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Checkers vs. Chess
Putin’s Strong Move in Syria

When Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted that he was moving military assets to Syria last week, it appears that the Obama Administration was caught completely flat-footed.

Secretary of State John Kerry spoke on the phone with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov twice in four days this week to express his concerns, but Lavrov apparently brushed him off, saying that nothing out of the ordinary was underway. Then today, at a press conference, Lavrov warned of “undesired, unintended consequences” due to the lack of direct communication between U.S. and Russian forces. “We are always in favor of military people talking to each other in a professional way. They understand each other very well,” he said. “If, as John Kerry has said many times, the United States wants those channels frozen, then be our guest.”

Increasing the chances of just the kind of incident Lavrov warned of appears to be exactly what the Russians are up to: Russia is preparing for a real show of force off the Syrian coast next week. Reuters:

A source close to the Russian navy told Reuters a squadron of five Russian ships equipped with guided missiles had set off to conduct maneuvers in Syrian waters.

“They will train to repulse an attack from the air and to defend the coast, which means firing artillery and testing short-range air defense systems, ” the source said, adding that the exercise had been agreed with the Syrian government.

Russia on has given notice of several rounds of navy drills with rocket firing tests in the sea off Syria from Sept. 8 to Oct. 7, according to Cypriot aviation authorities and international governmental databases of notices for airmen. Some flight paths will be temporarily closed.

And to spice up the situation, the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, has sent hundreds of troops into Syria to coordinate with the Russians. (Apparently, the decision to do so was made when Soleimani flew to meet with Putin in Moscow in direct violation of a UN travel ban.)

The White House has been scrambling to come up with a response, but, according to Josh Rogin, is coming up largely empty:

There is concern inside the Obama administration, even among those who advocate for confronting Russian actions in Syria, that the U.S. has no real leverage to fight back. If Obama decides not to accept the Russian air force presence in Syria, he would have several options, all of which have drawbacks or limitations.

The U.S. could impose new sanctions on Russia, although the current punishments related to Ukraine have not changed Putin’s calculus, and there’s little chance European countries would join in on a new round. The U.S. might warn Russia that its base is fair game for the opposition to attack, but that could spur Putin to double down on the deployment. The U.S. could try to stop the flow of Russian arms, but that would mean pressuring countries such as Iraq to stand up to Putin and Iran, which they might not agree to.

All those concerns are well-founded. But what the Obama Administration doesn’t seem to fully grasp is that this situation is largely of its own making.

By not having any discernible, coherent policy for Syria apart from ensuring that the United States does as little as possible, they have created a vacuum, one that Putin has now decided to fill. What exactly the Russians see as the endgame in Syria is hard to judge at this point, but it is clear that they intend to influence the facts on the ground so that they will have an authoritative say in the matter.

If President Obama doesn’t like it, he has no one to blame but himself.

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  • Gene

    At a time when there is some additional pressure for the US to do a little more re Syria, isn’t this Russian move the best news possible for Obama? After all, our president doesn’t really care whether Assad stays or goes, does he? So if Russian involvement brings the eventual end of this clusterf**k closer it can be spun as a good thing. And, if Russia is making a huge strategic mistake and pays a terrible price, the non-interventionists can then use that failure as a clear example that they’re right about the likely effects of intervention! Win-win as far as the Administration and isolationists everywhere are concerned.

    • bannedforselfcensorship

      Obama said Asad must go. If he’s changed his mind or was just saying that to look tough, then you are correct.

      • Gene

        He’s been walking that back, certainly in deed but also in word, for some time now.

      • JR

        At this point, does anyone really care what Barack Obama says? A man can lie only so many times before everybody just kind of sort of ignores him.

  • JR

    I’m no fan of Obama or his foreign policy, but having Russia involved in a bloody civil war in the Middle East is not the worst thing that can happen for the US. So they have influence over some worthless piece of desert? Who gives a flying #@$$ as long as price of oil doesn’t go up? And lest we forget, these adventures cost a lot of money, money that Russia may not have.

    • bannedforselfcensorship

      End of the day, would you prefer Asad or ISIS?

      or keep them fighting each other?

      Our do little policy seems to achieve the latter.

      • JR

        Given the 3 options, one has to be an extreme partisan of either ISIS or Asad to not full throatedly cheer as these people slaughter each other. Which is why, despite thinking that Obama is by far the worst President in my lifetime and that the damage he has done to American institutions is deep and lasting, I don’t mind Obama’s “do little policy” in Syria. Given a choice between Obama doing something or doing nothing, doing nothing is always preferable.

        • GS

          Were he to do anything, either in syria or anywhere else, it would be a fundamentally wrong thing he would be doing [a civilizational alien could do nothing else, and nothing less]. Therefore, doing nothing is the best one could hope for.

  • Blackbeard

    What difference, at this point, does it make? U.S. influence in the ME is shot for a generation at least. Obama has accomplished his goal. This is what the world looks like when the U.S. stands down. Rejoice liberals this is what you’ve always wanted.

    • bannedforselfcensorship

      Honestly, long-term maybe this is better. But it will be a long, slow messy pull out.

      BTW, migrants and Europeans are blaming the US for creating this problem.

      Nice to know we get blamed either way.

  • Nevis07

    This is what Obama’s ‘don’t do anything at all’ foreign policy has gotten us. Not that I want to be involved in another ME war, but we should have either had boots on the ground early to avoid where this war has gone, or we should have not gotten involved at all. I said boot on the ground years ago, but that’s just me.

    We know that Obama is so feeble that he won’t risk an accidental confrontation with Russia – actually this is probably a good idea, to confront a bully you need a pair of stones, this administration would do irreparable damage to America’s image. The real danger is that other countries continue to observe America being pushed around. China, for example, will definitely be taking notice; this makes me wonder if China will press an advantage soon before a new administration comes to office.

    Perhaps the best we can do at this point is to run an effective clandestine operation against Russia – for example, what would happen if all of the refugees were to suddenly get the impression that Chechnya were opening it’s arms wide open to them? But then, I’d feel bad for the refugees, but perhaps better than being slaughter by Turkey. The Kurds and non-Muslim groups will be hunted down if the US withdraws. So congratulations President Obama, you’ve created the genocide you tried so hard to avoid!!

    • Gene

      Your comment about a lack of stones alludes to a point that really should get more attention: Even if we decide that intervention of some kind is necessary, under no circumstances would our current leadership implement it properly. This administration would not merely fall short of the ideal but would make a complete hash of it. I often hear versions of this idea stated mostly as a joke, but it’s actually a very serious consideration.

      • Nevis07

        Right, and unfortunately we’re left drifting along a path of indecision. If we want to act then we need to act with authority; half-measures don’t work as countries like Russia, China and Iran can practically smell the indecision from the other side of the world. It’s why countries continue to test this administration (and continue to get away with it). It’s not even a lack of a “grand strategy,” it’s the lack of conviction.

  • Daniel Nylen

    Wait a minute and let me see if this is right: The Russians, Iranians, and Syria and their smaller agents on one side, and their religious opponents, Saudis, ISIS, Egypt, maybe on the other or maybe still fighting each other. Why do we care now? Earlier when we may have been able to prevent this okay, but now?

    I’m normally of the opinion that we should be in line with the Russians most of the time as I see the clash of civilizations as the biggest issue– with Russia as generally a Christian nation and not becoming an Islamic one. With a widening war, millions of refugees and the escalating conflict heading nuclear, at what point do we invest in US shale oil?

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