‘You don’t win a war with planes, so we need ground forces.”
Those words, spoken yesterday to MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, are very important — because they were offered on American television by France’s ambassador to the United States. A senior career diplomat, Gérard Araud knew how his words would be received by a White House determined to avoid boots on the ground in Syria. That is to say, he knew the White House would be angry.
After all, the ambassador was acting as an arm’s-length intermediary for French president François Hollande. Under a pretense of diplomatic cover, the ambassador’s words signal Hollande’s deep dissatisfaction with President Obama’s Syria strategy. This interview hints, too, at a broader strategic consequence of the Paris attacks: After witnessing the American president’s ludicrous reaction to the atrocity, France is sidestepping Obama on the Islamic State. And it’s not just France.
Just watch how the British prime minister David Cameron answered a question on U.K. cooperation with Russia in Syria. Aggressively rebuking the questioner, Cameron stated that he did not care about polling data in standing up to the Russian leader. Cameron is clearly frustrated by Russia’s intransigence in defending the Assad regime in Syria. Cameron’s anger strikes a considerable contrast with President Obama’s tone in his sit-down with Putin in Turkey earlier this week. The key here is that by his obstinate commitment to an absurd non-strategy, Obama is encouraging world leaders — friend and foe alike — to work around him.
President Hollande will visit both Moscow and Washington next week, and he is clearly considering an alliance with Russia. As a senior editor of French liberal newspaper Le Monde explained yesterday, tensions over issues such as arms deliveries (canceled in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine), are giving way to new cooperation between France and Russia. According to Le Monde, Hollande is prioritizing cooperation against ISIS above other disagreements with President Putin about Bashar al-Assad’s despotic Syrian rule.
The KGB maestro senses an opportunity. After all, since last Friday’s attacks in Paris, Russia has stepped up air strikes on Islamic State positions and has shown new military cooperation with France and the U.S.-led coalition. I genuinely hope I’m wrong, but I’m confident President Putin is playing his old game of manipulating the West toward his ultimate objective in Syria: supporting Assad’s regime. By exploiting Hollande’s desire for an alliance that confronts the Islamic State, Putin probably hopes that he can mitigate French opposition to Assad and thus weaken the EU’s commitment to his removal from power.
#share#Ultimately, we must assume that Russia’s strategy in Syria in the wake of the Paris attacks still serves its longstanding goals there. Because, as I’ve noted, Russian moves suggest an overwhelming interest in clearing western Syria for Assad’s regime.
It is crucial that we keep perspective here: Putin is not a humanitarian moved by human suffering. If Russia’s downing of an MH-17 airliner in Ukraine is any guide, Putin remains at heart a cold-blooded KGB officer who simply changed office and title.
#related#Adding to the complexity is another issue we must consider: the Sunni monarchies and their existential obsession with countering Iran for both ideological and personal reasons. If the Saudis believe that Russia is reshaping global politics in support of Assad, they will throw ever-increasing support at Salafi-jihadist groups such as Syria’s al-Qaeda syndicate, Jabhat al-Nusra. If that happens, chaos in the Middle East can only increase.
Facing these developments, President Obama must somehow inspire EU confidence in his leadership. Escalating the campaign against ISIS, Obama must also offer Russia a hard compromise: a deal that ensures Russia’s continued access to the Mediterranean Sea in return for a serious political transition away from Assad. Only this course can end Syria’s civil war and finally destroy the Islamic State. The alternative is Putin’s way. And that, put simply, will be a [profanity] disaster.