Putin sniffs an opportunity
He may be betting that the Syrian civil war is moving toward climax
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.