Assad the Prop

Russian President Vladimir Putin is orchestrating the performance of his life, using Syria as the stage on which he proclaims Moscow’s reemergence as the third Rome and drives a spike into what he describes as Washington’s democratization and regime change jihad.  Having declared war on the Islamic State (ISIL, ISIS, or Daesh) in Syria, he is waging it instead against the real, non-ISIL enemies of his client, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, including armed elements that have received American support.  Now, to drive home the point that he stands for good order, international law, and support for legitimate governments, Putin has summoned Assad to the Kremlin to serve as an on-stage prop.  The barrel bomber-in-chief had little choice in the matter, and seems to have played his role adequately.

What Putin aims for ultimately in this costly show of force is to present President Barack Obama with the mother of all bad choices: Assad or ISIL. This is why Russian aircraft hammer everyone but ISIL.  This is why ISIL armed elements assault Syrian rebel positions soon after they are bombed by Russian jets, as if the Russian Federation Air Force is the tactical air arm of the pseudo-caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.  Indeed, this is precisely what it is, at least for the time being.  Putin’s top priority is, with Iran, to help Assad marginalize and defeat all non-ISIL, non-regime armed elements in Syria.  He and Iran’s Supreme Leader want Assad and Baghdadi to be the only two political figures of any salience left standing in Syria.  Ironically, this suits the ersatz caliph just fine.

Moscow and Tehran are helping Assad win a bet he made at the outset of the Syrian crisis: if I can somehow make this a battle between me and violent, terrorist extremism, I can force those calling for my ouster to crawl back into my good graces.  Indeed, if Putin succeeds in forcing President Obama to eat his August 2011 “step aside” words and then make common cause with the Assad regime, it would be a major humiliation for Washington and a victory of cosmic proportions for Moscow.

Notwithstanding President Obama’s inclination to see Putin’s Syria adventure as a big mistake that the Mussolini of the 21st century will, in the fullness of time, regret, some in the administration are aware of the peril and are applying rhetorical inoculations.  As Secretary of State John Kerry noted on October 20, “And more specifically on Syria, everyone should understand, Assad—it’s not our choice, not me—it’s not us saying, oh, Assad’s a bad guy or (inaudible)—there’s no way in a country that has been—its citizens have been gassed, tortured, barrel bombed, starved, several hundred thousand killed, in which three-quarters of the country is displaced people and refugees—how does the person who’s done that to his own people claim legitimacy going forward?”  Fair enough.  But what happens if Putin, Khamenei, and Assad win?  What if they reduce matters to Assad versus Baghdadi?

For the Assad regime, its supporters, and its apologists, this binary situation is the dream scenario.  For those observers who have denied the relevance of Syrian nationalist rebels and who have posited Assad alone versus Baghdadi alone as an already existing fact of life, Russia’s current combat aim would be an embarrassment, if only shame were a factor.  No doubt analysts in this camp hope that the combination of Russian air assets, Iraqi militiamen summoned by Iran, and what is left of the Syrian Arab Army can make quick work of the nationalists and create—albeit ex post facto—the desired ground truth.

The choice facing the Obama administration is to accede to Putin’s script and his directorship—all the while clucking over a supposed big mistake that will, on its own, backfire and further destabilize Syria to the gross disbenefit of Syrians, their neighbors, and all of western Europe—or to undermine it.  The view here is that Putin, left to his own devices, may indeed be embarking on a major miscalculation.  But the price—in Syria, in the region, and beyond—will be prohibitive if months elapse before he recognizes his error and scales the effort back to the vanishing point.

President Putin needs assistance now in recognizing that his behavior is self-destructive.  If President Obama decides that protection of Syrian civilians from the Assad regime is a humanitarian imperative and an anti-ISIL warfighting necessity, there are means at his disposal to complicate the ability of the regime to deliver barrel bombs effortlessly.  If he decides that the war against ISIL in Syria requires a professional ground combat component sufficiently strong to sweep the caliph’s forces from the country and permit the Syrian opposition to establish a government on liberated territory, he needs to commission a major diplomatic heavy lift aimed at recruiting regional powers to provide the requisite forces.  Protecting Syrian civilians and moving decisively on the ground against ISIL would complicate the operations of Russian military aviation and remove Mr. Putin’s false pretext for entering Syria.

None of the foregoing would be easy.  Indeed, the suspicion here is that the administration will attempt none of it.  As comfortable as the Obama team is with words, it is at sea operationally.  Seeing as it does Iraq 2003 as the quintessence of America abroad, the guiding principle of the administration is to “avoid stupid stuff.”  This translates into self-doubt and inaction, and Putin knows it.

Leaving Russia free to do as it wishes to house its stage prop indefinitely in Syria’s presidential palace is hardly a risk-free option.  It may prove reckless.  Although this administration may be able to duck and cover for the balance of its days, it may end up bequeathing to its successor not only a live, erupting volcano in Syria, but a bilateral relationship where Moscow assumes Washington—not just a particular administration—has run its course.  It would be dangerous and destabilizing for Moscow to reach this conclusion, but sadly not—based on what it has seen of American policy toward Syria—altogether unreasonable.

Frederic C. Hof is a Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Image: (Photo: Flickr/Beshr Abdulhadi)