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Opinion Breaking the feckless meter on Syria

Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama before the start of a bilateral meeting at the United Nations headquarters in New York City Monday.  CHIP SOMODEVILLA/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

The administration “rebukes” Russia and expresses “grave concerns” about its bombing in Syria. We cannot seem to figure out what targets Russia is selecting. This is not the behavior of a competent administration or a great power. It is, however, the end result of four years (or more) of passivity and demonstrated weakness. We have spent years now assuring tyrants and terrorists they have virtually nothing to fear from us so now they will try just about anything without concern that the United States will take meaningful action.

The Post reports:

Russian officials vehemently defended the country’s airstrike campaign in Syria Thursday, denying reports of civilian deaths and Western accusations that the country was targeting U.S.-backed rebels instead of the Islamic State. . . .
The dramatic escalation of Russia’s military involvement was viewed in Washington as an affront just two days after President Obama and Putin sat down to discuss means for negotiating the deep differences in their countries’ approaches to the conflict in Syria.
The strikes sharply increase tensions with Russia, relations already strained by the Russian backing of rebels in eastern Ukraine.


In fact, in alliance with Bashar al-Assad, Russia is targeting areas where Islamic State fighters are not present. Russian forces are killing Free Syrian Army fighters and many civilians along the way. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter observed (supposedly with a straight face)  that there was a “logical contradiction” in Russia’s aim of fighting terrorism in Syria while also supporting the Assad regime. He said the Russians were “seemingly taking on everyone who is fighting Assad,” as opposed to the U.S. approach of specifically targeting the Islamic State and like-minded extremists.” Well, no kidding. That is the point. Russia is not interested in fighting terrorism per se, but rather in advancing its own position and that of allies Iran and Syria to the detriment of our allies and more broadly of the people of embattled, failing states.

In taking this action just days after meeting with President Obama, Putin is delivering one more finger in the eye of a president whom he continues to out-wit and out-muscle. (“U.S. officials were particularly irked that they didn’t get much warning of the strikes, even as they make plans to resume military talks with Russia about Syria as early as next week. Discussions have been halted since last year over Russia’s support for separatists in Ukraine.”)

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As others have noted, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was among many who have understood all too well what Russia is up to. In the last debate, he explained, “It’s pretty straightforward…. [Putin] wants to reposition Russia, once again, as a geopolitical force … He’s trying to destroy NATO. And this is what this is a part of. He is exploiting a vacuum that this administration has left in the Middle East. Here’s what you’re going to see in the next few weeks: the Russians will begin to fly combat missions in that region, not just targeting ISIS, but in order to prop up Assad. He will also, then, turn to other countries in the region and say, ‘America is no longer a reliable ally, Egypt. America is no longer a reliable ally, Saudi Arabia. Begin to rely on us.’ What he is doing is he is trying to replace us as the single most important power broker in the Middle East, and this president is allowing it.” Maybe he should have briefed the Obama administration.

In an interview with Sean Hannity Wednesday evening, Rubio brought us up to date. “His move here is about protecting Assad. They want Assad to stay in power, or someone like Assad to stay in power. It is a client state of theirs that they have tremendous influence over. It makes them more important, and that is the bottom line. Russia wants to be more important, particularly in comparison to the United States,” he explained. “And the argument they are making to countries in the region is the Russians are reliable, they will actually take bold action, as opposed to this president who equivocates, and doesn’t have a clear strategy and isn’t reliable and in fact is out — he turns to these other countries like Saudi Arabia and others and says look, these guys are doing deals with Iran behind your back, a deal you might not be in favor of. He is an unreliable ally, you should be relying on Russia instead. This is part of a broader plan to increase Russia’s influence at the direct expense of America’s influence and America’s prestige.”

Critics of the administration in Congress and the foreign policy community have been making this very argument to Obama for years now. Arthur Herman in a piece well-titled “Becoming Putin’s Poodle” lays it out: “For every aggressive move Putin has made on the international stage, first in Crimea and Ukraine in Europe, and now in Syria, our president’s response has been largely verbal protestations followed by resolute inaction. Why should Putin not assume that when he orders the U.S. to stop its own air strikes against ISIS in Syria, and to leave the skies to the Russians, he won’t be obeyed?”

Why would he behave in such a fashion — beyond his aversion to using military force and his refusal to accept the responsibilities of commander in chief of the Free World’s leading power? It all fits together:

Since gaining the presidency, Obama’s entire policy of constructive engagement with Iran, including the current nuclear deal, has been built on the premise that Russia will help, both with shutting down Iran’s nuclear program when a deal is finally struck, and re-imposing sanctions if Iran doesn’t.
That’s why he was so eager to accept Putin’s offer to get Assad to give over his chemical weapons in 2013 — as a test run for cooperation in stopping Iran’s nuclear program — and why he’s been so hesitant about supporting the anti-Assad rebels, even after publicly calling for the dictator’s removal for more than four years — not to mention so weak in confronting Russian aggression in Ukraine.
It even explains why he’s been slow to respond to ISIS’s seizing of territory in both Syria and Iraq, out of fear that aggressive American military action might offend Tehran, and with it Iran’s chief patron, Vladimir Putin.
Of course this is all an Obama fantasy, reinforced by Obama’s deep disdain for our allies in the region, Israel and the Saudis, who are also the ones most worried by Russia’s escalating influence. They know Putin’s ambitions run counter to real peace and stability in the Middle East; that he has no intention of defeating ISIS if it helps keep the region in turmoil and no reason to rein in Iran’s nuclear program as long as fear or Iran serves Russian interests. . . .  In the meantime, Obama’s fantasy has turned U.S. policy in the region inside out – and propelled Russia back into the ranks of the world’s superpowers. The next president will have to deal with the consequences of that passivity.

Some GOP presidential contenders some seem to understand this (Rubio, Carly Fiorina, Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie) and some plainly do not (Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson). Some have contributed to the disaster (Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul) by mouthing the notion that we had no interests in Syria. If we want to address the debacle and re-establish U.S. influence, peace and stability (which would mean an end to the genocidal war) we will need a commander in chief who at least understands what went wrong and did not contribute to the problem. That suggests Republicans would be wise to select a nominee from the first batch. And we surely should not nominate members of an administration that thought Russian “reset” was a grand idea.