Even now with the Russians on the verge of combat operations in Syria, the White House still says it believes that they’re there to fight ISIS. John Kerry says that his Russian counterpart told him that the Russians are “only interested in fighting” the Islamic State. Other administration officials hold out hope for a grand U.S.-Russia coalition against ISIS. But that’s nonsense: Vladimir Putin landed troops in order to protect his investment in Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.
The White House should know better, because no matter what U.S. officials say about fighting the Islamic State, Obama’s underlying goal in Syria is the same as Putin’s—to protect Assad. That aligns Washington with Moscow—and with Iran, as it happens—and pits all against Israel, which sees the Iranian axis as an existential threat. Well, as critics of the U.S.-Israel relationship are quick to note, Israeli and American interests often diverge. That’s certainly the case here, with the Obama administration tying American interests to a confederacy of despots, terrorists, and mass murderers.
Senators were dismayed to learn from General Lloyd Austin’s testimony on Capitol Hill last week that for all the administration’s talk of arming Syrian rebels, there are only four or five trained by the United States now engaged in the fight against ISIS. The really shocking thing is that the White House managed to recruit anyone at all when it conditioned assistance on signing a document stating that their U.S.-supplied arms would not be used against Assad and his allies. How did the White House convince any Syrian, never mind four or five, to ignore the dictator responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of their friends, family members, and countrymen and instead turn their guns only on ISIS—a problem that the White House helped create?
It was when Obama balked at arming and funding moderate rebel units that extremist groups like ISIS filled the void. And when Obama tilted towards Iran and its allies around the region—e.g., providing air support for the operations of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) expeditionary unit, led by Qassem Suleimani, in Tikrit, flying drones on behalf of the Hezbollah-controlled Lebanese Armed Forces, promising Tehran that he would respect Iranian interests in Syria—the ranks of the region-wide Sunni rebellion swelled. The equation is straightforward: To defeat ISIS, first you have to topple Assad and ruin Iran’s position in Syria.
But that’s not what Obama wants, for fear that it will sour his dealings with Iran. Moreover, it’s increasingly unlikely that any other power will manage the feat now that Putin has staked out his position in Syria. From Obama’s perspective, that’s not the worst thing in the world, since the Russians can be his boots on the ground while he continues to use Moscow as he has since the beginning of the conflict in March 2011—as the reason that it’s impossible to do any of things he doesn’t want to do anyway.
I’d like to dispose of the Syrian dictator as much as the next guy, Obama can say—but we’re going to have to go through the Russians first, and they don’t see it that way. Setting up a no-fly zone was always going to be tricky, he can argue, but with Russian planes now in the area, we’re not going to do stupid stuff and risk an incident that could lead to a Third World War.
In fact, you could say that what Putin has just done is establish a no-fly zone of a different sort. The Russian presence has limited Israel’s ability to interdict Iranian arms shipments from Syria destined for Hezbollah. Presumably that’s why Benjamin Netanyahu is off to visit Putin this week—in order to discuss the new rules of the region.
Netanyahu knows that Putin isn’t very ideological. Sure, he’s an old-school Russian nationalist who dislikes Obama and means to replace the United States as Middle East power-broker, but it’s not like he cherishes the time he spends with Suleimani, Hassan Nasrallah, and other heroes of the resistance. He simply sees them as instruments to get what he wants out of Syria: to project power and collect rent from everyone, from Iran as well as Israel.