- - Sunday, September 27, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Vladimir Putin can claim a small victory Monday at the United Nations when he sits down with Barack Obama, even if, as the White House suggests, it was the Russian president who asked for the date.

With his back to the wall, Mr. Putin is attempting a maneuver out of a deep crisis. The combination of the collapse of oil and gas prices, Russia’s economic mainstay, and the Western sanctions placed on some members of the Putin coterie to punish aggression in Ukraine, together with pressure of approaching elections, will sorely test what has become a Sovietized regime.

The Russians had made progress toward re-equipping their military, but dispatching an expeditionary force into Syria was an enormous gamble. Mr. Putin hopes to preserve a role in what appears to be an approaching climax in the grim four-year Syrian civil war. The Assad regime may be in its last days, even though its opponents are divided and Islamic terrorists are clawing at each other as much as at the Damascus regime. Mr. Putin may, in fact, simply be setting up a Mediterranean enclave for Bashar Assad’s minority Alawite sect, which dominates his government, once the country finally disintegrates.

The traditional love affair between German business and the Russians is not going well, now that Europe has other and less expensive options for energy imports. The avalanche of refugees from Syria, and from other places pretending to be Syrians, is putting new pressure on the Europeans to agree to some sort of Syrian settlement.

Mr. Putin’s tacit alliance with Iran to support the Assad regime, however, makes him a player in the Syrian debacle just as the Obama administration is revealed to be bereft of influence there. Despite public pronouncements to the contrary, America’s traditional allies in the region — Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states — are making their own deals when and where they can. They all share the common fear of an increasingly powerful Iran, now that Mr. Obama has moved them to the threshold of membership in the nuclear club.

The Obama administration was embarrassed — humiliated is not too strong — when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Moscow last week to try to sort out the risks of conflict with the Russian forces newly in place in Syria. Israel has to continue trying to halt strengthening of Hezbollah, the Iranian ally bucking up Mr. Assad. Whether Mr. Netanyahu succeeded is not clear; what is very clear is that the United States was not a player there.

In recent speeches, Mr. Putin has put out proposals for an accommodation with the Americans, restoring the old image of Moscow as a superpower. But by stepping up his support of Mr. Assad, he crosses one of Mr. Obama’s famously fictitious red lines — a requirement than any settlement in Syria has to be contingent on dispatching Mr. Assad to oblivion. Mr. Assad, who is responsible for the deaths of 250,000 of his own people and turning millions more into refugees, has no claim on mercy for himself.

Mr. Putin says his protege is ready to consider a coalition with leaders of the Syrian opposition, although Iran, a backer of the Assad regime, has yet to be heard from. Such negotiations could require months to achieve, leaving a new president another mess to clean up. Barack Obama’s legacy continues to grow.


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