It is painful to observe the United States being outmaneuvered in the Middle East. Iran used to be one of the pillars on which the American position in the region rested. Now Russia has taken over that pillar. The fanaticism of the mullahs and the cold-power mania of Vladimir Putin form a coalition sweeping from strength to strength.
Syria is not intrinsically a valuable asset, but Iran would have it as a territorial base from which to control Iraq and Lebanon, and to menace Israel. Russia would have a permanent naval and military facility on the Mediterranean, capable of expansion. Videos show the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the field in Syria, with Hezbollah men parading alongside and – sinister omen – giving the straight-arm Nazi salute. A Russian flotilla assembles, and Putin openly declares that Russia helps Syria and will do more. This coalition uses force without asking for permission from anyone.
The United States decided not to take any measures to detach Syria from the clutches of this coalition. President Obama has limited himself to sound-bites wishing for the departure of Bashar Assad. The vote in the Westminster parliament that Britain would take no action has been the precedent for Obama to ask Congress to vote on the issue. Putin made it plain that he despises David Cameron and despises Britain as a small island to which no attention need be paid, and now shows contempt for Obama and for the United States as a large nation to which no attention need be paid. The suggestion that Assad might hand his weapons of mass destruction over to international inspectors is inane. To remove the material would take thousands of soldiers over a number of years. Verification is impossible. Chemical weapons deteriorate, so old material could be released while new material was in clandestine production. Seizing on this childish proposition to hand the weapons over as though it were serious, Putin has the initiative over Obama, and may even be influencing Congress to vote no. Intervention in Syria is now altogether unlikely. Assad will be able to resort to lethal gas as often as he needs to stay in power. In the Cold War, Russia nearly got hold of the Middle East by backing Arab nationalists, and now it is getting hold of the Middle East by backing Shiite imperialism. The ensuing humiliation of the United States is self-inflicted, that’s the worst of it.