Confusion reigns inside the Obama administration regarding Russia’s military campaign to bolster President Bashar Assad’s endangered Syrian regime. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intervention clearly caught President Obama flat-footed, and so far there is no sign Mr. Obama knows how to respond. His public defensiveness reinforces the impression of a man whose worldview is collapsing around him.
And since that worldview is most unlikely to change while Mr. Obama remains president, a certain aura of fiction surrounds efforts to prescribe what America should do in the meantime. If only to reassure our friends that America can still think strategically about the Middle East, however, we must consider plausible responses to Mr. Putin’s gambit.
Ironically, Mr. Obama himself has advocated the critical component: degrading and destroying ISIS. Unfortunately, his administration has palpably lacked seriousness in opposing ISIS, demonstrated by desultory bombing efforts and the embarrassing failure of Washington’s training program for Syria’s “moderate” opposition. This fecklessness provided Moscow a convenient opening to buttress Mr. Assad militarily against that very opposition, while purportedly targeting ISIS. Mr. Obama’s amazement that Russia basically lied about its intervention reveals the depths of Mr. Obama’s other-worldliness.
Not coincidentally, sealing the Vienna deal on Iran’s nuclear-weapons program opened a tactical window for Russia and Iran to act. Mr. Putin and the mullahs could strike Mr. Assad’s enemies without jeopardizing years of nuclear negotiations, and they will now be able to defray their Syria expenses by tapping Iran’s soon-to-be-unfrozen financial assets.
Mr. Putin’s coalition (Iran, the pro-Iran Baghdad regime, Assad and Hezbollah) is not one America should join to destroy ISIS. Instead, we should mobilize NATO-member Turkey, non-terrorist Kurds, the Arabian Peninsula’s oil-producing monarchies, Egypt and others. This Sunni/secular alliance, led by Washington (hopefully including at least some Europeans), is the vehicle to destroy the Islamic State, while keeping in mind — and at bay — Iran’s continuing nuclear and terrorist threats.
This is not just a season’s work, given the time and opportunity Mr. Obama has squandered since ISIS surged from eastern Syria into Iraq. ISIS has exploited the absence of effective U.S. action to expand and consolidate its control over substantial territory, and is already taking advantage of Russian strikes against other Syrian opposition forces to advance even further.
We must start by recognizing that Middle Eastern boundaries are not what they once were. Iraq and Syria have essentially disappeared as states. Therefore, our objective should be a new Sunni state where ISIS now rules, carved from Iraq and Syria, one that is either democratic or led, to paraphrase Franklin Roosevelt, by one of our SOB’s. And, sooner or later, we should recognize the reality that an independent Kurdistan now exists, even if not declared de jure.
A forceful U.S.-led effort to destroy ISIS would have several benefits. First, it would graphically expose Russia’s Syria ploy. Second, it would undercut Mr. Putin’s implicit argument to Europe that calming the Middle East and halting the massive refugee flows can only be achieved by stabilize Mr. Assad’s regime. Third, Mr. Putin’s use of that argument was very likely also aimed at convincing the European Union to weaken or lift the economic sanctions imposed because of Russia’s previous incursions into Ukraine; a strong response against ISIS would enhance the credibility of our support for Ukraine. Finally, if Mr. Putin was contemplating provocations in the Baltic Republics or elsewhere in Moscow’s Cold War domains before Jan. 20, 2017, assertive American action against ISIS would give him pause.
Until Mr. Obama departs the White House in 15 months, Washington must not do anything perceived as legitimizing Moscow’s new Latakia air base, or the presence of Russian aircraft and cruise missiles in the skies over the region. The suggestion that we exchange deconfliction codes with Russia is what the French call a fausse bonne idee, a superficially appealing bad idea.
Deconfliction is how friendly forces keep out of each other’s way. In the first Persian Gulf War, Israel requested deconfliction, but President Bush 41 refused, aiming to prevent Israeli planes from undertaking operations against Iraq. We should remember that lesson. We do not want Russian planes in Syria’s skies, and we should not do anything to facilitate them. Instead, we should make it clear to Moscow that we will fly over Syria and Iraq, and they are welcome to leave. Any incidents in the air will be deemed Russia’s fault and treated accordingly. That’s how great powers act. Not that we should expect it from Mr. Obama.
An anti-ISIS strategy does not, of course, address Iran’s nuclear-weapons threat, tragically legitimized by the Vienna deal. There is little hope Mr. Obama will do anything further on that front before his term expires. Alice in Wonderland may have been able to imagine two impossible things before breakfast, but that is too much for us mere mortals. We would at least have something if Mr. Obama finally summoned up the will to live up to his own rhetoric and defeat ISIS.
• John R. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
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