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Opinion Putin’s lesson for Obama in Syria

Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with Bashar al-Assad at the Kremlin last October. (Alexey Druzhinyn/Ria Novosti/Pool/European Pressphoto Agency)

In the great American debate about Syria, there has been an intervention by Vladi­mir Putin — and it has made Barack Obama the loser.

Since 2012, Obama has been stubbornly arguing that there is no workable option for even a limited U.S. intervention in Syria’s civil war. John F. Kerry, Hillary Clinton, David Petraeus and Leon E. Panetta, among others, pushed the president to use U.S. air power or stepped-up support for rebels to tilt the balance of the war against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, thereby making possible a political settlement favorable to the United States and its allies.

Obama repeatedly refused. There was no way to get involved, he said, without starting the U.S. military down a slippery slope that would lead to another quagmire, like Iraq or Afghanistan. Anyway, he said, U.S. intervention would only worsen the war, encourage extremism and exacerbate the humanitarian crisis.

All those bad things happened in the absence of American action. And now Putin has proved that the concept Obama rejected — that a limited use of force could change the political outcome, without large costs — was right all along. The difference, of course, is that the result has been a victory for Russia, Iran and the Assad regime, at the expense of the United States and its Arab, Israeli and Turkish friends.

The deal that Kerry brokered with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov this month offered Putin everything he sought in Syria. The Assad regime would be entrenched by a truce that leaves its forces in a commanding position around Aleppo, the country's largest city. If it holds for seven days, U.S. commanders are mandated to join Russia in operations against anti-Assad forces deemed extremist, in Aleppo and elsewhere — satisfying Putin's long-standing demand that the West join him in fighting "terrorists" rather than Assad. The Pentagon's fierce objections to this capitulation were overruled.

The United States and Russia announced a new multi-step plan to bring Syria closer to a negotiated peace deal. (Video: Jason Aldag, Karen DeYoung/The Washington Post)

Even if the cease-fire fails, as seemed possible Sunday, Putin will have won U.S. endorsement of the principle that rebels, not the regime, are the prime problem in Syria. While Kerry portrayed the deal as opening the way to humanitarian assistance to Syrian civilians, Assad is obstructing aid deliveries. If past is prologue, Kerry will respond to such violations by going back to Putin for a fix.

Remember: Putin ordered Russia's intervention just a year ago, after Iran's chief foreign military commander, Qassem Soleimani, warned Moscow that the Assad regime faced defeat. When Russian bombers suddenly began appearing in Syria — to the surprise of Washington — Obama quickly declared the Russians were stepping into a "quagmire." That was predictable: After all, that is what the president insisted would be the result of a U.S. air intervention.

But there has been no quagmire for Russia. On the contrary, Putin, who made a show of withdrawing some of his planes six months ago, has suffered minimal losses. He turned the tide of the war in favor of Assad and as a result has gotten the political terms he wanted from the United States. Most remarkably, he has done so even while simultaneously staging an audacious and unprecedented intervention in the U.S. presidential campaign.

As Kerry was parlaying with Lavrov, Russian intelligence was leaking hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee. No matter: Kerry pressed on to finish a deal on Moscow’s terms. His defenders are reduced to arguing that Russia’s military action, and Obama’s refusal to commit the United States, left Kerry no alternative but to play a weak diplomatic hand.

Putin must feel a particular satisfaction at having turned the geopolitical tables on Washington. During the 1990s, he and his former KGB colleagues watched in dismay as the Clinton administration launched military actions in areas once considered part of Russia’s sphere of influence — such as Serbia and Bosnia — then imposed political solutions of U.S. design. The Russian government of Boris Yeltsin was forced to swallow fiats such as the independence of Kosovo. All the while, from Putin’s point of view, the United States was meddling in Russia’s domestic politics by funding civil society groups advocating human rights and democracy.

Now Putin is the one imposing political outcomes in regions the United States once dominated while brazenly seeking to disrupt the U.S. political system. The difference is that the United States, unlike Russia in the 1990s, is not weak; in fact it is far stronger than Putin’s Russia. U.S. fecklessness is a choice.

Obama, of course, doesn’t see it that way. His aides sometimes contrast his presidency with that of Bill Clinton’s: Those who served Clinton in foreign policy, they say, don’t understand how much U.S. capacity to impose its will internationally has diminished in the past 20 years. Maybe they are right. But that doesn’t explain Syria — where Vladi­mir Putin has just accomplished that which Obama deemed impossible.

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