National Security & Defense

Obama’s Pathetic Cave-in to Putin’s Power Play in Syria

(Photo Illustration: NRO)

There is a complaint against Obama foreign policy that goes “all our allies have been alienated, and are scared by the lack of American leadership and our indifference to their security, and all Obama does is cozy up to our enemies.” Jeb Bush has asked audiences, “Name a country where we have a better relationship now than we did seven years ago,” and audiences answer back “Iran!”

In pursing this policy of cooperating with our enemies rather than our friends, Obama is now going to include the horrific issue of Syria. A central pillar of American foreign policy for over 50 years has been to keep the Russians out of the Middle East. Now we appear to be welcoming their return as a military power there. The Obama reaction has been first to have Secretary of State John Kerry telephone Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov to express concern, then to have Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter call his own Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, and next to have military-to-military talks with Russia.

This is amazing. It undermines a half-century of policy and broadcasts weakness and irresolution to both enemies (Iran, China) and friends (Israel, Jordan, Egypt, the Gulf states). But it certainly isn’t surprising: Weakness and irresolution have in fact been the heart of U.S. policy in Syria in the Obama years. When the (mostly Sunni) people of Syria rose up peacefully against the Alawite, Iran-and-Hezbollah backed Assad regime in 2011 and Assad began to kill his own population, Obama did nothing. As the deaths mounted and his own advisers — Clinton, Panetta, Petraeus, Dempsey — advised action to build a non-jihadi rebel force, he did nothing. When Assad did not react to Obama’s chemical-weapons red line, Obama backed down, not Assad. And so the deaths and the refugees have mounted into a humanitarian catastrophe that was avoidable.

Now Putin has made his move, and he is not showing weakness and irresolution.

Moreover, the growth of ISIS is impossible to imagine absent this Obama policy. It is only because the Shiite-backed Assad regime is killing Sunnis by the tens and hundreds of thousands while we and the rest of the world watch impassively that ISIS has been able to rally so many Sunnis to its banner. Any pretended “way forward” or “diplomatic solution” to Syria that addresses ISIS but not the Assad regime will fail, because the regime’s murderous brutality — including its continuing use of chemical weapons — guarantees more recruits for ISIS.

RELATED: Syria: Just One of Obama’s Foreign-Policy Failures

But now Putin has made his move, and he is not showing weakness and irresolution. He wants Assad to stay in place, no matter how many Syrians the regime kills: Assad is a Russian ally, and the only real one in the region, and as long as he is president of Syria, Russia will have the bases it wants on the Mediterranean. Like Iran, Putin is willing to back up his pursuit of his interests with force.

#share#Instead of resisting or leading, instead of making the Russians pay a price, we will now have a dialogue with the Russian army. The Obama program for aiding the rebels has become a laughingstock across the globe (unless you are a Syrian, in which case you may cry as you read about it in your refugee camp). Similarly, he has refused lethal aid to Ukraine, which is actually a country with a legitimate government and under constant Russian military attack. “There is no military solution” to ISIS or to Syria, administration apologists proclaim, but Iran and Russia know better: To win, you have to be ready to fight or at least to arm those who wish to fight.

RELATED: Will Putin’s Middle-East Gambit Succeed?

The events in Syria will be an indelible stain on the Obama record. This is the president who went to the Holocaust Museum to proclaim proudly his establishment of an “Atrocities Prevention Board”– and now sits passively watching the greatest atrocity and the greatest humanitarian disaster in decades. From the strategic and “realpolitik” points of view, this week is another low point for the United States. Weaker nations that are our enemies work their will, while we dither, we “dialogue,” and we think about perhaps admitting more refugees. The next president will have many pieces to pick up, and pieces of Syria and the old American position of leadership in the Middle East will be among them.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy national-security adviser.

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