Russia’s military offensive in Syria is only a week old, but the casualties for American foreign policy are already mounting.
Gone is any slim hope that President Obama might once have had about gradually improving relations with Iran, whose military envoys are helping buttress Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while Russia provides air cover.
Gone is any hope that Russian President Vladimir Putin, pressured by international economic sanctions imposed after the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, would out of self-interest pull back from confrontation with the United States and Europe — or, as Obama administration officials liked phrasing it, that Putin would take an exit ramp.
Gone is the hope that diplomacy in recent weeks among the United States, Russia and Saudi Arabia might produce a negotiated settlement in Syria and stop the exodus of Syrians fleeing the violence. While Secretary of State John F. Kerry wants to pursue that avenue, another administration official last week called it “a pipe dream.” And the prospect seems even more remote now.
For Obama, who has faced a series of foreign policy tests, this test is one of the toughest.
The president finds himself in a place similar to one described by famous British officer T.E. Lawrence as World War I gave way to feuding among Britain and its one-time allies in the Arab world: “There seemed no straight walking for us leaders in this crooked lane of conduct, ring within ring of unknown, shamefaced motives cancelling or double-charging their precedents.”
Now, as in Lawrence’s time, once powerful forces have given way to confusion. Putin, for all his flaws, has seen a vacuum in Syria partly of American making and he has stepped into it.
He probably views Syria, like Ukraine, as part of the Russian orbit. It also provides a useful place for Putin not to “deconflict” — to use the current jargon — but to pinprick NATO. The incursion of Turkish airspace by a Russian jet tests the alliance around the edges, virtually guaranteeing that any response would be cautious.
It resembles Russia’s strategy in Ukraine, a non-NATO country but one that received U.S., British and Russian security and territorial guarantees when it gave up its nuclear arsenal in December 1994. It also resembles the pinprick in September 2014, when Russian security forces abducted an Estonian intelligence official near Estonia’s border. The agent was exchanged last month for a jailed Russian spy.
American “reluctance” to help Ukraine “sounds like a serious devaluation of the U.S. position in the world,” said former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko. He said that Putin was “not just fighting for territory. He doesn’t need land. . . . What he needs is geopolitical space.”
Frustrated with where things stand in Syria, some members of the administration believe that if Putin wants to climb into bed with Hezbollah and Iran and take on Sunni extremists, well then have at it. Perhaps it might be best strategically — albeit not from a humanitarian perspective — for mission creep to afflict Russia instead of the United States. The president said in an Oct. 2 news conference that Syria could be a new Russian “quagmire.” (See: United States in Vietnam or Russia in Afghanistan.)
And the White House has also cited the negative example of Iraq, essentially declaring it a military failure — a stark assertion that will only stir more bad feelings among U.S. veterans of the war. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Russia “will be no more successful in imposing a military solution on Syria than the United States was in imposing a military solution on Iraq, or than the Soviet Union was in imposing a military solution on Afghanistan.”
But force does work at times, especially when the conquering army has few scruples about how it uses force. Russia did, eventually, pacify Chechnya. In Sri Lanka in 2009, government forces ended a 26-year civil war with brutal tactics and excesses. In an earlier age, the British wielded harsh measures to stamp out a communist insurgency in Malaysia.
“The Russians aren’t doing it exactly the way we did it. They are not going in and overthrowing Saddam and disbanding the Baath Party and creating an open insurgency,” said Thomas Graham, a former National Security Council senior director on Russia and now a managing director of Kissinger Associates. “They’re going in to protect a regime that has an asset, its army, and some support.”
Moreover, Graham said, “the Russians are prepared to be more brutal. Look at Chechnya. That is much different from the way we conduct operations in Afghanistan or Iraq. Our line is we shouldn’t alienate the population. The Russians go and just blow away the population.”
Only three months ago Obama was trumpeting the virtues of what he called a “tradition of strong, principled policy diplomacy.” At American University, where he laid out the case for the nuclear deal with Iran, the president criticized in a thinly veiled reference to the George W. Bush administration that “it was a mind-set characterized by a preference for military action over diplomacy, a mind-set that put a premium on unilateral U.S. action over the painstaking work of building international consensus, a mind-set that exaggerated threats beyond what the intelligence supported.”
Obama is still trying to make the case for diplomacy. Earnest said Tuesday at the news briefing that there was “some common ground about the need for a political transition.” He said that “the fact that there needs to be a political transition is a starting point for conversations.”
Then overnight, Russia upped the ante by firing missiles from Caspian Sea warships and further reinforcing a battalion of ground troops equipped with rocket launchers and tanks.
And so, for the moment, Kremlinology seems to have replaced diplomacy.
“We’ve long indicated a willingness to accept a constructive, properly integrated contribution from the Russians to our broader, counter-ISIL efforts,” Earnest said, referring to the Islamic State fighters who have footholds in Iraq and Syria. “But that is not what Russia has sought to do.”
Obama is willing to wait longer. In the Ukraine case, Obama resisted calls to send weapons for fear of sparking an escalation in the conflict with Russia. In Syria, he has rejected the idea of a “proxy war” between Assad’s soldiers and U.S.-backed factions and turned down the idea of a no-fly zone. Instead, he said, the United States will keep its sights narrow: providing more arms to Syrian Kurds and relatively moderate groups and continue bombing the Islamic State fighters.
Russia still has a long way to go before it catches up to the number of bombs the United States has dropped on Syria. But the more it strikes U.S.-backed opponents of Assad, the more likely it becomes that diplomacy in this case will literally disappear in a cloud of smoke.