National Security & Defense

Putin Is Expanding His Power in the Middle East — We Must Counter Him

(Chung Sung-Jun/Getty)

Ever since then–secretary of state Hillary Clinton announced a “reset” of relations with Russia in 2009, the consequences of six years of failed U.S. policy toward Russia have played out in the annexation of Crimea and the battlefields of eastern Ukraine. This policy has also helped prolong the humanitarian and strategic nightmare that Syria has become.

Somehow, as the evidence of failure grows, President Obama still can’t seem to understand Vladimir Putin’s goals. Putin wants nothing less than the recognition of Russia as a geopolitical force. He has already achieved this in Europe, and he is now pursuing the same goal in the Middle East, exploiting the vacuum left by President Obama’s “leading from behind” approach.

Since the outbreak of the revolt in 2011 against Russian ally Bashar al-Assad, President Obama and his aides have tried to involve Putin in a negotiated solution. Rounds of negotiations in Geneva produced a theoretical framework for a “transition” process in Syria that did not require Assad to step down. Time and again, Russia has defended Assad at the United Nations and prevented meaningful actions to hasten the end of the conflict.

Even U.S. efforts to work with Russia to rid Syria of its chemical weapons have failed. Obama worked with Putin to negotiate a deal whereby Assad agreed to give up his chemical weapons in return for an American commitment not to bomb him. The result was a deal that Assad did not fully honor. There has been ample evidence in recent months that the regime and now ISIS forces continue to use chemicals as weapons of war.

RELATED: Will Putin’s Middle-East Gambit Pay Off?

Despite all of this, President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have remained naively optimistic that Russia can be part of the solution in Syria. On July 14, the day he announced a disastrous deal with Assad’s Iranian patrons, the president told the New York Times: “I was encouraged by the fact that Mr. Putin called me a couple of weeks ago and initiated the call to talk about Syria. . . . That offers us an opportunity to have a serious conversation with them.”

Yet despite that “serious conversation,” in recent weeks Russia, which already has a naval base in the Syrian port city of Tartus, has been building up its military forces in Syria. The Russians are constructing an air base and bringing in troops, including veterans of their dirty war in Ukraine, along with aircraft to help prop up Assad at a time when regime forces have been losing ground.

RELATED: What Six Years of ‘Reset’ with Russia Have Wrought

Despite a flurry of desperate telephone calls from several Obama-administration officials to their Russian counterparts, Putin, perhaps hoping to distract attention from the continued chaos in eastern Ukraine, has not suspended Russia’s buildup in Syria. Reportedly, some administration officials even hope to cooperate with the Russians against ISIS in Syria, just as President Obama has tried to cooperate with another U.S. enemy, Iran, in Iraq.

#share#In the absence of American leadership, Syria has now become a playground for malign, anti-American forces such as ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Iranian Quds Force — and now Russia. The situation will only get worse until the U.S. provides leadership to counter the forces of extremism: We must work with moderate elements of the opposition and step up training of rebels to fight not only ISIS but also Assad.

As for Russia, we need to recognize that the “reset” has failed and that the U.S. must confront Putin’s assault on international security. The U.S. and the European Union have already imposed some sanctions on Russia, but we need to do much more to bar Russian firms, especially state-owned firms, from Western markets.

We need to recognize that the “reset” has failed and that the U.S. must confront Putin’s assault on international security.

The U.S. also needs to help the victims of Russian aggression by providing arms, not just “nonlethal” supplies, to the democratically elected government of Ukraine. And NATO should station more than token forces in member states bordering Russia, because Putin must learn that he cannot get away with doing to the Baltics what he has already done to Ukraine.

We need to make clear to Putin that we do not welcome Russia’s assistance in the fight against ISIS. Russian support for Assad’s slaughter of the Syrian people is only laying the groundwork for more decades of conflict and instability in an already fractured Syria. If Russia does not halt and reverse its military buildup in Syria, the U.S. should sanction the Russian defense companies and the individuals involved. Countries surrounding Syria that enable these actions by allowing Russian military overflights also need to know there will be a price for enabling Putin’s expansionism.

#related#We also must increase our cooperation with our Middle Eastern partners to reassure them that the U.S. is not going to cede regional influence to Russia. Putin’s Syria play is in part an effort to sow the perception that the U.S. is disengaged from this vital region.

In sum, we need to replace a policy of weakness with a policy of strength. We need to restore American leadership and make clear to our adversaries that they will pay a significant price for aggression. President Obama’s policies of retreat and retrenchment are making the world a more dangerous place. The Obama–Clinton Russia policy has already undermined European security. We can’t let Putin wreak even more havoc in the Middle East.

Marco Rubio represents Florida in the U.S. Senate.

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