The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Vladimir Putin wants Russia to have more influence in the Middle East. Good luck with that.

There's no need to get worked up about Russia's Syria policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Obama join a luncheon for world leaders during the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Monday. (European Pressphoto Agency/Justin Lane)
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Let’s just stipulate the following at the outset:

  1. The only accomplishments of the Obama administration’s Syria policy are that (a) Syria gave up some chemical weapons and (b) U.S. ground troops are not in Syria. Besides that, it’s been an unmitigated disaster on every dimension.
  2. It’s really not in U.S. interests for Russia to expand its military presence in Syria.
  3. Russian President Vladimir Putin excels at flummoxing President Obama.
  4. At this point Russian-American diplomacy mostly consists of trolling each other, and Putin is better than anyone at trolling.
  5. It’s not a good sign for U.S. interests in the Middle East when Washington is surprised by Iraqi agreements with Russia.

So, yes, the administration gets an “F” for its handling of Syria and a “D” for its handling of Vladimir Putin.

But when I start seeing stories describing a new axis of evil threatening the United States, well, it’s physically impossible for me not to roll my eyes. Because if you’re going to look at the situation in Syria with an astringent perspective, you also have to stipulate the following:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.