from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Syria, Russia, and American Weakness

May 7, 2013

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On Tuesday, Vladimir Putin showed his contempt for the United States by making our secretary of state wait three hours to see him. It is an unprecedented and unheard-of insult.

But the background makes this insult less startling. Kerry was in Moscow to plead for Russian help in sorting out the administration’s terrible dilemma in Syria. President Obama does not wish to intervene but the humanitarian toll--75,000 killed since he said in the summer of 2011 that Assad must go--and the presence of Iranian and Hezbollah forces in Syria make that position increasingly indefensible. We may not want some sort of proxy war in Syria but Iran and Hezbollah do. And their presence has helped attract some 6,000 Sunni jihadis, whose presence destabilizes not only Syria today but potentially several other countries tomorrow.

Faced with this challenge what did Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry do? They asked Putin for help. This is astonishing in itself, for the last four years offer proof that Putin is an enemy of the United States and seeks to weaken us, not to help us. The notion that we have common interests in Syria beggars belief.

There are messages Mr. Kerry might theoretically have delivered that might have elicited a different reaction from Putin. Try this one: "We will not permit a Hezbollah and Iranian victory in Syria and we will not accept Assad’s continuation in power. Nor will we accept a never-ending civil war there that produces a million refugees, whose presence may destabilize Jordan. So we will destroy Assad’s air power and he will lose the war, unless you get him out of there." That might wake Putin up and maybe he would see American representatives without the humiliating three-hour wait. Today, we look weak and irresolute and he treats us accordingly.

In fact there are roughly 550,000 refugees in Jordan and the number grows by 60,000 a month. Are we prepared to see Jordan destabilized? Are we prepared to see Iranian and Hezbollah expeditionary forces changing the outcome of a conflict in the Middle East?

Perhaps. Nothing we have yet done in Syria really answers that question, although the unwillingness to act suggests that we are, and that the worst outcome the White House can contemplate is action--not defeat.

But defeat is possible. Should Assad stay in power due to Russian and Iranian and Hezbollah support, and should Hezbollah’s domination of Lebanon thereby be solidified, and should our long-time ally Jordan be destabilized by the presence of three-quarters of a million or a million Syrian refugees, we will have been defeated and our position in the Middle East dealt an historic setback. Any hope of a negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis would be gone. The alliance system we have built up in the Gulf would be shredded because our own credibility would be gone.

This is what is at stake in Syria. The picture of an American secretary of state hanging around for three hours, desperate to see Putin and seek his help, is pathetic--and suggests a profound misjudgment of Putin (who has nothing but contempt for weakness) and of Russian policy. There is little room for pity in the international politics of the Middle East: the strong prevail and the weak suffer. Our allies have believed we were the strong party, but must now doubt our will. The Israelis know that there is no substitute for power and the will to use it, so they are giving demonstrations in Syria of their own policy--in the absence of any American determination to prevail.

This is a situation fraught with danger for American allies and American national interests. Appealing to Russia for help is the true measure of this administration’s failures.

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