Let’s just stipulate the following at the outset:
- There is none, zero, nada evidence that a more robust U.S. military posture in Syria would lead to a more favorable policy outcome. As the Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib notes, “Certainly more than a decade’s worth of involvement on the ground next door in Iraq hasn’t produced a happy outcome, and at the cost of thousands of American lives and hundreds of billions of dollars.”
- The reason Russia can do what it’s doing is because its local ally in Syria — Assad’s government — actually exists. U.S. efforts to develop a moderate Syrian resistance group have abjectly failed, and let’s not even bother with David Petraeus’s cray-cray suggestion.
- Great powers always look the most powerful when they announce expanded activity in a region. It’s what happens next that matters.
Indeed, Michael Gordon and Gardiner Harris’s write-up of Monday’s dueling U.N. General Assembly speeches contained my first reaction to Russia’s expanded Middle East portfolio:
Mr. Putin talked about mounting a broad effort to support Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, as the best bulwark against the spread of the Islamic State and other radical groups, even though the White House has said Mr. Assad has to leave power if there is to be a political solution in Syria. …For the White House, this has meant accepting a Russian role in the region but hoping that Moscow will appreciate the risk of becoming bogged down. That, they hope, will raise the costs of backing Mr. Assad and force Russia to work sincerely on a political transition that will lead to the Syrian leader’s departure.“Knock yourselves out,” one Obama administration official said, mocking Mr. Putin’s bravado about forming a grand coalition in Syria (emphasis added).
Given Putin’s track record in eastern Ukraine, I’m supremely skeptical of Russia’s ability to impose order in Syria, no matter how much help Iran provides.
No, the primary foreign policy objection with Putin’s actions in Syria is about optics, because it makes Russia look proactive and the United States look reactive. That’s not a good look for the United States, and it drives foreign policy watchers crazy.
The optics on Syria look disastrous. But frustration at the status quo is not a good enough reason to pursue a riskier, more interventionist policy. There has to be persuasive evidence that this administration could successfully execute such a policy. And I see zero evidence for that.