No one can envy President Obama’s current dilemma over Syria.
His decision to begin arming the Syrian rebels challenging Bashar Assad’s regime drew charges that the rebel forces are driven by jihad movements, particularly al Qaeda. Further, many rebel spokesmen have regularly denounced Israel and suggested that once in power they will end Mr. Assad’s policy of not rocking the boat with Israel. How, then, critics ask, could the president align the U.S. with the rebels?
On the other hand, Mr. Assad is directly supported by Iran and Hizbullah and, at least equally as significant, by the Russian government. If he were to overcome the rebel challenge and remain in power, it would represent a great step forward for Iran in its drive to become the preeminent power in the region.
Similarly, Hizbullah would come away with greatly enhanced stature and further erode any challenge to its leading role in Lebanon. As for the Russians, they will have established a beachhead in the Middle East from which to challenge the United States. How, then, could the president not act to thwart the supporters of the Assad regime?
When you connect the dots, the centrality of Russia to the current dynamic in the Middle East as it relates to U.S. interests becomes clear. Indeed, many will recall that when President Eisenhower refused to meet Gamal Abdel Nasser’s request for funding his pet project, the Aswan Dam, the Egyptian president turned to the Russians, who were more than happy to do business with him.
Russia’s cooperation with Iran and Hizbullah in the Syrian imbroglio has received much attention. But it passed without much notice almost two weeks ago that Russia announced the deployment of a permanent, powerful naval presence in the Middle East. The newspaper Israel Hayom, citing Russia’s military chief of staff, reported that Russia has stationed sixteen warships and three ship-based helicopters in the region.
This was the first such move since the Soviet era, and Israel Hayom quoted Russian President Vladimir Putin as saying that the employment was not “saber rattling”; that the Middle East “is a strategically important region and we have tasks to carry out there to provide for the national security of the Russian Federation.”
However, Russia also held large-scale naval maneuvers near Syria several months ago and sold state of the art weapons, including antiaircraft missiles, to the Syrians. And as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, it torpedoed any serious action against Syria there. It also offered to station Russian troops on the Golan Heights, between Israel and Syria, as part of the UN peacekeeping mission to replace the Austrian forces that recently pulled out after a spillover of the fighting between the Assad regime and the rebels.
After a two-hour meeting this week between President Obama and President Putin that focused on Syria, Mr. Putin told reporters that “of course our opinions do not coincide.” President Obama added, “We have different perspectives on the problem.”
So President Obama’s Syria dilemma must properly be seen not only in the context of the major jihadist component of the rebel forces, but also the Russians’ drive to restore their superpower role and the aspirations of Iran and Hizbullah.
Sadly, these seemingly intractable problems are largely of his own making. The president hit the ground running after his first inauguration with a vision of resetting the relationship between the United States and the Muslim world. This led to his terrible misstep in trying to force Israel to embrace much of the Palestinian narrative, with destructive results to the peace process. He failed to fully take into account the Arab penchant for demanding unilateral concessions and pocketing every concession while reneging on their own promised compromises.
More to the point, it also led Mr. Obama to fully embrace the Arab Spring. He seemed intoxicated with the notion that the boiling over of honest dissent in several Arab countries meant that democracy was about to break out all over the area. So he abandoned longstanding American policy that called for cooperation with some nasty Mideast leaders who were able to keep the lid on dissent and constituted an international order of sorts, while delivering relative stability to the region.