating Russian influence.”

The fact is that Russia has very little, if any, influence in Syria. Even if Putin wanted to dump Assad in exchange for some Alawite security or military chief, the Alawites can’t possibly afford a fissure in their community right now. As Tony Badran, research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, explains, an intramural Alawite conflict between Assad loyalists and pretenders to the throne would make the entire Alawite sect yet more vulnerable to the Sunni-majority rebels.

Moscow is simply playing the spoiler and thereby enjoying the sort of international prestige that it has not been afforded since the end of the Cold War. The Russians are not going to engineer a coup against Assad, or in any way work to resolve the issue, because it is precisely the conflict that has given them influence in Syria—the conflict, that is, and Obama, who for no good reason has handed Moscow the reins.

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