- - Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Pravda is the most abused word in the Russian language. Though it means “truth,” we learned it as the name of a Soviet-era, government-controlled newspaper that printed everything except the truth. That same newspaper has returned to its old habits, telling the world that President Vladimir Putin is taking over the war against terrorism that President Obama has abandoned.

It doesn’t take much to parse this one out. Mr. Putin’s direct military intervention in the Syrian conflict is: (a) undertaken to defend the Bashar Assad regime, which we have declared a state sponsor of terrorism since 1979 when Bashar’s daddy ran the show; (b) in partnership with Iran’s kakistocracy, which is the most powerful and dedicated sponsor of terrorism on earth; and (c) isn’t aimed at defeating the nominal terrorist enemy, the Islamic State, or ISIS, but rather is designed to consolidate and grow Russia’s influence in the Middle East at America’s expense.

The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman wrote that Mr. Obama’s reactions to Mr. Putin were due to the fact that the president lacked the courage of his own ambivalence. Actually, Mr. Friedman has it precisely backward. Mr. Obama’s ambivalence toward the Middle East, indeed most of the world, is the reason that for almost seven years America’s foreign policy has been a catalog of inaction, indecision and dithering. Mr. Obama’s latest comments on Syria repeat more of the same.

Sounding like a whiny sophomore in debate class, Mr. Obama says Mr. Putin is acting out of weakness rather than strength. The president also accuses his political critics of only offering half-baked ideas. And after the third day of Russian airstrikes against CIA-supported Syrian rebels, Mr. Obama said Russia may be getting stuck in a quagmire by intervening in Syria.

By delivering a demarche demanding that no American aircraft fly where Russian aircraft were operating, the Russians established their own “no-fly” zone, pretty much over all of Syria. Deploying at least four Su-30 “Flanker” multirole fighters — which have a range of about 1,800 miles — was an unmistakable message to America.

Mr. Obama’s reaction? He rejected the Russian demarche but then quietly declared that no U.S. aircraft would challenge the Russians. Making our de facto surrender clear, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter volunteered to send a Defense Department team to meet with the Russian air bosses to prevent any “incidents” over Syria.

An unfortunately growing minority of American pundits and politicians are toying with a host of plans ranging from establishing “safe zones” for Syrian rebels to “no-fly” zones to exclude Syrian combat aircraft. Hillary Rodham Clinton is for “no-fly” zones, Bernard Sanders is against them and Donald Trump says that bringing Syrian refugees here could lead to a military coup.

Those ideas demonstrate an intolerable ignorance of the facts on the ground.

There is every reason to condemn Mr. Obama’s lack of action in too many of the defining moments of his term in office. But his critics, flailing for an easy solution, haven’t come up with one.

Russia is in Syria with a large and growing air and ground force. China is reportedly sending naval forces to both cooperate and compete with the Russian forces. If we had intervened in Syria four years ago to help the small Syrian rebel force, we could have toppled Mr. Assad. We had a national security interest in doing so because the Assads — father and son — have been state sponsors of terrorism since at least 1979.

But we didn’t. The window of opportunity has closed. We don’t have a sufficient interest in Syria to fight both Russia and China over it. But that’s not to say we should continue to remain on the sidelines.

One of the key principles behind Mr. Obama’s foreign policy has been a failure to understand — or, perhaps, care — that it is in America’s national security interest to destabilize governments that are a threat to us and our allies, such as Mr. Assad’s. Concomitantly it is directly against our interests to do the same to governments such as Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya, which pose no such threats.

To pursue those interests requires us to do to Russia what Russia is doing to us. A strong American response to Mr. Putin’s actions in Syria doesn’t have to take place in Syria.

Our responses would have to undertake actions prevented by Mr. Obama’s ambivalence. First, we need to begin a significant and sustained effort to arm and train the Ukrainian military. Mr. Putin’s campaign to conquer Ukraine is still going on, despite the media’s willingness to ignore it. Arming and sending military advisers to help Ukrainian forces would force Mr. Putin to take his eye off Syria to deal with a bigger problem. And there’s more.

We used to conduct a military exercise called “Reforger” years ago. It sent tens of thousands of U.S. troops, tanks and aircraft into Europe to defend against a mock Soviet attack. We should stage a small version of “Reforger” in Ukraine. The Ukrainian government would welcome it, and doing so would make clear our decision to prevent Mr. Putin from conquering the country.

Second, we need to arm the Kurds fighting ISIS in Iraq. They are our only ally engaged with ISIS, yet Mr. Obama has consistently refused to send them the arms they need.

By showing we understand that Mr. Putin’s — and China’s — military adventurism can be dealt with in different regions in different ways, we could demonstrate a competence that has been absent since January 2009.

Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration. He is a senior fellow of the London Center for Policy Research and the author of five books including “In the Words of Our Enemies.”

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