Between the lines of President Obama’s comments on Syria at the United Nations on Monday, you could hear a sad admission of failure: The United States hasn’t been able to organize a winning strategy to deal with the Islamic State. Maybe we should let Russian President Vladimir Putin try his hand.
Obama’s speech had two signature comments. The United States has learned over the past decade that it “cannot by itself impose stability on a foreign land.” And in the Syrian quagmire, “The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict.”
Enter Vladimir, stage left. Putin’s own U.N. speech contained a bitter rebuke to the United States for working to decapitate regimes in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya without having the ability to restore order. “Do you realize what you have done?” he asked icily. He targeted the contradictions in a U.S. policy that proclaims Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go but that hasn’t yet created any practical alternative to the rampaging Islamic State.
“Russia has played a horrible hand brilliantly. We folded what could have been a pretty good hand,” argues Ryan Crocker, a retired U.S. diplomat who has served in nearly every hot spot in the Middle East and is among the nation’s wisest analysts of the region. “The Russians were able to turn a defensive position into an offensive one because we were so completely absent.”
Russia isn’t likely to have any more military success in Syria and Iraq than has the United States. But for now, Putin is certainly winning the perception game. The danger is that regional powers will view recent events as a full-blown U.S. retreat, like the withdrawal of an exhausted Britain in 1971 from its military garrisons “east of Suez,” which was seen as the last gasp of the British Empire.
Moscow’s military intervention comes as the United States is reckoning with its setbacks in Syria and Iraq in combating the Islamic State. A frank assessment was presented in congressional testimony in June by the Rand Corp.’s Linda Robinson.
The Rand analyst’s judgments were devastating: The Iraqi security forces, the main pillar of U.S. strategy there, “are not at present an effective force.” The Kurdish peshmerga are “capable” but in “defensive mode” and “not the silver bullet that some would wish them to be.” Sunni tribal forces are “still nascent.” In Syria, the U.S. “train and equip” force is “absolutely too little, too late.”
Robinson concluded politely that U.S. strategy needs “adjustments” — either drawing in new partners, adding more unilateral U.S. forces or moving to a more limited containment strategy that amounts to periodically “mowing the grass.”
Given these reversals for U.S. policy, should the Obama administration simply accede to Moscow? That would be a significant mistake, in my view. For all of Putin’s vainglorious boasting, the Russians can’t defeat the Islamic State. Quite the contrary, Russian intervention (in partnership with Iran) may fuel the Sunni insurgency even more. And if U.S. military partners in the region — such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and even Israel — really think Washington has ceded the ground to Moscow, the region could become even more chaotic.
Obama still has several potent, relatively low-risk options, if he’ll use them. The United States and its allies can impose “safe zones” in northern and southern Syria to allow humanitarian assistance and greater security. Opposition leader Walid al-Zoubi said Monday in Washington that if such zones were established, the opposition would work with Syrian government organizations to restore basic services. These safe zones would recognize the reality that Assad cannot control more than half of Syria’s territory, even with Russian bombs.
While Russia talks, the United States can also step up the fight against the Islamic State. It should urgently increase support to the 25,000 Syrian Kurdish forces and 5,000 Sunni tribal fighters north of Raqqa. These are motivated, committed fighters. Even Putin conceded Monday that the Syrian Kurds “are truly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria.” They deserve more American help.
As Putin proclaimed Russia’s “growing ambitions” in the Middle East, did we perhaps hear a faint echo of George W. Bush on the eve of his 2003 Iraq invasion? The law of unintended consequences works for Russia, too.
The best outcome would be for Putin to realize, now that he has ostentatiously shouldered the burden of combating Islamic extremism, that his only real chance of success is a diplomatic settlement that begins the “managed transition” to a post-Assad Syria. Otherwise, he has begun a painful misadventure.