Worldview: Obama soft-stepping in Syria doesn't move Putin

Posted: February 12, 2016

Vladimir Putin seems to be the only leader who knows what he's doing in Syria.

While the Obama team was desperately pursuing a diplomatic solution to the conflict, Putin was busy with more practical matters: cementing his proxy Bashar al-Assad in power by military force. Backed by indiscriminate Russian airpower, Syrian troops and foreign fighters trained by Iran have nearly encircled Syria's second-largest city, Aleppo, a key rebel base. At Thursday's talks in Munich, the United States, Russia and other powers agreed on a vague "cessation of hostilities" - not a formal ceasefire - that supposedly will take place in a week. This will secure Assad's military gains.

It's easy to imagine the message the Russians will convey to the United States and its NATO and Gulf allies in the coming days: Accept Russian terms for a Syria deal, meaning Assad remains indefinitely in power and the U.S.-backed opposition stands down. Or else Europe can expect an unending flood of Syrian civilians escaping siege, starvation, and barrel bombs.

Does President Obama have a Plan B? Or will he effectively acquiesce to Putin with a secret sigh of relief - never mind the dangerous consequences for Europe and the fight against ISIS? The answer will soon become clear.

It's easy to understand why most Arabs believe - although it's untrue - that the administration has made a deal with Moscow. The president's policy has reached a dead end.

Obama has insisted for four years that Assad must go. But he never seriously aided secular Syrian rebel groups, a course all his top security officials advised back in 2012, when it might have been possible. Instead, the White House handed the task to the Saudis, who armed Islamist jihadis.

Obama ignored his own red line against Assad's using chemical weapons, then let Putin save him from embarassment with an inadequate deal to remove the weapons. The president also ignored ISIS's rise in Syria for far too long, and was caught flat-footed when Russian forces moved into Syria last fall. Since then, the White House has clung to false hopes that Moscow might join the fight vs. ISIS or cooperate in the search for a diplomatic solution. For Putin, diplomacy was only a cover while he changed facts on the ground.

To his credit, Secretary of State John Kerry understood the need for a more muscular U.S. policy - such as a no-fly zone along the Syrian border - to give Washington leverage at the bargaining table. But the White House had endless excuses for avoiding further involvement.

Recognizing Obama's reluctance, the Russians have blatantly ignored U.N. Resolution 2254 (for which they voted), which calls for permitting humanitarian aid to besieged Syrian civilians. The Russians call anyone who opposes Assad a terrorist and are trying to destroy every rebel group except ISIS. This will enable Assad to present a binary choice between himself and ISIS. But ISIS must be permitted to survive to sustain this claim.

These Russian positions ensured the collapse of U.N.-brokered peace talks earlier this month before they formally started. Thursday's Munich meeting was supposed to monitor the talks but instead focused on getting aid to the new flood of refugees.

Kerry is now reduced to hoping the Russians will see the light and agree to a cease-fire. But Putin will no doubt hold off until Aleppo is completely besieged. And he will likely charge a high price for letting in humanitarian aid.

After all, it is to the benefit of Assad - a member of the Alawite (Shiite) minority - to ethnically cleanse Sunni civilians from areas once held by the rebels. Moreover, Putin and Assad will be happy to see a new migrant flood make life harder for the Europeans.

The refugee situation is growing worse by the day. I spoke by phone with Christy Delafield in Gaziantep, Turkey, a representative of Mercy Corps, a nonprofit that has been doing incredible work getting aid to 500,000 hungry and displaced people in Aleppo and surrounding towns. She described thousands of people fleeing on foot toward the Syrian-Turkish border on dangerous roads, then sleeping in the mud, as Mercy Corps tries to deliver food kits, tarps, and blankets. So far, Turkey is keeping most refugees out, but the pressure is growing.

The worsening Syrian catastrophe will put the spotlight on Obama. It is probably too late to effectively help splintered Syrian opposition groups. But capitulation to Putin - with some cover story that enables Assad to stay on indefinitely - won't resolve the Syrian conflict or help end the ISIS threat. Instead, it is likely to drive thousands of embittered Sunni youths into jihadi arms, whether inside Syria or elsewhere.

At minimum, the administration should get real about Putin and stop expecting him to respect humanitarian law. That isn't the way the game is played in Moscow.

So far, Russia is not losing men or much treasure in Syria. The Syrian tragedy is a case study in the failure of soft power to move authoritarian rulers without hard-power backup. Putin will only respect international norms if the other side pushes back against his maneuvers, and Obama has yet to convince him that he has something to lose.

trubin@phillynews.com

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