Rus­sian airstrikes in Syria again ex­pose US dis­ar­ray over lack of in­ter­ven­tion

The China Post - - COMMENTARY - BY DAVE CLARK

Rus­sia’s dra­matic en­try Wed­nes­day into the Syr­ian war put the United States on the back foot once again and left Washington strug­gling to re­gain the mil­i­tary and diplo­matic ini­tia­tive.

As U.S. Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry was in New York try­ing to co­or­di­nate with his Krem­lin coun­ter­part Sergei Lavrov, a Rus­sian of­fi­cer con­tacted the U.S. em­bassy in Bagh­dad.

His mes­sage was sim­ple: Rus­sian jets are about to launch airstrikes in Syria, please stay out of their way.

Kerry quickly protested to Lavrov that this was not in the spirit of Moscow’s prom­ise to agree to a “de-con­flic­tion” mech­a­nism to en­sure Rus­sian flights do not in­ter­fere with U.S.-led oper­a­tions.

But the strikes were al­ready un­der­way, po­ten­tially al­ter­ing the bal­ance of power in Syria back in fa­vor of Bashar al-As­sad’s regime, and Washington was look­ing at a fait ac­com­pli.

Lavrov’s next move was to prom­ise to bring a mo­tion be­fore the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil to co­or­di­nate “all forces stand­ing up against Is­lamic State and other ter­ror­ist struc­tures.”

This would be a plain vic­tory for As­sad, who in­vited the Rus­sians to join his bat­tle to cling on to power, and a de­feat for the United States, which has de­manded he step down.

The at­tacks came de­spite Pres­i­dent Barack Obama sit­ting down with Rus­sia’s Vladimir Putin on Mon­day at the United Na­tions for 90 min­utes of what both camps called “busi­nesslike” talks.

One week ago, Kerry — de­spite be­ing in fre­quent con­tact with Lavrov — told re­porters that Rus­sia’s de­ploy­ment of war planes was con­sis­tent with their only de­fend­ing their own base.

And just hours be­fore the strikes be­gan he ap­peared on CNN to say that Rus­sia’s in­volve­ment could be an “op­por­tu­nity” to per­suade them to ap­ply pres­sure on As­sad to mod­er­ate his be­hav­ior.

Af­ter the strikes Kerry ad­dressed the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, but even here his mes­sage was mixed.

He said the United States would welcome the Rus­sian ac­tion if it re­flected a “gen­uine com­mit­ment” to­ward de­stroy­ing the IS group — also de­scribed with the acro­nym ISIL — and not the mod­er­ate op­po­si­tion rebels threat­en­ing As­sad.

Even as he spoke, a U.S. de­fense of­fi­cial in Washington briefed jour­nal­ists that: “We have not seen any strikes against ISIL, what we have seen is strikes against Syr­ian op­po­si­tion.”

De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash Carter was cau­tious, say­ing: “It does ap­pear they were in ar­eas where there were prob­a­bly not ISIL forces.”

The U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tion’s do­mes­tic crit­ics, such as hawk­ish Sen­a­tor John McCain, leapt on the ap­par­ent con­fu­sion.

“This ad­min­is­tra­tion has con­fused our friends, en­cour­aged our en­e­mies, mis­taken an ex­cess of cau­tion for pru­dence and re­placed the risks of ac­tion with the per­ils of in­ac­tion,” he said.

“Into the wreck­age, into the wreck­age of this ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Mid­dle East pol­icy has now stepped Vladimir Putin.”

Frus­tra­tion is also mount­ing among Washington’s al­lies in the Mid­dle East, who sup­port moves to de­feat the Is­lamic State group, but also want to see As­sad kicked out of of­fice.

Saudi For­eign Min­is­ter Adel al-Jubeiri, speak­ing to jour­nal­ists in New York on Tues­day, was cau­tious not to crit­i­cize the United States alone, be­moan­ing a “lack of ro­bust ac­tion by all of us.”

But he was clear on why the Rus­sians had found an open­ing to in­sert them­selves into the con­flict.

“We’ve called for di­rect mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion from day one. We’ve called for a no-fly zone. We’ve called for a no-drive zone. We’ve called for ro­bust arm­ing of the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion,” he said.

“That’s what I mean by ‘not enough hap­pened.’ That’s why four years later we’re in the sit­u­a­tion we’re in,” he said.

Speak­ing pri­vately, diplo­mats from U.S.-led coali­tion coun­tries say the Rus­sian “es­ca­la­tion” ef­fec­tively pre­cludes stronger overt mil­i­tary pres­sure on As­sad, for fear of a clash.

Mean­while, the Arab al­lies dis­miss Moscow’s ar­gu­ment that work­ing with As­sad is the best way to de­feat the Is­lamic State.

“They’re call­ing for a coali­tion to fight Daesh, with Iran and Rus­sia and Bashar al-As­sad? With­out him there would be no Daesh. He cre­ated Daesh,” Jubeir scoffed, us­ing the Ara­bic acro­nym for IS.

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