Crit­ics: Mil­i­tary aid Putin sent to Syria shows Obama is weak

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY DAVE BOYER

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin on Tues­day de­fended send­ing more mil­i­tary aid to Syria, and he blasted the U.S. for cre­at­ing a refugee cri­sis by its ac­tions against Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad, draw­ing a re­buke from the Obama White House, which has strug­gled for years to counter Rus­sia’s moves on the world stage.

Mr. Putin said Moscow’s aid to Syria, which U.S. mil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials now say in­cludes bat­tle tanks and plans to set up an air base, is nec­es­sary to de­feat the Is­lamic State ter­ror­ist group.

The Rus­sian pres­i­dent said it’s im­pos­si­ble to achieve that goal with­out the co­op­er­a­tion of Damascus, a view op­po­site that of Pres­i­dent Obama’s plan for de­stroy­ing the Is­lamic State with a U.S.-led coali­tion that has de­pended on airstrikes.

“We are sup­port­ing the gov­ern­ment of Syria in the fight against a ter­ror­ist ag­gres­sion [and] are of­fer­ing, and will con­tinue to of­fer, it nec­es­sary mil­i­tary-tech­ni­cal as­sis­tance,” Mr. Putin said in tele­vised re­marks. “With­out an ac­tive par­tic­i­pa­tion of the Syr­ian author­i­ties and the mil­i­tary, it would be im­pos­si­ble to ex­pel the ter­ror­ists from that coun­try and the re­gion as a whole, and to pro­tect the multi-eth­nic and mul­ti­con­fes­sional Syr­ian peo­ple from de­struc­tion.”

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, which has been ridiculed for its flag­ging ef­forts to train and equip a Syr­ian op­po­si­tion army to op­pose the Is­lamic State on the ground, said Rus­sia’s latest ac­tions in Syria are dan­ger­ous and wrong.

White House press sec­re­tary Josh Earnest said Moscow is back­ing an il­le­git­i­mate dic­ta­tor who can­not re­main in power, a view that the ad­min­is­tra­tion has been cling­ing to since Mr. Obama’s first term.

“Rus­sia’s de­ci­sion to dou­ble down on As­sad is a los­ing bet,” Mr. Earnest said. “We con­tinue to be­lieve that their ef­forts to sup­port As­sad and con­tinue to of­fer him sup­port are desta­bi­liz­ing and coun­ter­pro­duc­tive.”

Rus­sia has staunchly backed the As­sad regime — with which it has been al­lied since it was the Soviet Union and Syria was ruled by Mr. As­sad’s fa­ther, Hafez As­sad — through­out Syria’s dev­as­tat­ing civil war that has killed about 250,000 peo­ple and turned mil­lions into refugees.

The Krem­lin has shielded Mr. As­sad from United Na­tions sanc­tions and con­tin­ued to pro­vide him with weapons de­spite Western crit­i­cism.

Mr. As­sad also weighed in Tues­day, say­ing in an in­ter­view with Rus­sian media that all the Syr­ian peo­ple want is “se­cu­rity and safety.” The civil war in Syria and threat from the Is­lamic State have re­sulted in a bur­geon­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis as refugees stream into cen­tral Europe.

“It’s not about that Europe didn’t ac­cept them or em­brace them as refugees, it’s about not deal­ing with the cause,” Mr. As­sad said. “If you are wor­ried about them, stop sup­port­ing ter­ror­ists. That’s what we think re­gard­ing the cri­sis. This is the core of the whole is­sue of refugees.”

He said po­lit­i­cal forces, whether in­side or out­side the gov­ern­ment, “should unite around what the Syr­ian peo­ple want.”

Some se­cu­rity an­a­lysts say Rus­sia’s in­flu­ence in Syria is the latest ex­am­ple of Mr. Obama’s in­abil­ity to con­front Mr. Putin, who has re­fused to back down from mil­i­tary ag­gres­sion in Ukraine de­spite harsh eco­nomic sanc­tions co­or­di­nated by the U.S. and its Euro­pean al­lies.

“Putin’s de­ci­sion to dou­ble down on As­sad only com­pli­cates fur­ther the dis­as­ter in Syria that has spread to the rest of the re­gion,” said Danielle Pletka, a de­fense and for­eign pol­icy spe­cial­ist at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute. “We can draw con­clu­sions about his strate­gic cal­cu­lus: Syria is Moscow’s only an­chor in the Mid­dle East. But the more im­por­tant les­son is that U.S. deter­rence is dead.”

She said the les­son has im­pli­ca­tions far be­yond Syria, ex­tend­ing to China and Iran.

“The rea­son we don’t have to go to war is be­cause na­tions and bad ac­tors fear the con­se­quences,” she said. “Less fear means more op­por­tu­nity for mis­cal­cu­la­tion and, there­fore, con­flict.”

Sen. Ron John­son, Wis­con­sin Repub­li­can, said the “Rus­sian re­set” that Mr. Obama promised in 2009 “has proved to be a mis­er­able fail­ure be­cause Putin re­spects only strength and is adroit at per­ceiv­ing weak­ness and fully ex­ploit­ing it.”

In an op-ed pub­lished by the Ripon Fo­rum, Mr. John­son said the pres­i­dent should use the au­thor­ity passed unan­i­mously by Congress to sup­ply lethal de­fen­sive weapons to Ukraini­ans fight­ing Rus­sian prox­ies.

“As Putin ad­vances, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion con­tin­ues to talk about of­fer­ing Putin ‘off-ramps,’” Mr. John­son wrote. “To pre­vent even greater desta­bi­liza­tion in Europe, the West must re­al­ize that Putin isn’t look­ing for ‘off-ramps.’ He’s only bid­ing his time and look­ing for the next ‘on-ramp.’”

The Pen­tagon said Mon­day that Rus­sia is in the midst of a steady mil­i­tary buildup at a Syr­ian air­port, in­di­cat­ing Moscow in­tends to cre­ate an air oper­a­tions base there, although no fighter jets or he­li­copters have ar­rived yet.

A Pen­tagon spokesman, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, said the U.S. is closely mon­i­tor­ing the buildup, but he de­clined to re­veal specifics about the Rus­sian mil­i­tary per­son­nel and equip­ment be­ing flown to the base in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia.

“We have seen in­di­ca­tions in re­cent days that Rus­sia has moved peo­ple and things into the area around Latakia, and the air base there … sug­gests that it in­tends to es­tab­lish some sort of a for­ward air op­er­at­ing base,” Capt. Davis said.

He said the U.S. has con­cerns about en­sur­ing that any Rus­sian mil­i­tary air oper­a­tions not come into con­flict with U.S. and coali­tion airstrikes that are be­ing con­ducted in other parts of Syria against Is­lamic State tar­gets.

“We have said be­fore that we would welcome Rus­sian con­tri­bu­tions to the over­all global ef­fort against [the Is­lamic State group], but that things that con­tinue to sup­port the As­sad regime — par­tic­u­larly mil­i­tary things — are un­help­ful and risk adding greater in­sta­bil­ity to an al­ready-un­sta­ble sit­u­a­tion,” Capt. Davis said.

The refugees flee­ing Syria were the sub­ject of dis­cus­sions in the Oval Of­fice on Tues­day be­tween Mr. Obama and Spain’s King Felipe VI.

The pres­i­dent said the U.S. “feels it is im­por­tant for us to also take our share of Syr­ian refugees as part of this over­all hu­man­i­tar­ian ef­fort.”

Mr. Obama said the U.S. and Europe “ul­ti­mately have to deal with the source of the prob­lem, which is the on­go­ing cri­sis in Syria.” He didn’t men­tion Mr. Putin’s ac­tions.

The Rus­sian leader urged other na­tions to fol­low Moscow’s ex­am­ple and of­fer mil­i­tary sup­port to the As­sad gov­ern­ment.

He said that Mr. As­sad was ready to con­duct po­lit­i­cal trans­for­ma­tions and en­gage a “healthy part of the op­po­si­tion,” but added that “pool­ing forces in the fight against terror takes the pri­or­ity now.”

Mr. Putin shrugged off al­le­ga­tions that Moscow’s sup­port for As­sad has sparked a flow of refugees, say­ing that with­out Rus­sia’s sup­port for As­sad’s regime, the num­ber of Syr­ian refugees head­ing to Europe would have been even big­ger.

“Peo­ple are flee­ing Syria pri­mar­ily to es­cape fight­ing that has been fu­eled from the out­side with sup­plies of weapons and hard­ware. They are flee­ing to es­cape ter­ror­ist atroc­i­ties,” he said. “With­out Rus­sia’s sup­port for Syria, the sit­u­a­tion in the coun­try would have been worse than in Libya, and the flow of refugees would have been even big­ger.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, while bol­ster­ing mil­i­tary aid to Syria, said U.S. moves have deep­ened the on­go­ing refugee cri­sis.

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