Putin’s Syrian Sideshow

On the right, there’s a bizarre narrative. Obama is cast as a weak and ineffective leader, and Putin as strong and decisive. Though those depictions are utterly ludicrous, they are superficially reinforced by goings-on in Syria today, where Putin has deployed the Russian Air Force, ostensibly to support the Assad regime, while the Obama administration quietly funnels aid to the Free Syrian Army.

For the record, Obama has the most successful foreign policy of any president since World War II. He didnt just get the US out of two dead-end wars, killing Osama bin Laden along the way. The Iran deal was an outright coup. The US got China to agree to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and reversed decades of bad policy when it restored relations with Cuba. Obama secured an ABM treaty with Russia, but also, audaciously, presided over Ukraine’s defection to the US sphere. History books will look back on Kiev’s alignment with the US, EU and NATO as marking the end of the Russian Empire.

By comparison, Putin has overseen a period during which Russian power and influence has shrunk to its lowest ebb in three centuries. While he was President in 2004, the Baltic States – each former constituents of the USSR – joined NATO; as did former Warsaw Pact members Bulgaria and Romania. Albania, another former Warsaw Pact member, joined NATO in 2009, while Putin was Prime Minister.

Putin’s greatest defeat is the loss of Ukraine, which has been politically united with Russia for most of the past 300 years. Ukraine’s population is one-third of Russia’s. An analogous loss for the US would be every state from the Rockies to the Pacific – California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming, Alaska and Hawaii – seceding to form an alliance with China. That’s Putin’s legacy.

Even Putin’s efforts to hang on to Crimea and Donetsk – crumbs from the table – have come at a steep price: US and EU sanctions, coupled with low oil prices, have wrecked the Russian economy. And in the end, that’s really what Russia’s ongoing foray in Syria is all about: a cynical sideshow to distract Russians from the consequences of Putin’s disastrous tenure.

Putin has otherwise chosen an odd time to come to the aid of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Between defections, casualties, and lack of support among Alawites, Assad has lost sixty to seventy percent of his army since 2012, and now controls perhaps twenty percent of Syria. In the wake of Russian bombing runs, Assad lacks the infantry to move in and capture new territory – loyalist forces are straining to hang on to the little they still hold.

There remains little role for foreign powers in the Syrian Civil War, and Obama is wise to largely remain on the sidelines, and not add to the misery of a conflict that has now killed more than 300,000, and displaced upwards of seven million. Funneling aid to the Free Syrian Army – the most liberal of the several belligerents – is a reasonable policy. Bombing ISIS assets from the air might be constructive, but it’s a messy business, with frequent loss of innocent life. Comparable US policies in Iraq have had limited success, even when coordinated directly with the Iraqi army.

With the GOP paralyzing Congress, Obama has been focusing on foreign policy for years, and the fruits of those efforts are impressive. Obama’s reserve in dealing with Syria is to be commended. Putin’s dalliance, by comparison, is an act of desperation, and yet another hardship for the beleaguered Syrian people to endure.

 

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