(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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