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(Not) Responding to Russia
Has the White House Given Up on Confronting Russia?

On Friday, the Obama Administration officially announced the end of its spectacularly unsuccessful $500 million plan to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels, The New York Times reports:

After struggling for years to identify groups in Syria that it can confidently support, the Obama administration on Friday abandoned its effort to build a rebel force inside Syria to combat the Islamic State. It acknowledged the failure of its $500 million campaign to train thousands of fighters and said whatever money remained would be used to provide lethal aid for groups already engaged in the battle.

Senior officials at the White House and the Pentagon said the strategy to pull fighters out of Syria, teach them advanced skills and return them to face the Islamic State had failed, in part because many of the rebel groups were more focused on fighting the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.

This latest decision is the most obvious manifestation of what Obama Administration officials have been telling the press for the past few days: the plan for Syria, in light of Russia’s intervention, is to do nothing to escalate the situation. There are no plans to send anti-aircraft weapons to moderate rebels being hit by Russian air strikes, for example. Eli Lake and Josh Rogin write that some White House advisors are even encouraging the President “to give up on toppling the Syrian regime.”

Administration officials, frustrated by years of their own inability to decisively solve the Syrian crisis, appear confident that the Russians will in due time get bogged down as well. It doesn’t help advocates of confronting Russia, of course, that the Europeans prefer “a more practical relationship,” as European Commissioner Jean-Claude Juncker said yesterday. Last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande handed Putin a not-insignificant win by agreeing to maintain the status quo in Ukraine. There is now some real doubt about whether the U.S.-led sanctions regime will hold next year.

Obama says he’s taking the long view, and we’re not totally unsympathetic to his argument. Putin is constrained by a weak domestic economy and, seemingly, by some embarrassingly limited military capabilities. Despite all its recent efforts, Russia is not the power it used to be. Nevertheless, we hope the President has not forgotten why the United States traditionally takes such interest in the Middle East. It isn’t just for humanitarian reasons, or because we like messing around with other people’s problems: if instability radiates from Syria and disrupts the flow of oil from Saudi Arabia, the effects on a fragile world economy would be serious. Putin may well lose in the end here. But that doesn’t mean we, or any of our allies, won’t get seriously hurt too.

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  • Fat_Man

    • worried_european

      Perfect! And I suspect a phase encapsulating the Russo-Iranian backed Assad strategy in due course: “Pound Raqqa into a parking lot”. Good luck to them.

    • Room_237

      And that is the very problem. There is no national will for this. You want to pound half of Syria and Iraq into a parking lot? IO don’t. Do you? Does anyone?

      Maybe the best thing is to do nothing, Stay out of it, but watch things closely.

      • bannedforselfcensorship

        One of the worst things Obama did, was not just pulling troops out of Iraq, but he pulled everything: he pulled our intelligence teams, too.

  • Kevin

    Obama and his toadies forget there is a way for Russia and Iran to solve their Syrian problem: kill several million Syrians. They seem to think that because a hearts and minds campaigns won’t work that the use of force is doomed to fail.

  • gabrielsyme

    …why the United States traditionally takes such interest in the Middle East. It isn’t just for humanitarian reasons, or because we like messing around with other people’s problems: if instability radiates from Syria and disrupts the flow of oil from Saudi Arabia, the effects on a fragile world economy would be serious.

    This is a pretty horrible reason to intervene militarily in the region – such interventions would be far more justifiable if undertaken for humanitarian reasons. “The spice must flow” has never been a very good justification for sending young men to war.

    • Tom

      If the world economy crashes hard enough, there will also be war. If the flow of spice is preventing a larger war, then it is a very good justification for a smaller war.

      • gabrielsyme

        Economic factors could be a part of why to intervene, but I don’t think they can ever morally justify such an intervention. Preventative war is morally fraught even when it is specific and based on sound intelligence and meets the other criteria for a just war, but a preventative war when it is based on unspecified and speculative risk factors like an economic crash? Hard to imagine such a war being just.

        • Tom

          That is not as much of a “speculative” risk factor as you imply. And the fact is that an unhealthy economy does kill people, and not just idiot bankers.

          And, finally, for those who don’t have as high-minded motives, you need to explain that there are material reasons for intervention.

        • texasjimbo

          To the contrary, humanitarian reasons should almost always be secondary at most. The moral issues at stake are much to complex and our ability to impose a durable, moral solution too limited. The very notion of fighting a war for humanitarian reasons (except in the broadest terms, like WWII being a moral war on the part of the US) will inevitably lead to us fighting the war in a manner which ensures no clear victory, does not adequately deter the evil doer, and thus often emboldening that actor and harming its victims more.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    Obama is the worst President in American History. Mark Steyn asks the question: “If Obama was an enemy of America, what would he be doing differently?”. Answer: Nothing.

  • psully

    Obama is either extremely naïve and ignorant or he is intentionally damaging the United States. He is abandoning the Syrian rebels and just watching Putin bomb them into oblivion. This surely is making our allies in the region like Saudi Arabia and Jordan, amongst others, very nervous. They are wondering if they will get the same treatment if the rubber ever meets the road. Putin has pretty much destroyed half of Assad’s enemies and will finish them off in short order. Then he will entice the European powers to drop all the Ukrainian sanctions by promising to give ISIS the same fate the Syrian rebels received. China has brought an aircraft carrier to the region and will be joining Russia in the bombing party. As they bomb the US is being sternly told to stay away from their newly minted islands in the South China sea or risk being bombed as well. Iraq is practically begging Putin to bomb ISIS in their country and Putin is sure to let China in on the fun. As Putin eliminates sanctions and consolidates power in the middle east, the moron in chief Obama talks of new world order and stresses that Putin is making grave mistakes. Putin, meanwhile, is sending in 150,000 “volunteers” to make mincemeat out of whatever few thousand rebels and ISIS fighters that want their 72 virgins and have not yet ran as fast as Olympic sprinters out of Syria. Obama will be forced to explain how Putin defeated ISIS in two months after we spent years trying and achieved nothing. The platitudes and attitudes he espouses should be rich.

    • Jim__L

      We could cause Putin’s adventure in the Middle East to be a grave mistake, if we were willing to throw the same sort of support behind his enemies (regardless of their point of view on Title IX) that we gave to the mujaheddin back in the 80’s.

      Or, Putin might be making a grave mistake by trying to pacify the Middle East without being willing to use Saddamlike (or Assadlike, or ISISlike) brutality.

      From what I understand of Obama’s will and Putin’s will, I have to conclude that if Putin is making any grave mistakes here, they’re not the ones Obama has in mind. He might not be making any at all, unless it turns out that giving latent Defense conservatives something (if not someone) to rally around during the GOP primaries is a mistake.

  • Arkeygeezer

    “It acknowledged the failure of its $500 million campaign to train
    thousands of fighters and said whatever money remained would be used to
    provide lethal aid for groups already engaged in the battle.”

    Great, more arms that will end up being used by ISIS. Putin is right, there is no difference between ISIS and ‘moderate militants.”

  • growapair

    Not sure the last 3 words in this article’s title were necessary. It seems clearer every day that Obama’s long view is for the US to leave the Middle Eastern powers to sort out regional matters for themselves. This process is already underway with the Saudis bombing Yemen and Hezbollah now fighting alongside Assad’s forces. Putin surely cannot believe his luck and with his Iranian allies can be expected to make further gains in regional influence by the day. If the situation persists, any regional allies the US still has will face the reality of having to make new alliances with the players left in the game.

    Savings in US blood and treasure will no doubt be good news with the voters in the short term. But the President ought perhaps to be clearer about the ultimate cost of his grand ‘opt-out’ strategy: America may just wake up one fine day to discover that the Middle East and wider Asian continent has moved on. A Sino-Russian denominated super continent will surely ensue and any strategic position the US had will be vastly diminished. Perhaps Obama’s insight is a resignation to the inevitability of this outcome – that would explain a lot.

    • Room_237

      Moved on where though? Maybe it is time to tend our own gardens and let the Middle East tend theirs.

  • Corlyss

    Given up? It never intended to “confront Russia” on anything. From the beginning Obama has signed acquiescence to Russia’s claims for a “sphere of influence.” IOW it has been busy pissing away all the gains of the cold war in limiting Russia and acting as a beacon of freedom to the captive nations of East Europe.

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