No Time for Diplomacy

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The events of last week will likely be regarded as a watershed event for the Obama administration and America's standing in the world. President Vladimir Putin's intervention in Syria to support the regime of President Bashar Assad is Russia's first combat mission beyond its immediate periphery since the end of the Cold War, and makes any further action by the United States to support the moderate Syrian opposition difficult to implement. Though President Barack Obama may think he is avoiding becoming involved in a major Middle East crisis, he is actually precipitating something far worse.

Though Putin claimed that Russia's purpose was "to fight and destroy militants and terrorists on the territories that they already occupied, not wait for them to come to our house," the truth is that the air campaign has targeted areas that are held by the moderate Syrian opposition, not the Islamic State group or al-Qaida territory. The CIA believes that the "Russians have been directly targeting CIA-backed rebel groups that pose the most direct threat to Mr. Assad since the campaign began on Wednesday, both to firm up regime positions and to send a message to Mr. Obama's administration." Russia's intervention is not limited airstrikes – it now has a battalion-sized force on the ground, supported by rocket artillery, tanks, air defense systems and attack helicopters.

Though Russia's forces in Syria may be small in number, they have a disproportionately large strategic impact. As military analysts Frederick and Kimberly Kagan warned as Russian forces were being deployed, "The Russian deployment severely constrains Western options within Syria and may come to challenge America's ability to continue to operate in Iraq as well." They continue, "Russian President Vladimir Putin certainly means to deter the U.S.-led coalition from attacking the forces of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, establishing any sort of no-fly zone, or taking any meaningful action that might harm Assad's forces." However, Putin's purposes are far grander than just defending Assad. Russia aims "to establish a permanent foothold in the Middle East from which he can threaten NATO's southern flank directly, project power into the Mediterranean and the Arab World, and generally re-create Russia's aura as a global power."

It should be noted that Russia's intervention in Syria is the most visible element of a coalition effort to boost Assad. Reuters reported Tuesday that Iran's Revolutionary Guard commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani visited Moscow in July to help develop the new offensive, which had already been in the planning stages for months. For their part, the Iranians have added hundreds of troops to the country to help fight the moderate opposition, and Hezbollah, the Iran-affiliated terrorist group from neighboring Lebanon, has committed 3,000 troops to the fight.

To his credit, Obama recognizes Russia's objectives and culpability in the conflict. In his Oct. 2 press conference, he said, "[T]he reason Assad is still in power is because Russia and Iran have supported him throughout this process. And in that sense, what Russia is doing now is not particularly different from what they had been doing in the past – they're just more overt about it." Likewise, he added, "the moderate opposition in Syria is one that if we're ever going to have to have a political transition, we need. And the Russian policy is driving those folks underground or creating a situation in which they are de-capacitated, and it's only strengthening [the Islamic State group]."

However, Obama has chosen to address the problems of the Assad regime and the Islamic State group separately – by insisting on a diplomatic settlement on one hand, and, on the other, employing a limited air campaign and training mission for the moderate opposition forces. His steadfast belief that "the United States couldn't impose a military solution on Syria" has precluded him from recognizing that the situation in the country will only be resolved when the moderate opposition has the military prowess necessary to provide real leverage at the negotiating table.

To bring that about, the United States would have to take action in Syria that is decisive, although still far short of putting combat troops on the ground. Retired Army General and former CIA Director David Petraeus testified before Congress last month that "when the U.S. does not take the initiative, others will fill the vacuum, often in ways that are harmful to our interests. Russia's actions to bolster Assad increase the imperative of support for the moderate opposition and Syrian civilians." However, the president in his press conference dismissed plans like these as "half-baked ideas as if they are solutions." Frederic Hof, who handled the Obama administration's Syria policy during his tenure in the State Department, responded, "literally nothing can ever be baked to the satisfaction of someone who doggedly believes nothing will work."

The president's aversion to military action except under extremely narrow circumstances is a deep-seated belief. Just last week, Obama reaffirmed his belief at the United Nations General Assembly that "nations are more secure when we uphold basic laws and basic norms, and pursue a path of cooperation over conflict." Indeed, at the U.N., Obama championed an alternative history, where "instead, Russia had engaged in true diplomacy, and worked with Ukraine and the international community to ensure its interests were protected [following the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych]." At his Friday press conference, Obama expressed hope that Putin recognizes "that it is in [his] interest to broker a political settlement," and said "we're prepared to work with the Russians and the Iranians, as well as our partners who are part of the anti-[Islamic State group] coalition to come up with that political transition."

It is an inarguable truth that it would be better if the Syrian conflict was solved by diplomacy rather than force. But, after four years of attempts by the United States and the international community to come to a peaceful resolution, it should be clear that Assad is not interested in stepping aside as the president has insisted. Likewise, as Putin has steadfastly supported Assad since the beginning of this crisis, and is now joining the regime in bombing U.S.-backed forces, it is unlikely that the Kremlin will ever compel the Syrian dictator to step down.

At the U.N., Obama remarked "we have to be strong enough to acknowledge when what you're doing is not working." In the case of Syria, the world hopes that he would take his own advice. The longer Assad remains in power, the worse the Middle East will be, and the greater the damage will be to America's global leadership.

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