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Obama’s About-Face on Syria

In August, the president called for Bashar al-Assad to step down. But the U.S. hasn’t sent arms to the opposition. To understand why, look to Russia.

Lee Smith
March 28, 2012
U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev share a smile after their bilateral meeting in Seoul on March 26, 2012 on the sidelines of the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit.(Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev share a smile after their bilateral meeting in Seoul on March 26, 2012 on the sidelines of the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit.(Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

If Bashar al-Assad manages to survive the uprising that has tested his regime over the last year, he’ll owe not only his allies, Iran and Russia, but the White House as well. Over the past few months, the Obama Administration has come to the Syrian president’s rescue—not because of any love for Assad, but because Obama wants to stay on Russia’s good side. The latest? The administration endorsed the same peace plan for Syria, put forward by former U.N. head Kofi Annan, that Moscow has been pushing. It calls for a ceasefire and dialogue between the opposition and the government that is slaughtering them. This Russia-U.S. condominium marks a dramatic turnaround in the White House’s regime change policy for Syria.

Let’s go back to August. Five months into the uprising, with thousands of civilians already dead, Obama demanded Assad step down. Since then, the administration has done very little to bring this policy to fruition. It’s true that regime figures, from security chiefs to Assad’s own wife, are facing economic sanctions from the E.U., in addition to those already leveled by Washington. But the United States isn’t sending weapons to opposition forces, and it is discouraging regional partners like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar from doing so as well.

According to one recent report, the rebels are running out of ammunition—and at the worst time possible, just as Assad loyalists seem poised to retake rebel strongholds. Most observers believe that without the sort of American-led NATO military support that brought Muammar Qaddafi to heel, the opposition will not be able to overthrow the regime. But it seems that the administration wants no part of any such project: Last week it came to light that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rejected a number of Turkish proposals to arm and train the Free Syrian Army while establishing no-fly zones. “We’re not there yet,” Clinton is reported to have said.

It is unlikely the Obama Administration will ever get there. First of all, the president is campaigning on having extricated the United States from the region. From his perspective, arming the Syrian opposition or establishing a no-fly zone is the first step on a slippery slope that could at some point lead the United States to making another troop commitment.

But it’s not just about electoral politics. Obama also sees the strategic terrain here in a particular way. Syria is simply a buffer state, and it always has been. Some call it a “crossroads of civilizations,” but that’s just travel-guide speak for a piece of territory where major powers have pursued their ambitions for thousands of years. There have been the Egyptian pharaohs, the Hittites, Tamerlane, the Ottomans, the European imperial powers, and now, among others, the Islamic Republic of Iran. So, it stands to reason that most observers would think toppling Assad is a key way to weaken Iran in its drive to a nuclear weapons program. Obama sees another foreign power at the center of the issue: Russia. And the last thing he wants is to make Moscow angry.

The Russians don’t want to see Assad toppled, for plenty of reasons. First, Syria buys arms from Russia. Second, Moscow relies on the Syrian port of Tartus for its Mediterranean operations. Third, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin doesn’t want the U.N. Security Council getting in the habit of drafting resolutions against authoritarian regimes, lest Russia is next. The Assad regime could potentially provide the Russians with access to Syria’s off-shore, and as yet untapped, natural gas, as well as to that of Lebanon. And last, but hardly least, instability in the Middle East has always been good for Russia insofar as it throws the region’s status quo power, the United States, off balance while raising the price of energy resources—thereby filling Russian coffers. For Russia, Assad’s tenure is a vital interest.

Of course, Assad’s survival would be bad news for Washington’s regional allies, like Turkey, which shares a border with Syria that Assad has threatened to infiltrate with terrorists from the Kurdish Worker’s Party, PKK. It would also be bad for Israel and for Sunni Arab powers like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who will see the regime’s survival as a lost opportunity to neutralize Iran’s ambitions for regional hegemony.

But from Obama’s perspective, Russia is where the real game is. Russia policy is about Europe, Asia, and power politics between serious players. The Middle East is about Iran and an obscurantist third-world regime that threatens to build a nuclear bomb. Why should the president of the United States get all worked up about an Iranian bomb, when you consider that Russia already has a vast arsenal?

As the president recently confided to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, once he gets through this election, then he can focus on a reduction in bilateral missile defense. And then there are the further cuts in nuclear weapons that he wants to pursue with Moscow. In his second term, the president may get closer to the legacy he sketched as an undergraduate—a world where the United States and Russia are no longer on the brink of mutually assured destruction. The only problem is that this is not going to stop Iran from getting the bomb, or prevent nuclear weapons spreading like dandelions across the Middle East.

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.