‘I saw a stone cold killer.” That’s former Defense secretary Robert Gates, on looking into Vladimir Putin’s eyes.
The histories of the Syrian civil war will record an abundance of bloody red lines. History will recall how Assad retained power by etching bloody scars on the lungs, stomachs, and bodies of his people. It will remember how Iran and its proxy militias, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah — those self-ordained servants of the oppressed — forged “justice” by painting Sunni blood on Syrian streets. It will remember how ISIS turned ancient cities into factories of death, enslaved the innocent, and exported terror. And history will remember how Russian president Vladimir Putin skillfully used slaughter as his strategy, while President Obama sat impotent.
Slaughter: At present, that’s Russia’s primary focus in Syria. Assessing the collapse of U.S. resolve — first on Assad’s use of chemical weapons, then on supporting the Free Syrian Army, then on demanding that Assad step down — President Putin sees opportunity in the slaughter of civilians in western and northern Syria. He sees opportunity for two reasons.
First, unlike his American opposite, the Russian leader has learned from his Syria campaign strategy up until now. As I explained last October, Putin’s strategy in Syria has always sought a contiguous area of Assad-regime control from Aleppo in northern Syria to Syria’s southern borders with Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan. But now, having successfully consolidated Assad — which is why Assad is crowing about taking back all of Syria — Putin wants to ensure that the international community accepts his victory. To do so, he’s marking his territory with innocent blood. Russian attacks in recent days have reflected this truth. In deliberate strikes on schools, hospitals, and streets, Putin is not so subtly telling Western leaders that he’ll facilitate a humanitarian disaster unless they accept his terms — namely, Assad’s continued authority as Syria’s ruler, and a Western abandonment of moderate anti-Assad rebels. But because he is aware of the West’s need to save face, Putin’s bow also carries diplomatic arrows. Hence last week’s cease-fire agreement. That agreement — due to commence later this week — will supposedly facilitate the provision of humanitarian supplies to besieged settlements. Absurdly, however, Russia says it won’t stop its own attacks until rebel forces surrender. This is a classic Putin one-fingered salute: By massacring Syrian civilians and pushing toward the Turkish border, Putin offers a binary choice — yield to his demands and alleviate civilian suffering, or resist his demands and watch as he turns Aleppo into a graveyard.
President Putin sees opportunity in the slaughter of civilians in Syria.
But there’s a second impetus for Putin’s escalation: deterring Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Having lost patience with U.S. impotence, Turkey and the Sunni Arab monarchies are threatening to invade northern Syria. And Putin knows that President Erdogan of Turkey and Adel al-Jubeir — Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister and architect of its aggressive new regional strategy — are willing to roll the dice in Syria. He fears that if they do so, he will lose the strategic initiative. So, by pushing his offensive toward the Turkish border and attacking Turkmen groups in the area, Putin is sending Turkey a message to back off. His offensive is also designed to lock down rebel supply lines from Turkey before the Turks/Saudis take action, so as to force them to take direct action against Russia or do nothing at all. Of course, this is an exceptionally dangerous game. Absent U.S. tempering influence, Turkey and the Sunni monarchies might call Putin’s wager and risk full-scale war.
There is hope. Were President Obama to take immediate action to rebuild his influence with U.S. allies, he could still influence Putin into concessions. But U.S. leadership is critical. Ignored, the Syrian whirlwind will become a geopolitical hurricane. And at that moment, when President Obama learns the error of his strategic patience, it will be too late.