National Security & Defense

In the Ruins of Aleppo, Putin Is Shaping Obama’s Foreign-Policy Legacy

Russian president Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin, September 19, 2016 (Photo: Reuters/Sputnik/Kremlin/Alexei Nikolsky)
The former KGB operative has wagered that Obama will say and do nothing in the face of slaughtered civilians. But Kerry will say he’s sad.

Yesterday at NRO, I noted: “We should expect worse to come, . . . Unless the United States accepts keeping Bashar al-Assad in power, Putin will continue to burn Syria.” Today, launching a massive bombing raid of Aleppo, Putin and Bashar al-Assad took their fight to President Obama’s five-yard line. According to the reliable Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the latest pummeling of eastern Aleppo involved 14 air strikes and Assad’s favorite weapon: barrel bombs. Such weapons do not discriminate between children and fighters.

Of course, such apparent indiscrimination is the whole point here. It is deliberate. Putin is painting a red line with civilian blood to send a message to America: Cease support for anti-Assad rebels, and accept Assad’s dominion alongside Russian supremacy over the international politics of the Middle East. This has always been the Russian goal. But skillfully manipulating President Obama’s arrogance, Putin has played the slow game. It has paid off. In Syria, Russia is on first down and five yards out.

What has changed now, however, is that Putin believes America has lost the will to resist. He is openly killing civilians and destroying their homes, because he is betting that — faced with images of a few more Aleppo boys, or chlorine-choked children, or charred corpses — President Obama will yield to the red. Russia’s objective is a peace deal that keeps Assad in return for elections-at-a-future-date-and-of-a-form-to-be-decided-at-a-future-date-that-is-also-as-yet-unkown (aka never). Put simply, Assad wins and the rebellion is crushed. Why such Russian confidence?

Why not? After all, every time the Russia-Assad-Iran axis slaughters another civilian, or bombs another aid convoy, the U.S. routine is unchanging. President Obama says nothing, and John Kerry goes on television/Twitter to express sadness. Next, Kerry holds a news conference with his Russian opposite, Sergey Lavrov, in which both men express guarded optimism for the future. These Lavrov Waltzes then produce faux-deals that are worse than nothing. Putin then openly breaks the faux-deal, escalates a little more, and the cycle starts over. This merry-go-round — in companionship with Obama’s many-times-crossed red lines – has shredded Obama’s credibility.

Why does the White House persist with its absurd responses? Weakness, primarily — but Russian disinformation also might have something to do with it. Because just as the Russians are masters of media disinformation, they also revel in disinformation: They tell us what they want us to hear, while pretending that they believe we are not listening. Putin the KGB colonel takes particular enjoyment in such intelligence antics. The White House keeps insisting that Russia’s weak economy will force Putin to compromise. Perhaps Putin has tricked them in his wilderness of mirrors.

As I have argued repeatedly, the only way to deal with Putin is to do so seriously or not at all. We either must escalate against Putin in Syria — supporting the moderate resistance with more money, less bureaucratic constriction, and stronger arms (including some surface-to-air missiles for some), or we must accept Putin’s victory and be done with it. We must also highlight the defining hypocrisy born of Iran and Hezbollah’s support for Assad. They claim to serve moral virtue and Islamic emancipation, but they slaughter their fellow Muslims.

Related: Why — and How — the U.S. Navy Must Send Iran a Message

Regardless, it should be clear that we cannot continue on our present course. That bloody road is crushing U.S. global credibility. The Sunni-Arab monarchies think that Russia is the new power broker, and they are increasingly fearful of Iran. As a result, they are abandoning America and our moderating influences against extremism. Iran is laughing at us. Khamenei will break the nuclear deal the moment he perfects ballistic-missile technology. The Chinese are conquering the South and East China Seas unhindered. Our allies are losing faith in the U.S. leadership that has preserved great-power peace since 1945. Pressuring Russia into serious negotiations, we can reach a durable deal in Syria. But when we pretend that acquiescence is strength, we only maximize the pain of an inevitable defeat. Absent change, Aleppo will be the metaphor for President Obama’s failed foreign policy.

— Tom Rogan writes for National Review Online and Opportunity Lives. He was a panelist on The McLaughlin Group and is currently a senior fellow at the Steamboat Institute. His homepage is


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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