It’s an odd partnership that has brought Syria back to the front lines of public debate, but the stream of refugees — and the reactions they are provoking while on their way into Europe — is regularly on the nightly news and the front pages of the Los Angeles Times. The raw numbers have been enough to force the European Union, the Vatican, and the United States to take notice; each has responded by agreeing to take in a percentage of the masses escaping from ISIS and the four-year old Syrian civil war. In the midst of this mess Pentagon officials note an allegedly isolated Russia has deployed a detachment of marines, tanks, and artillery in support of the Syrian state. Their response to European and American objections? A yawn, what Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called a “strange hysteria,” while noting that “Russia has never made a secret of its…cooperation with the Syrian Arab Republic.” Russia’s well-known maintenance of a cold-war era naval facility at Tartus, its involvement in a bargain that spared Bashar Assad’s regime the brunt of airstrikes in retaliation for use of chemical weapons, the quiet acceptance of its newly minted airbase at Latakia, and the success of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s search for support in Syria’s war against ISIS help to explain Ms. Zakharova’s confusion.
Those objections are at the heart of the issue now because they point out the vacuum left by American and European negligence. Their reluctance is sensible given what intervention has brought to Lybia, but Russia has taken advantage of it to back up Bashar Assad. So has Hezbollah. The US and EU? Nothing. Despite President Obama’s well-publicized “red line,” British drone strikes and French reconnaissance there has been no concerted effort to remove President Assad from power equivalent to the one keeping him in Damascus. A no-fly zone? Nothing. Arms and training for the Free Syrian Army? Nope. Nothing at all to back up rhetoric like President Obama’s claim that Syria’s war will only end with “an inclusive political transition to a new government without Bashar Assad.” The price of years of western indecisiveness and inaction is being paid in Berlin, Belgrade, and Budapest. The toll has led to German criticism of their EU compatriots and Hungarian use of razor wire and tear gas to defend its borders. The rise of ISIS and their gains in Iraq and Syria, as well as their moves into Lybia and Afghanistan, are driving and deepening the current exodus. Their success against President Assad’s forces may be what is drawing President Vladimir Putin’s attention and forcing Russia’s hand because he has no interest in abandoning a long-time ally.
The response from Washington to Moscow’s “Arms for Assad” program isn’t all that different from its response to Russia’s moves into Ukraine. Rhetoric. President Obama promised to make it clear that Russia cannot “continue to double down on a strategy that is doomed to fail,” while trying to lure them into the coalition launching airstrikes against ISIS. While President Obama is trying to talk Russia out of supporting the Assad regime Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov is trying to convince the US and its allies to team up with Syria to overthrow ISIS. The bottom line is it’s decision time at the White House and the topic is priority: either bring regime change to Damascus or destroy the caliphate in Raqqa. The problem for this White House is that means either provoking the Russian bear or — potentially — teaming up with the Assad regime against ISIS. Assuming its priority is ISIS, an accord with Syrian forces that would bring them into the coalition might be President Obama’s only choice given his well-known distaste for “boots on the ground” and the relative failure of his administration’s program to arm and train Syrian rebels. In either case the pressure for a change in American strategy is building, and will only intensify so long as the Russo/Syrian alliance remains unchallenged and refugees continue to stream into Europe.