Jan. 22, 2016
With the wounds still healing from what came to be regarded as a dragged out presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is no wonder that President Obama exercised extreme hesitation in entering the Syrian catastrophe that has seen around 250,000 deaths since it began in 2011. After four years of teetering, the humanitarian nightmare became too calamitous and the threat of ISIS elevated marginally on the worldwide stage. Obama could not avoid what seemed to be inevitable—US intervention. This intervention is far from haphazard, however. In his deployment of troops, Obama has been extremely judicious in each of his moves, as one misstep could lead to a complete deterioration of both the situation in the Middle East, as well as US-Russian relations. The latter of which poses a less immediate threat, yet could ultimately be more costly.
It is no secret that the United States and Russia, who refused to join the fifteen-nation coalition aimed at destroying ISIS and restoring peace, possess less than trusting relations, but the iciness between the nations is now being exhibited internationally, with Syria as the stage. Russian president Vladimir Putin has supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since the onset of the crisis, despite his use of chemical weapons on his own citizens. In addition to the commercial interest Putin has in preserving Assad’s power, Putin views him as perhaps the last strong dictator of the Middle East, one free of Western influence. It is for this reason that 70% of all Russian air strikes in the area target anti-Assad rebels, a group that the US has spent vast amounts of resources on to support. Though the Kremlin maintains that its number one priority is the restoration of peace in Syria and the annihilation of ISIS, one anonymous US official has said, “We are not convinced of what the Russian intentions are.”
Indeed, with each move that Putin orders, the mystery that is Russia’s ultimate end game becomes increasingly unclear. On one hand, Russia has established an expanded air defense system in the northern region of the country, halting essentially all American air strikes on Assad’s army; yet on the other hand, Russia has joined the US in their support for Kurdish fighters, likely because the Kurds agreed to a nonaggression pact with Assad’s army, so there are no conflicts of interest on the Russian front. An anonymous senior Defense Department official criticized the Russians for, “trying to play both sides of the fence.” Their support for both President Assad, whose regime openly discriminates against the Kurds, and Kurdistan, whose efforts toward independence have routinely been squashed by Assad in the past, is a clear contradiction.
The only possible explanation for this equivocal Russian strategy is actually far simpler than Putin’s surreptitious regime would have you believe—no matter the outcome, Russia wants to emerge as the hero in Syria. Russia views this crisis as an opportunity to surpass the United States as the top dog in the international community. While ISIS poses as an immediate threat to the US and the rest of the world alike, if Russia is successful in becoming the dominant external force in the Middle East, it could lead to far more significant consequences in the long run. This would find Russia to be in a position to form the shape of the region for the next generation, which, if its present attitude is any indication of what it will be inclined to support down the line, would include more tyranny and government oppression of its peoples. In the past, Middle Eastern dictators have been relatively constrained in their global impact. Yet with a powerful nation such as Russia propping them up, future dictators would prove to be a more serious threat to the rest of the world.
It is for this reason that President Obama and his coalition cannot afford to fail in Syria. The president must act carefully yet forcefully, with both assertion and foresight. Very few people in the global landscape deny that ISIS and other executors of chaos in the Middle East ought to be stopped immediately. But the prospects of another elongated American intervention and Russia emerging from the situation as the primary influencer in the region both provide ample justification for a more balanced approach. It is up to Obama to lay out the framework for that balanced approach before it is too late.