Putin wins a round
When Pres. Barack Obama meets Vladimir Putin Monday at the UN in New York, it will be a minor victory for the Russian president, even if as the White House suggests, it was Moscow who asked for the date.
Putin, with his back to the wall, is trying to maneuver his way out of a deep crisis. The combination of the collapse of oil and gas prices, Russia’s economic mainstay, the Western sanctions placed on some members of Putin’s coterie because of his aggression in Ukraine, and his upcoming elections, all test what has become a Sovietized regime.
Although the Russians had made some progress toward reequipping their military, putting an expeditionary force into Syria was an enormous gamble on Putin’s part. He hopes to maintain a role in what many see as the approaching climax in the gruesome four-year Syrian civil war. The al Assad regime may be on its last legs, even though its opponents are divided among Islamic terrorists clawing as much at each other as at the Damascus regime. Putin may, in fact, simply be setting up a Mediterranean enclave for Al Assad’s minority Allawite sect which has dominated his government, if the country finally disintegrates.
The traditional love affair between German business and the Russians is not faring well now that Europe has other cheaper options for its energy imports. But the avalanche of Syrian refugees [and a host of other economic migrants masquerading as Syrians] is putting pressure on the Europeans to come to terms with some sort of Syrian settlement in which Putin hopes to play a role.
Putin’s tacit alliance with Iran to support the al Assad regime, however, makes him a player in the Syrian debacle while the Obama Administration is now totally bereft of influence there. Furthermore, despite public pronouncements to the contrary, Washington’s traditional allies in the region – Israel, Egypt, the Saudis and the other Gulf states – are all making their own deals where they can. They all share the common fear of an increasingly powerful Iran, now that an agreement with the U.S. has made them a threshold nuclear power.
It was a terrible indictment of Obama’s policies that Israeli Prime Minister Benajamin Netanyahu had to go to Moscow last week with officials of his Israel Defense Forces to try to sort out any possibility of conflict with the new Russian forces in Syria. Jerusalem has to continue its efforts to halt further strengthening of Hezbollah, the Iranian ally in support al Assad, which presumably would be sicked on Israel if sought to unilaterally end Tehran’s nuclear threat. Whether Netanyahu actually achieved that goal remains to be seen but its American ally was not a player there either.
In recent speeches, Putin has put out proposals for an accomodation with the Americans, restoring the old image of Moscow as a superpower. But by stepping up his support of al Assad, he is crossing one of Obama’s famous red lines, that is, that the beginning of any settlement in Syria had to be the exit of the Syrian president. It was, after all, al Assad’s refusal to make any concessions to what began as peaceful demonstrations against the regime’s dictatorial policies which degenerated into the bloody contest. And al Assad more than anyone else is responsible for the estimated 250,000 casualties of the conflict and the millions of refugees who have fled the country.
Putin has said publicly that his protégé al Assad is ready to consider a coalition with leaders of the Syrian opposition – although Tehran, a more important backer of the regime – has yet to be heard from. But such negotiations could take months to achieve even a modicum of success, leaving one more mess for the next American president to try to wipe up.