America, Russia and Syria: so much for the reset

How arming the opposition will intensify American conflict in other regions

Time to bomb Syria?

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

Winston Churchill allegedly once said: “We can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all the other possibilities.”

As it happens, U.S. President Barack Obama hasn’t done much of anything before now on Syria. But apparently doing nothing has exhausted him. So this week, after more than two years of war and some 90,000 deaths, he has finally decided to arm the opposition fighting Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

It is a move that has come far, far too late. Since the initially peaceful uprising against Assad began in March, a civil war has consumed the country, sectarian divisions have hardened, thousands of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon have joined Assad, and Islamist extremists have surged into the ranks of those fighting him. Much of this could have been at least mitigated with earlier intervention. The Syrian rebels, and those now backing them, face an enormous challenge to defeat the Assad regime, and to prevent the total disintegration of Syria.

What finally spurred Obama to action was evidence Assad’s forces made frequent use of chemical weapons. Obama said last year that doing so would cross a “red line” and change his calculations about how to respond. He likely hoped Assad wouldn’t call his bluff. But when he did, and when even former president Bill Clinton was criticizing Obama for his passivity, Obama had to act. Better now than never.

Arming Syrian rebels will intensify America’s conflict with at least three outside actors: the Lebanese militia Hezbollah; Iran; and Russia.

America has been hostile to both Iran and its proxy Hezbollah for years. But Obama expended much effort and political capital to “reset” relations with Russia.

Those efforts are now well and truly sunk. Russian president Vladimir Putin strongly opposes outside assistance to the Syrian rebels and calls evidence that Assad’s regime has used chemical weapons unconvincing. Russia is contracted to deliver sophisticated surface-to-air missiles to Syria, and has suggested it might do so to discourage Western intervention.

There are several reasons that Putin is backing the Syrian butcher — some of which are more about Russian geopolitics than Putin himself. Russia, in general, fears state breakup. Russia is a multi-ethnic and multi-faith federation with several restive regions of its own. Even before Putin’s presidency, it opposed NATO’s intervention in Kosovo — in part because it wanted to avoid the precedent that would be established by Yugoslavia’s further fragmentation and Kosovo’s independence. Putin today calculates that a Syria without Assad is less likely to remain whole.

Russia also has particular worries about secessionist movements interlaced with Sunni Islamic extremism. As Fiona Hill writes, he looks at Syria and sees Chechnya, a Russian region where Russia fought two brutal wars against secessionist and Islamist militias. Putin what the precedent set by a successful Islamist uprising in Syria might mean for the Muslim regions of Russia.

Finally, despite rhetoric to the contrary, Putin is an imperialist. He has said he regrets the breakup of the Soviet Union. But it’s not because he misses Communism. He misses the global influence Russia had then. Today, the former Soviet States of Central Asia may be officially independent, but Russia very much wants to keep them in its orbit. It likewise resents any moves by former Soviet bloc states toward NATO and the European Union.

Syria under Assad provides Russia with a naval base in the Mediterranean. But more than that, it stretches Russia’s reach and strength into the Middle East. Barack Obama was willing to abandon America’s longtime ally Hosni Mubarak of Egypt when Egyptians rose against him. Russia has too few allies in the region to easily give up on Assad.