Red lines, not green lights

Ced­ing Syria to Mr. Putin will not lead to peace.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

PRES­I­DENT OBAMA’S re­sponse to Rus­sia’s mil­i­tary cam­paign in Syria in­creas­ingly ap­pears to boil down to “let them have it.” Mr. Obama has taken to lec­tur­ing Vladimir Putin that he is mak­ing a mis­take that will re­sult in a “quag­mire,” while pub­licly as­sur­ing him that the United States will do noth­ing to con­test the con­certed as­sault the Rus­sian pres­i­dent has launched against Syr­ian rebels, in­clud­ing those who have been trained and supplied by the United States. “We’re not go­ing to make Syria into a proxy war be­tween the United States and Rus­sia,” Mr. Obama says. That sounds like a green light for Moscow to elim­i­nate any al­ter­na­tive in Syria to the regime of Bashar al-As­sad and the Is­lamic State, or ISIL.

On Fri­day, the ad­min­is­tra­tion sig­naled a fur­ther re­treat, an­nounc­ing that it is aban­don­ing a Pen­tagon pro­gram to re­cruit and train new Syr­ian forces. The pro­gram was doomed by the White House’s in­sis­tence that the units not be sup­ported against the As­sad regime, or even de­fended against it. “When we tried to get them to just fo­cus on ISIL, the re­sponse we’d get back is, how can we fo­cus on ISIL when ev­ery sin­gle day we’re hav­ing bar­rel bombs and at­tacks from the regime?” Mr. Obama con­ceded at his Oct. 2 news con­fer­ence. This should not have been a rev­e­la­tion: The White House ig­nored the many crit­ics in and out­side of Congress who fore­saw that out­come from the train­ing pro­gram’s in­cep­tion.

Mr. Obama re­sponded to Rus­sia’s in­va­sion of Ukraine by pre­dict­ing it would be self de­feat­ing; 20 months later, Mr. Putin con­trols Crimea and a slice of eastern Ukraine and has won Western agree­ment for a po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment that, if fully im­ple­mented, will crip­ple Ukraine’s demo­cratic gov­ern­ment. Now the White House sug­gests that Moscow’s of­fen­sive in Syria will also fail on its own. In the long run, that may be the case. But Mr. Obama’s pol­icy risks a host of near-term catas­tro­phes, from the fur­ther strength­en­ing of the Is­lamic State to the elim­i­na­tion of any prospect of a Syr­ian po­lit­i­cal so­lu­tion.

The pres­i­dent ap­pears to have de­cided on a course of step­ping up U.S. sup­port for ex­ist­ing Syr­ian forces fight­ing the Is­lamic State in the eastern part of the coun­try, in­clud­ing Kurds and Sunni tribes. “Equip­ment pack­ages and weapons” will be pro­vided “to a se­lect group of vet­ted lead­ers and their units,” a Pen­tagon state­ment said Fri­day, “so that over time they can make a con­certed push into ter­ri­tory still con­trolled by ISIL.”

Such an of­fen­sive to­ward the Is­lamic State cap­i­tal of Raqqa would be welcome. But, com­bined with Mr. Obama’s re­fusal to as­sist the U.S.-al­lied forces now be­ing pum­meled by Rus­sian mis­siles, it would have the ef­fect of cre­at­ing, de facto, the “coali­tion” Mr. Putin has been call­ing for, in which the United States and its al­lies join with Rus­sia in fight­ing all forces that op­pose the As­sad gov­ern­ment. It would force mod­er­ate Syr­i­ans who op­pose the regime into the arms of the Is­lamic State and ad­vance Mr. Putin’s aim of restor­ing Rus­sia as a power in the re­gion at U.S. ex­pense.

The United States need not go to war with Rus­sia in or­der to take steps that counter Mr. Putin and pre­serve vi­tal U.S. in­ter­ests. As­sis­tance to mod­er­ate forces fight­ing the As­sad gov­ern­ment should be ac­cel­er­ated: The rebels des­per­ately need more U.S. an­ti­tank mis­siles. A safe zone should be es­tab­lished in north­ern Syria, in co­op­er­a­tion with Tur­key, where civil­ians can be pro­tected. In­stead of lec­tures, Mr. Putin ought to be given red lines; with­out them, his ag­gres­sion will es­ca­late.

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