WASHINGTON – Contrary to popular belief, President Barack Obama does have a plan for Syria. It’s just not one that promises to have much immediate impact on the course of the brutal civil war.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, by contrast, has a plan that is far bolder and much more likely to produce results on the ground – but only in the short term. I struggle to understand all the handwringing in Washington about the implications of Putin’s intervention for “American leadership.” We’re unprepared to wade in – for good reason, in my view – and thus in no position to do much of anything about Russia’s foray.
From the start, Obama’s bottom-line goal has been to avoid getting dragged into a multi-sided conflict in which the lines between good guys and bad guys are faint and shifting. The president has been cautious in sending arms to the “moderate” rebels seeking to oust dictator Bashar al-Assad, fearing those weapons would fall into the hands of the Islamic State or other jihadist forces. Events have proved Obama right.
Last month, the Pentagon admitted that one-fourth of a shipment of vehicles and ammunition intended for U.S.-trained “good” rebels was quickly handed over to the radical Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate. This is the first time U.S. officials have acknowledged such a weapons transfer but reportedly not the first time it has happened.
The big problem is that our most important goal in Syria is different from that of the non-jihadist rebels we support. The overriding American interest, as defined by Obama, is to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State. U.S. airstrikes are designed to further that end, with a major focus being support of rebel forces seeking to recapture Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital in the eastern part of the country.
For many of the rebels, however, the Islamic State is a secondary target. Their principal aim is deposing Assad, whose scorched-earth campaign to retain power is responsible for most of the death and destruction in the country – and the exodus of millions of refugees who have flooded neighboring countries and created a crisis in Europe.
So, according to foreign policy hawks, we’re supposed to give substantially more weapons and air support to rebels whose goals are not the same as ours? That dog don’t hunt, and I’m glad Obama remains so cautious.
Putin, by contrast, has a single proxy in Syria and a clear goal: keeping Assad in power. Why should this be a surprise? Moscow has a decades-old relationship with the Assad family regime and a strategically valuable naval base in Syria. From Putin’s point of view, the “moderate” rebels – who are stronger in the western part of the country, around the big cities of Aleppo and Damascus – are the more consequential threat.
That is why the first Russian airstrikes were against “good” rebels rather than “bad” ones. By no means would I ever defend Putin’s Syria policy, which is morally bankrupt. But it’s important to understand it.
Inevitably, there have already been reports of civilian casualties from the Russian bombing campaign. But the tragic U.S. bombing Saturday of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, gives Russian officials a convenient retort: We regret that there is always unfortunate collateral damage in war.
Which brings me to the underlying lesson from the Kunduz accident: Be careful how you choose your friends. The U.S. airstrike reportedly was called in by Afghan military officers, who either made a terrible mistake or had their own reasons for wanting the hospital bombed. In Syria’s bloody crazy-quilt landscape, where we have even less reliable allies on the ground, the possibilities for such deadly mistakes are myriad.
All of the above makes Syria a place to tread lightly and carefully. Putin’s action has provoked calls for Obama to do something, anything, and I’m sure the Republican presidential candidates will have lots of bellicose advice. Most will involve action the president might have taken several years ago, when the war began; only Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has a real alternative plan of action – send tens of thousands of U.S. troops into Syria and Iraq – and he’s barely registering 1 percent in the polls.
The simple fact is that Russia has a clear way to achieve its immediate goals in Syria while the United States does not. Obama’s continued reluctance to act for action’s sake is prudent – and presidential. He is right to keep the national interest in mind, not the national ego.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.