National Security & Defense

Obama’s Cluster of Mistakes in Syria

(Mikhail Metzel/Getty)
Putin will have his way unless the U.S. takes action to stop him.

In the movie Heartbreak Ridge, Clint Eastwood plays Marine gunnery sergeant Tom Highway. At one point, Highway is asked to assess a battle-readiness exercise. His response is priceless. But if we’re to believe Nancy Youssef (and I do), as applied to U.S. policy in Syria, many at the Pentagon share Highway’s assessment.

It’s not hard to understand why. As I noted last week, the only strength of President Obama’s Syria policy has been his ability to deflect blame for its failures. Yet as Pentagon officials know full well, foreign policy is not forged in Washington, but rather on the ground abroad. And over the past few weeks, as America’s Syria policy has descended into a circus of “four or five” absurdities, Russia and Iran have been gearing up. And let’s be clear: Russia’s newly commenced actions in Syria were entirely predictable. They were getting ready to strike, and strike hard. The Pentagon knew this — not thanks to top-secret intelligence, but because most military officers are trained to assess reality rather than opinion polls. Russia doesn’t deploy combined-arms forces for a simple military parade.

Still, Russia’s offensive carries an awful cost for U.S. interests in Syria, because Russian and Iranian military forces in Syria are not confronting the Islamic State or al-Qaeda-aligned rebels. Instead, they are smashing other rebel groups — some moderate, some not — that control pockets of territory north of Homs. The New York Times has an excellent graphic on the location of Russian air strikes thus far. And Russia’s targeting suggests it is engaged in shaping operations to prepare for a ground offensive. Combining this with the scale of the Russian deployments in Syria, I would predict that in the days ahead, Russian/Assad-regime/Iranian/aligned axis forces will launch a significant northern offensive into Idlib province, perhaps to secure rebel-held areas of the M-5 highway that connects Homs with the northern city of Aleppo.

Why are Assad, Russia, and Iran pursuing this strategy?

RELATED: In Syria, Russia and Iran Reap the Harvest of Obama’s Failed Foreign Policy

Simple: It suits their strategic interests. In all likelihood, the only reason Russia persists in claiming that it is targeting the Islamic State because it hopes that doing so will buy time to distract the White House and dominate Syria’s western battlespace. Once the axis offensive is underway, it will secure the strategic initiative towards securing a contiguous area of Assad-regime control in western Syria, reaching from the north to the south. It doesn’t matter that these areas are where U.S./allied-supported rebels are mostly located. They would never admit it, but in the near to medium term, the axis would allow the Kurds to retain de facto control in Syria’s central and eastern north, and hardline Salafi jihadists like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State to retain de facto control everywhere else.

#share#But the U.S. cannot stand idle and allow this to happen. Aside from any moral concerns in Syria — an issue the Obama administration cares little about — if Syria divides between Assad, the Kurds, and the Islamic State, the political sectarianism that lies at the heart of the Middle Eastern conflict will explode. The Turks and Sunni Arab monarchies will increase their support for Salafi jihadists in order to counterbalance Assad and Iran, and transnational jihadists will continue their metastasis across western borders. This is why the United States must not allow Assad to remain in power for the long term, and it is why we must take greater risks in supporting the mobilization of a moderate Sunni resistance to Assad — including via a safe harbor in north-central Syria. We should also fly combat air patrols in defense of CIA-supported rebels.

#related#Nevertheless, an effective U.S. response needn’t involve war with Russia. At present, Putin is doing what he is doing because he believes — through his years of experience with President Obama — that he can get away with it. But his central interest centers on retaining Russia’s access to the Mediterranean Sea via its Syrian bases at Latakia and Tartus. If confronted by American resolution, in return for retaining these bases and his influence, Putin would likely accept Assad’s replacement and a peace arrangement that allows moderate Sunni empowerment. That said, until Putin realizes America is serious about its Syria strategy, he’ll keep rolling the dice. 

Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at

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