Syria is fast becoming a skull-splitting headache for the White House. The Obama administration dialed up its rhetoric on Syria in recent months, but it hasn’t matched U.S. words with action. Russia has noticed the chasm between U.S. words and will and has seen an opportunity:
Introducing an unpredictable new element into the Syrian crisis, a news agency said on Monday that two Russian naval vessels with marines on board were ready to head for Syria to protect Russian citizens and a naval base there, in what would be the first known reinforcement of Moscow’s military presence since the start of an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.The Interfax news agency quoted a Russian naval official, who was not identified, as saying that the two amphibious assault ships would head for the Mediterranean port of Tartus, where Russia has its only warm-water naval base in the region. Russia has been the staunchest ally of Mr. Assad in the 16-month-old conflict, shielding the Damascus government from stern international measures to remove him from office.
The White House feels that it has the moral high ground, but Russia has been careful to operate within the letter of international law. The Assad government is the legal, recognized government of Syria, so Russian military aid and Russian naval visits to Syrian ports are perfectly legal — however infuriating they are to the White House and whatever can be said about them from a humanitarian point of view.Thanks to White House fumbling, Russia has been able to create a situation in which the Obama administration looks weak and ineffectual. The US can hardly stop Russian ships and arms deliveries, and it doesn’t want to help the rebels as openly as Russia is helping Assad. If Russia succeeds in helping Assad weather the revolutionary storm (as the Egyptian military seems to have weathered the storm in Cairo), then President Obama and US prestige more generally will have suffered a significant setback. They will have been outfoxed by the Kremlin and governments around the world will take note.There are still some levers the US can pull; most Arab states now want Assad out as badly or more than we do. In the end, Russia’s ability to manage the situation in Syria is even more limited than ours. Russian grandstanding ploys in the past (like Yeltsin’s 1994 dispatch of Russian troops to the Sarajevo airport) have led to failure and the sheer ugliness of the Assad regime’s vicious crackdown does not really help Putin’s image at home and abroad.But thanks to Washington’s strategic shortsightedness, shoot-from-the-lip leadership style and moral posturing over Syria, the Obama administration has given Moscow its best opportunity since the fall of the Soviet Union to reinsert itself back into the Middle East.Whatever smart diplomacy may be, this isn’t it.