There is a time for words and a time for action. Vladimir Putin plainly understands when the appropriate time and place is for both while Barack Obama remains woefully ignorant. Russia’s intentions and long-term goals in Syria and the entire Middle East go beyond its stated goal to combat ISIS. Simultaneously, US efforts to counter or contain the Russian moves through diplomacy are rapidly unravelling. The stage is nearly set for a showdown between the US and Russia over Syria, whether Washington and Moscow want it or not.
Russian efforts in Syria are increasing in numbers and intensity. For the fourth day now, Russian aircraft have hit targets across Syria. Russian military sources claim that 60 sorties have been flown in the last 72 hours. Moscow has stated that the strikes were launched against ISIS targets using precision-guided munitions. Western military officials have rebuked this claim, however. The British have stated that just one out of every twenty strikes have targeted ISIS. The remainder have been against Western and Gulf-backed opposition groups.
It has been clear from the beginning that the Russian intervention was going to be aimed at supporting the forces and government of Bashar al-Assad. Moscow’s primary objective in Syria is to keep al-Assad in power. ISIS simply provides a convenient justification for Russia’s entrance into the conflict. The fact that Russian munitions are falling on Western supported rebels is proof of this. It is Assad’s continued reign of Syria that constitutes the raison d’être for Russia’s involvement in Syria.
In the grand scheme of things, Russia’s expedition into Syria is part of a greater effort to expand its influence and power. Right now, we are seeing the potential formation of a new power bloc in the region with Iran, Syria and Iraq as junior partners and Russia as the major player. In a preview of the new power bloc’s military cooperation, Iran has expanded its efforts in Syria too.
To be realistic, Syria is nothing more than an instrument that Russia is using to become an influential power in the Middle East. The life or death of the al-Assad regime has not been of major concern to Vladimir Putin until now. Ensuring its survival presents an opportunity that Moscow would be foolish to ignore. There’s also a strong possibility that China could be included in the mixture. Reports from Israeli intelligence indicate that the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning and an accompanying escort vessel are in Syrian waters and the PLAN is preparing to conduct flight operations in Syria. If this proves to be accurate, the Syrian conflict will take on a new dimension.
The United States has responded to Russian actions with words. President Obama has spoken out against the airstrikes numerous times in the last seventy two hours. He has denounced the Russian actions and predicted that Moscow’s effort will fail. Obama has said that Russia is acting “not out of strength but out of weakness.” His statements have done nothing to deter Russia from continuing on the path it is on. Words, as we have seen all too many times, are useless without firm action to back them up. So far, Obama’s policy in Syria has been anything but firm. As the situation continues to deteriorate, the US is finding itself with diminishing control of events. Coalition airstrikes will continue and the arming of US supported opposition rebels is said to be increasing. But will that be enough?
As it stands now, probably not.