All pen­i­tents go to Moscow

Putin and Khamenei are poised to de­ter­mine the out­come in Syria

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Jed Bab­bin

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.”


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