On Tuesday, Russia announced it was sending 11 warships to the Mediterranean—some of which would dock in Syria, where Moscow keeps a base in Tartus. If some onlookers believed that the “unusually large size of the force” was meant to send a message to Washington, the fact is, the Obama administration has been signaling to the Russians that they can get away with just about anything, especially when it comes to Syria.
Some 16 months into the Syrian uprising and after, according to some estimates, more than 17,000 have been killed, there is little end in sight. U.N. special envoy to Syria Kofi Annan has finally conceded that his six-point peace plan, has failed. “We have made significant efforts to resolve this situation by peaceful political methods,” Annan said earlier this week. “Obviously, we have not succeeded. And there is no guarantee that we will succeed.”
The initiative was doomed from the outset, but the problem, as the U.N.’s former secretary general has shown over the years, is that Annan is spectacularly ignorant of the nature of power politics. (Indeed, opposition forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood, claim that Annan’s pointless efforts are partly responsible for the regime’s latest massacre of Sunni villagers in Tremseh.) Earlier this week Annan was in Tehran to see if the Iranians might help end the bloodshed in Syria—a mission that effectively amounts to convincing the Islamic Republic to abandon its one Arab ally. “Iran can play a positive role and should therefore be a part of the solution in the Syrian crisis,” said Annan. Not surprisingly, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi used Annan’s statement as proof that Iran was “clearly not a part of the problem” in Syria. The Iranians know how the game is played—send money, arms, and troops to advance your interests and use international forums like the U.N. to launder your reputation.
There’s a growing belief in some circles that the White House might be doing the same thing. For all the temper tantrums the U.S. ambassador Susan Rice has thrown on the floor of the U.N. that Russia and China weren’t playing fair by vetoing resolutions against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, some analysts believe the Obama administration is taking a more active role on the ground in Syria. Evidence of American assistance and perhaps coordination of Saudi and Qatari arms support, say some, is that the Free Syrian Army’s attacks on regime loyalists and outposts are more effective. However, as Reuel Marc Gerecht writes in the Wall Street Journal, the White House is likely not as involved as has been suggested in some news reports—stories, writes Gerecht, “probably produced by officially sanctioned White House leaks.” Gerecht argues that the Obama administration should indeed be using the U.S. clandestine service to bring down Assad, but according to his sources, “the much-mentioned Saudi and Qatari military aid—reportedly chaperoned by the CIA—hasn't arrived in any meaningful quantity.”
Gerecht sees the administration’s two-faced game in Syria as the sign of “an administration trying not to commit itself,” but the White House’s posture toward Russia suggests something else as well. Like Kofi Annan, the Obama White House is simply at a loss when it comes to understanding power politics, which is why it cannot fathom how Moscow continues to support Assad.
Indeed, Russian intransigence seems odd to many who contend that if Russian president Vladimir Putin simply abandoned Assad, sooner rather than later, he would ensure a role for Moscow, and Russian interests, in the post-Assad political order. So let’s consider the various rationales used to explain why, seemingly against all common sense, Moscow won’t abandon the dictator in Damascus.