Russia’s entry into the Syrian civil war on the side of Bashar Assad’s regime provides a stark contrast to the fuzzy U.S. policy that promised to strengthen moderate rebels fighting Assad as part of an effort to degrade and ultimately destroy the Islamic State group that has taken over swaths of Syria and Iraq. The psychological and practical impact of Russia’s moves are even more powerful at a time when American allies — including Israel, the moderate Sunni Arab states and Ukraine — all appear to have lost faith in the Obama administration’s commitment to them.
Russia’s presence in Syria is much more than a decision to back an ally and help secure its strategic military sites. Its very active presence in the skies and on the ground in Syria is a direct poke at Washington and further undermines U.S. influence in a region where that influence has appeared to be receding. Russian President Vladimir Putin saw an opportunity and grabbed it.
Four years ago, President Barack Obama called for Assad to step down, then did little to hasten the day. A $500 million U.S. plan to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels was recently deemed a complete failure. What we have seen in Syria and in Ukraine is American words — threats and promises — without actions. But words alone cannot do the job on the world stage. A leader must back up his rhetoric with tangible actions, up to and including the use of force, if necessary. Obama either disagrees with that view or didn’t have the confidence to follow it.
For all of his faults — and he is by no means a leader we as Americans should be looking up to — Putin’s actions make clear that he understands this truth about power politics and that he is prepared to take advantage of opportunities wherever he can. A year ago it was Ukraine, today it is Syria.
Which begs the question: Where will it be tomorrow? While Putin may find himself in a quagmire in Syria — quagmire being the reason Obama has likely been cautious about committing American troops there — his aggressive moves show the inherent danger in the United States being perceived as weak. Russia’s moves in Syria have literally backed Obama into a corner. He must now find a way to increase the perception of U.S. power or risk further destabilization in the Middle East.