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.