All penitents go to Moscow
Putin and Khamenei are poised to determine the outcome in Syria
Quietly, over the past few weeks and months, the United States and some leaders of the Arab world have gone to Moscow seeking to resolve the four-year old Syrian civil war. No one came here seeking President Obama’s guidance and leadership. Instead, we and some of our Arab allies went to Moscow like medieval penitents seeking help from a local warlord.
While all this is going on, Europe is suffering a deluge of refugees seeking to emigrate from Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen (among other nations) that have been destabilized by Russian and Iranian actions, by civil war and by wrong-headed actions such as Mr. Obama’s support for the French war to overthrow Libya’s Moammar Gadhaffi.
The two problems are clearly linked. But there is no motivation for Russia to stop either the Syrian civil war or the influx of Middle Eastern refugees into Europe.
News reports say that perhaps four million refugees have fled Syria since its civil war erupted in 2011. Germany alone expects as many as 800,000 asylum applications this year from those fleeing Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq. Britain is resisting the flood, having admitted little more than 200 this year, but it isn’t at all clear how long its resistance will last. Hundreds have died at sea and in smugglers’ trucks trying to cross borders to reach Germany and other nations.
Throughout the summer, many refugees have tried to walk through the English Channel tunnel to what they see as freedom. Tens of thousands of others have clogged the main Budapest, Hungary train station and entered Greece and Italy by small boat. There is no end in sight, and the European Union is undecided on how — if at all — it will deal with the crisis.
The Syrian war and the mass exodus of refugees continue because of two facts: first is that while America has forfeited its influence over these matters, the influence of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme religious leader, have grown stronger to the degree that they will determine the outcome in Syria; and second, the European Union nations’ inability to agree on how to limit or control the flow of people fleeing to Europe from the Middle East and North Africa.
To boil this down to its essence, Russian President Putin has no reason to help Europe constrain the flow of refugees from Syria and the other nations because — in his eyes — it’s a “twofer”: he gets to maintain Bashar Assad as a destabilizing influence in the Middle East and gets a bonus of helping to destabilize European democracies at the same time.
Soon after Mr. Obama abandoned his “red line” threats against Syria, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Arab world saw that they could no longer rely on America as a stabilizing influence. They recognized the plain fact that Mr. Putin’s Russia (and China) are replacing America as the only possible offsets to Iran. What the Arabs don’t apprehend is that Mr. Putin sees far greater value in Middle East instability and that Mr. Putin’s continuing support for Mr. Assad is how he can continue to achieve it.
In May, Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed — United Arab Emirates’ foreign minister — traveled to Moscow seeking help from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in settling the Syrian conflict. Saudi Arabia’s Prince Salman, their defense minister, visited Moscow in June to talk to Mr. Putin about the same thing and Adel alJubeir, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, visited Moscow in mid-August to speak to Mr. Lavrov, seeking cooperation in removing the Syrian dictator.
America has also been meekly asking for Moscow’s help. Secretary of State Kerry has also gone to meet with Mr. Lavrov and about 10 days ago U.S. Special Envoy for Syria, Michael Ratney, went to Moscow with the goal, according to a Washington Times report, to “… work toward greater convergence of views among both foreign governments and the Syrians themselves on a political transition in Syria.” All of these efforts failed for obvious reasons.
Russia and Iran are highly invested in Mr. Assad’s regime. Russia has a naval base in Tartus, Syria that extends Mr. Putin’s power directly into the region. (It has also negotiated naval port rights in Cyprus.) That power will never be risked by throwing Mr. Assad out.
When the Sunni Arab Saudis seek Russian help, they are ignoring the fact that Mr. Assad’s Alewite regime is more Shiite than Sunni. Mr. Putin has chosen sides in religious divide though the Sunni nations may be unwilling to admit it. Our goals are irrelevant to Mr. Putin.
Mr. Obama has chosen to default to Russian and Iranian power in the Middle East. He apparently believes that a powerful Iran will help stabilize the region in the absence of American power and influence. His deal with Iran on its nuclear weapons program — which now seems certain to pass a Republican Congress that chose not to stop it — is part of that strategy. There will be no settlement of the Syrian civil war that isn’t determined in Moscow and Tehran.
While the Middle East remains in utter turmoil, Europe cannot agree how to control the flow of refugees. Unless Russia intervenes to help, the European Union laws will leave its member nations open to those fleeing Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya. That help will not be forthcoming, because Mr. Putin’s interest is not in maintaining European democracy or freedom, as the evidence of Ukraine proves.
Our next president may want to help Europe solve this nation-changing problem, but by January 2017, it may be too late. 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.”