Russia outmaneuvers Obama over Syria

Reuters

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G8 Summit at Lough Erne in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland June 17, 2013.

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  • While Mr. Obama sleepwalks, Mr. Putin is ardently pursuing Russia's Middle East objectives @AmbJohnBolton

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  • Russia's support to prevent Assad's fall is already having a considerable impact on the conflict.

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  • Altering that broader strategic balance is precisely what Russia intends.

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President Obama's belated acknowledgment that Syria's regime has used chemical weapons effectively forced his decision on Thursday to arm the opposition. Whether Mr. Obama's U-turn alters the conflict's course is a different question. One thing seems certain: Russia's support for Bashar al-Assad remains unwavering. It should make for an interesting G-8 meeting on Monday and Tuesday in Northern Ireland.

Since Syria's civil war began, Mr. Obama has insisted, contrary to fact, that the U.S. and Russia have a common interest in resolving the crisis and stabilizing the Middle East. Secretary of State John Kerry's recent efforts to secure Russian co-sponsorship of a peace conference, at which Washington will push for Assad's ouster, reflect Mr. Obama's illusion.

The objective evidence consistently demonstrates that Russia has no interest whatever in eliminating its only remaining Arab ally. Moscow's military and financial assistance to Damascus continues undiminished, along with its hold on the Cold War-era Tartus naval base, strategically positioned on Syria's Mediterranean coast—but now facing only a phantom U.S. Sixth Fleet. Despite the hoopla surrounding the announcement of the proposed peace talks, their starting date, attendees, agenda and prospects all remain uncertain.

Most dramatically, Russia last month reaffirmed its commitment to deliver sophisticated S-300 air-defense missile systems to Assad. Although Israeli leaders have played down the sale's significance, this combination of advanced radars and missiles, which can defeat any non-stealthy aircraft (and Israel does not now have stealth planes), could change the strategic balance in Syria as well as in Lebanon and Iran—to Israel's detriment and ours.

Altering that broader strategic balance is precisely what Russia intends, exploiting President Obama's McGovernite "come home, America" policies, repeated in May when he again declared the war on terror almost over. Mr. Obama's continuing lack of interest in global threats to the U.S. is another manifestation of his inattention to defending the tenuous global stability on which the world's economy—and America's—critically rests.

Three years ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pleaded with Vladimir Putin not to sell S-300 systems to Iran. Mr. Netanyahu feared that Iran's nuclear program, sheltered behind the S-300 air defenses, would be impervious to Israeli strikes. Although the U.S. could penetrate and destroy S-300s in Iran, Israel does not believe (and didn't in 2010) that Mr. Obama is serious when he says "all options are on the table" concerning Washington's possible military steps.

Perhaps responding to still-unknown Israeli commitments, Mr. Putin agreed not to send S-300 missiles to Iran, publicly citing Security Council Resolution 1929—the last substantive United Nations sanction against Tehran that Russia and China have permitted. This is more than a little ironic, since Russia had previously contended that Resolution 1929's arms sanctions did not bar sales of antiaircraft missiles, an assessment entirely shared by the Obama administration.

Because Russia's public interpretation of Resolution 1929 is clearly incorrect, the interpretation could easily be reversed, or simply ignored, should Russia so choose. Since 2010, Israel has reportedly trained against S-300s previously sold to Cyprus, but this is hardly equivalent to confronting them in combat situations wielded by skilled operators. Despite Israel's recent bluster regarding S-300s, Mr. Netanyahu reprised his pilgrimage to Moscow on May 14, this time hoping to block the Syrian sale. Mr. Putin refused.

Much, therefore, depends on how effectively Moscow trains Assad's military, or, even more chillingly, whether Russian crews will operate S-300s in Syria, which would definitely raise the stakes for NATO or Israeli attacks on the missile or radar emplacements.

There is enormous political symbolism in the S-300 deal, which is bolstered by Russian sales of antiship missiles and MiG fighters, and naval deployments to the Eastern Mediterranean. Russia's support to prevent Assad's fall is already having a considerable impact on the conflict, whatever steps Mr. Obama may now hesitatingly undertake.

The spillover prospect of using S-300s to protect Hezbollah's weapons in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley is significant both for Israel and for Hezbollah's ever-larger role in Syria's hostilities. Iran's mullahs also benefit, especially if S-300s bound for Syria find their way into Iranian hands. The ever-closer Tehran-Moscow relationship underlines the essentially negligible prospects for negotiating Iran out of its nuclear-weapons program.

While Mr. Obama sleepwalks, Mr. Putin is ardently pursuing Russia's Middle East objectives. He has always been clear about his larger goals.

In 2005, Mr. Putin told the Russian Federation Assembly that "the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the [last] century," which he clearly hoped to remedy. Mr. Putin's neo-imperialistic goals now extend globally. In Soviet days, Americans joked that Sergei Lavrov, now Russian foreign minister, was a closet royalist, but he longs less for a Romanov restoration than for a return to the czars' hegemonic achievements.

While the evidence about Russia's strategic objectives may not be conclusive, the direction is ominous. And as long as America operates on the assumption that the U.S. has common interests with Russia in Syria, Lebanon, Iran or the Middle East generally, we will see Moscow's influence rise and ours decline. Even in today's Washington, that's a scandal.

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John R.
Bolton
  • John R. Bolton, a diplomat and a lawyer, has spent many years in public service. From August 2005 to December 2006, he served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. From 2001 to 2005, he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security. At AEI, Ambassador Bolton's area of research is U.S. foreign and national security policy.

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