Putin’s Syria moves leave U.S. looking weak

With apologies to Woody Allen, 80% of life isn’t about just showing up, it’s about showing up at the right time.

While there are risks to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s new projection of military power in Syria, including airstrikes Wednesday in the Homs area likely aimed at President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents, he’s once again demonstrated that Russia acts while the United States reacts.

Don’t get me wrong — Putin is no strategic genius. His moves in Crimea and Ukraine have cost the Russian economy dearly. But he has again demonstrated in Syria that Russia is prepared to act to defend what it perceives as its traditional interests and limit U.S. options in the process.

Of course, it is unclear exactly what Putin ultimately hopes to achieve with his Syrian gambit. It may be designed to distract attention from Ukraine, or it may be motivated by a desire to defend a half-century relationship with the Assads (as well as the estimated 30,000 Russian nationals in Syria, and the only warm water port outside of the former Soviet Union). And of course Putin also has a stake in trying to check the rise of the ISIS terror state, which includes by one estimate at least 2,000 Russian-speaking jihadis.

Whatever his reasoning, it is clear that Putin has acted at a critical time. Al-Assad’s regime is weakening badly, but Russia has clear and consistent goals in response: Support the regime and counter ISIS. In contrast, U.S. policy remains confused and failing, with conflicting goals. Are we focused on forcing al-Assad out or defeating ISIS? And are we training opposition elements who would rather be fighting al-Assad than taking on ISIS first.

Putin’s aims are much narrower: keep al-Assad afloat (for now) show Russian resolve against ISIS terrorists and ensure that Russia, not America, is on the ground and can influence the situation there. Of course, Putin isn’t necessarily thinking long-term. If he were, he would understand that Russia’s support for al-Assad’s brutal regime will limit not expand Russian influence if and when the Syrian leader departs.

But for now, forget about strategy — on a tactical level, Russia is proving more nimble than the United States.

Why? First, Putin has reliable allies, at least for the short term. True, there is going to be tension between Russia and Iran over Syria at some point. But right now their goals converge.

Second, also in contrast with the United States, he has men, aircraft and other military equipment in Syria that can be used both to hit ISIS targets (Putin’s cover) and to intercede on al-Assad’s behalf directly if necessary.

Finally, Putin has time on his side. With a year and change left on Obama’s presidential calendar, there’s little chance of a major shift in Washington’s Syria policy, certainly not a pivot to direct military action or no-fly zones to weaken al-Assad. Putin sees how risk-averse Washington has been on Ukraine and Crimea and knows President Obama won’t challenge Russia on the ground in Syria. If anything, the U.S.-Russian focus has been on how to try to prevent such a confrontation.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently opined that Russia in Syria now offers up an opportunity. That might be true — Russia certainly risks getting bogged down in Syria, which isn’t as accessible as Ukraine. And Putin may well believe that this show of force will strengthen his hand in terms of al-Assad’s and Syria’s future.

But Putin didn’t intercede in Syria to help Barack Obama. Indeed, his goal was to demonstrate that Russia is the primary external power on the ground. So if there is a deal, it will cost the administration.

For a start, Obama will need to stop talking about al-Assad going and will likely need to accept a political transition that leaves him in place for a prolonged period of time. Second, the United States will need to acknowledge that Russia is the key nonregional power on the ground and accept a future arrangement that recognizes a Russian role there.

But all of this is for later. What matters right now is that Putin has acted and the United States looks weak and paralyzed as a consequence. Russia has skin in the game; the U.S. does not. And in perhaps one of the most bitter ironies of this whole situation, for all the President’s talk of al-Assad needing to go, it’s likely that Putin and the Syrian leader may well be around long after Barack Obama leaves office.

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.

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