Putin sniffs an op­por­tu­nity

He may be bet­ting that the Syr­ian civil war is mov­ing to­ward cli­max

The Washington Times Weekly - - Editorials -

Vladimir Putin has a gift for sniff­ing out op­por­tu­nity. He might be called Vlad the In­haler. He sees the desta­bi­liz­ing mil­lions of refugees flood­ing into Europe and Pres­i­dent Obama’s con­ces­sion that he has no strat­egy in Syria — not even another speech — and seems to be bet­ting that the bar­barous fiveyear civil war is mov­ing to­ward a cli­max.

Rus­sia is ex­pand­ing its base at Latakia, Syria’s chief port and the home of Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s Alaw­ite mi­nor­ity. The Alaw­ites, a Shia off­spring and thus linked to Iran’s mul­lahs by cul­ture and tra­di­tion, have dom­i­nated re­cent Syr­ian regimes de­spite their small num­bers. Their grasp on the Syr­ian Air Force, long a client of the Rus­sians, was a way to power in the frag­ile state the French cre­ated when the Ot­toman em­pire col­lapsed at the end of World War I.

When re­li­gious and eth­nic groups cried for re­form, Mr. As­sad an­swered with un­re­strained vi­o­lence. The op­po­si­tion to him crum­bled af­ter Pres­i­dent Obama aban­doned his empty prom­ise of a red line and then promptly with­drew from the field, and Mr. As­sad strength­ened his rule. But things change, con­found­ing the ex­pec­ta­tions of wise men, and now it’s the As­sad regime that ap­pears about to crum­ble.

Mr. Obama’s ro­mance with the mul­lahs in Tehran, meant to stop their pur­suit of nu­clear weapons in the short term, has re­aligned forces in the Mid­dle East. Fear, and Tehran’s at­tempt to dom­i­nate the re­gion with Amer­i­can ac­qui­es­cence, has forced a tacit al­liance of the Gulf states, Egypt and even Is­rael against the Amer­i­can-Ira­nian deal.

To at­tempt to re­as­sure Amer­ica’s al­lies in the re­gion that his deal with Iran would not jeop­ar­dize their se­cu­rity, Mr. Obama has made re­peated prom­ises to in­crease U.S. as­sis­tance. Last week in Washington, Saudi King Sal­man bin Ab­du­laziz pub­licly ac­cepted Mr. Obama’s as­sur­ances, though a Saudi of­fi­cial pri­vately re­peated grow­ing con­cern about Mr. Obama’s ro­mance with the mul­lahs.

En­cour­aged by their stop­ping, at least tem­po­rar­ily, a takeover by pro-Ira­nian forces in neigh­bor­ing Ye­men, which the Saudis con­sider vi­tal to their se­cu­rity, the Saudis pri­vately con­firm that their ef­fort to top­ple the Syr­ian regime will con­tinue. The Saudis are buy­ing bil­lions of dol­lars worth of arms from the United States and in Europe, all to turn them­selves into a ma­jor mil­i­tary power ca­pa­ble of look­ing af­ter them­selves. Mr. Obama, for his part, has gone along with the gath­er­ing arms race in the Mid­dle East. This is pre­cisely what crit­ics of his Ira­nian deal said would hap­pen.

Mr Putin told an au­di­ence in Vladi­vos­tok, at the eastern end of a Rus­sian em­pire suf­fer­ing eco­nomic dev­as­ta­tion with a halv­ing of oil and gas prices, and suf­fer­ing U.S. and Euro­pean sanc­tions to pun­ish ag­gres­sion in Ukraine, that the Syr­ian regime is ready to make a deal. But what the re­in­force­ment of the Rus­sian in­stal­la­tions in the port at Latakia may mean is that be­cause Mr. Putin an­tic­i­pates a Syr­ian breakup, he is reach­ing for a piece of the car­cass dom­i­nated by his Alaw­ite al­lies. That would give him a big­ger spoon in the boiling Mid­dle Eastern stew pot. This is not good news for Amer­ica, with a pres­i­dent un­cer­tain of what’s go­ing on and of­fer­ing only a timid ex­cuse for a pol­icy and strat­egy in the re­gion.

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