Just when you thought things in the Middle East could not get any worse.
Forty eight hours ago President Obama and Russian Czar Vladimir Putin addressed the UN General Assembly. In their prepared remarks each leader made it a point to harshly criticize their counterparts’ foreign policies.
Afterward the two met privately to discuss their differences. The conversation centered on Russia’s aggressive moves in Crimea and the Ukraine and its insertion of military arms, material and personnel into Syria. The president has said that ISIS must be defeated and that the Assad regime must be removed from power. Putin agrees that that ISIS must go but he wants the Assad regime, Russia’s best ally in the region, to remain a key player in any transition movement.
Off the record reports categorized the meeting as “icy.” Body language made it clear that the only thing these two leaders share is a palpable personal dislike for each other.
We are told that the leaders did agree to coordinate military efforts in taking the fight to ISIS. The US believed that there would be a series of meetings between US and Russian military personnel to coordinate their efforts. Evidently Mr. Putin does not share our government’s need for meetings and strategy. Less than 24 hours later a Russian military attaché marched into the US embassy in Bagdad and informed US representative that Russian airstrikes against ISIS targets would commence within the hour and that all US military aircraft should be grounded. Translation…Russia had just informed the US that it was imposing a no fly zone over the Syrian territory.
Russia is purported to have carried out 20 bombing runs against various targets in Syria. Some of the targets were known ISIS strongholds. However some of the bombing runs were aimed at areas occupied by the Syrian Free Army; American backed moderate rebels fighting against the Assad regime.
The Obama administration expressed outrage over the sudden Russian attacks; particularly those against US backed rebel groups. Secretary of State John Kerry was immediately dispatched to meet with his Russian counterparts. Clearly the US government was caught flatfooted; lulled into some false sense of cooperation by Putin.
The US had been working for months to cobble together a coalition of European partners and local Middle Eastern nations to defeat ISIS. Unwilling to ask a war weary nation to engage in another Middle Eastern conflict; the Obama administration had been working tirelessly to help the region defend itself. Unfortunately the process is like herding cats as most of the players have grown comfortable with the US playing the role of policeman and protector. With the US maintaining its distance a power vacuum has emerged.
Suddenly the Russians have inserted themselves into the void. The entire region has grown exponentially more complicated and dangerous. What happens if the Russians bump into Israeli or Turkish forces; allies that the US has sworn to protect.
Syria isn’t the only area of concern. Lest we forget Iraq is a mess and growing more fractious by the day. The Taliban have returned with vengeance in Afghanistan; taking and holding the city of Kunduz. Yemen and Libya are rudderless territories; safe havens for extremists like ISIS and Al Qaeda.
Naturally Republicans blame all of this on the “feckless” leadership of President Obama. Yet when asked what they would do specifically to resolve these issues they have no answer. Let us not forget that the Republican led congress yet to authorize the president’s yearlong air war against ISIS. Better to lob grenades from the sidelines and let the president take the heat. No profiles in courage here.
My guess is that Putin senses a weakness in the resolve of the American people and their leadership. He sees an opening that he feels he can exploit to his benefit. If his plan to keep Assad around works then he maintains his ally in the region. If it fails and Assad is forced out; then Putin assures himself a seat at the transition table. Meanwhile he demonstrates to the Russian people that he is keeping his promise to return the Motherland to its rightful leadership role in world events.
Putin has just challenged the United States to a turf war. It’s a very dangerous ploy that could have disastrous consequences.