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Like “nature or nurture” in child rearing, historians can argue about the importance of the individual in the rise and fall of nations – the Mongols without Genghis Khan; the ancient Persians without Cyrus; the Romans without Julius Ceasar; Germany without Hitler; England without Winston Churchill. Vladimir Putin has benefited from vast energy resources, a weak Europe, and a weaker Barack Obama, but he has certainly brought Mother Russia back from the chaos and international irrelevance bequeathed to him by Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin.
Understanding the new Syrian setting requires understanding what Putin wants.
1. Russia will be able to demonstrate to its neighbors and the Middle East that it shares the world stage with the United States – “its equal in power and its superior in cunning and diplomacy” as George Friedman of Stratfor describes the positioning. Coupled with the NSA/Edward Snowden fiasco, Putin is on a roll and the countries that once made up the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies are recalibrating their foreign policies.
2. Russia has its own problem with Islamist extremists, having fought two brutal wars in Chechnya in the 90s and endured subsequent terrorist attacks at a school in in Beslan and various sites in Moscow as well as lingering unrest in Dagestan, South Ossetia, and parts of Georgia. The last thing that Putin, who himelf was directly involved in the the Caucasus in his KGB days, wants is for Islamist radicals in the Caucasus to gain access to chemical weapons from Syria.
3. Centuries of Russian geopolitics have involved a reach for warm water ports, with the Black Sea Fleet bottled up at the Dardanelles by Turkey. The Russian navy enjoys a small base at Tartus, Syria where they can perform replenishment and minor repair of ships in the Mediterranean. The alliance has been strong since the 70s, even as Russia withdrew from most foreign facilities with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
What we want is much less clear. In his September 10 speech, President Obama stressed the need to punish Assad for his use of chemical weapons, but stressed that the strike would be what John Kerry called “unbelievably small“, and would not involve “boots on the ground”, open ended commitments, or extended air and missile efforts like those in Kosovo or Libya. He also left out specific American objectives and strategies for Syria, or a timeline for implementing Putin’s plan or taking any action.
Instead, the White House grabbed the accidental opportunity to back away from doing anything, claiming that Putin had put the proposal forward and now “owns it”. So now Kerry is off to Geneva to work out the details: will a UN resolution threaten force if Assad does not comply? (Russia says “no”); what is the timeline for gaining control and destroying Assad’s weapons?; how will ongoing compliance be verified? In the meantime, Russia is continuing its extensive supply of weapons to the Assad regime, aid to the rebels remains largely on hold, and the weight of force on the battlefield remains increasingly in Assad’s favor.
If we had a Putin – or a Kissinger or a Reagan – there might be a deal which would result in a verifiable elimination of Assad’s chemical weapons, a long term plan to support the moderate rebels to the point where they supplant the radical Islamists, and a guarantee to Putin that he could keep his naval base in a neutral Syria. Unfortunately we have a seconc Jimmy Carter, and the world will get to watch the Russians prop Assad up while the Obama administration continues its global march to the rear.
For those seeking a ray of optimism, if Russia could recover from the damage done by Gorbochev and Yeltsin, the United States – with our vastly greater economy and military might – can eventually recover from the damage being done by Barack Obama.
This week’s video is a smaller 9/11 version of the annual Memorial Day Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally in Washington D.C. For some reason, the leaders could not get a permit while the American Muslim Political Action Committee did get one from the National Park Service for their 9/11 “Million Muslim March” which drew a few dozen participants to the Mall. (For younger generations, “Rolling Thunder” was the name for the air campaign over North Vietnam – a reflection of the politics of the Harley crowd.)
www.RightinSanFrancisco.com – 9/13/2013