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Obama's Syria Policy: Ask Putin

4:15 PM, May 30, 2012 • By LEE SMITH
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The way the White House sees it, there’s little we can do to help the opposition, or for that matter advance American interests by helping to topple Assad. The Iranians boast that they’re sending reinforcements to sustain the regime in Damascus, and the administration seems to admit as much. So why won’t Obama counter Tehran’s moves? If the administration believes it can contain and deter Iran that will mean not only presenting a credible threat of military action but the actual support of proxy forces to take on Iranian allies. Tehran gets it, which is why it is throwing its weight behind Assad; why doesn’t the White House? Perhaps it’s because Obama has invested so much in engaging the Iranians that he fears getting them angry now. After all, he’s made good on another pointless promise from the 2008 campaign so why risk it now, in the midst of very delicate negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear weapons program, by backing the Free Syrian Army?

Instead, the White House is betting on Russia. The premise is that Moscow is close enough to the Assad regime that it could pull off a soft coup that would get rid of the Syrian strongman. What should make it attractive to the Russians, the administration contends, is that such a coup would preserve an Alawite minority regime and ensure Russia’s interests in the eastern Mediterranean. The problem here is that Vladimir Putin doesn’t want to get rid of Assad, and even if he did, it’s not at all clear he has the ability to do it.

The administration hopes that it is possible to appeal to the better angels of Moscow’s nature and that Houla compels them to change their position on Assad. Instead, the Russians are sending more arms to the regime. It’s hardly surprising, then, the Russians won’t even admit that Assad is behind the massacre. Russian deputy U.N. ambassador Alexander Pankin “rejected the idea that the evidence clearly showed Damascus was guilty.”

The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, has served as the administration’s point man in the public campaign meant to shame Russia into doing the right thing, but all the White House has proven is that it knows nothing about the men who rule Moscow. Almost a decade ago, Chechen separatists stormed a theater in the Russian capital, and the Russian security services responded by filling the theater with a chemical compound that killed at least 33 Chechens and close to 200 hostages. If Putin cares so little for his own people, why would he be shamed by using the Syrian opposition to leverage his own prestige?

David Ignatius, a sort of Obama White House press surrogate, writes in today’s Washington Post that the Syria situation “is Russia’s failure, not America’s.” But this is incorrect. It is Obama’s failure for leading from behind in the first place and then leaving the matter in the hands of the Russians. The only question is whether the administration is culpable because of its cynicism or naiveté.

“Russia wants to have a continued influence in Syria,” one administration official told the New York Times. “Our interest is in stabilizing the situation, not eliminating Russian influence.”

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