President Obama’s abysmal failure to provide leadership during the Syrian crisis represents a turning point in the Middle East and has paved the way for President Putin’s Russia to emerge as the dominant regional force, a position it had surrendered after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
To avert abject humiliation, Obama has absurdly spun the situation into a victory achieved by the American threat of military force. Instead, it was Putin who played the role of international statesman and masterminded a watershed moment for the Middle East, in which Russia effectively supplanted the US as world leader.
Were Assad to actually dismantle his chemical stockpiles, Putin would have made an important contribution to regional peace and stability. Alas, the likelihood of this happening is exceedingly remote.
Given the barbaric civil war raging throughout Syria, and the history of Syrian lies and deceit, it is virtually impossible to establish any meaningful form of surveillance or control.
Nonetheless, Putin has established a significant role for himself in the Mideast region.
In the process, he has potentially enabled Assad to emerge a victor, despite until now having been embattled and on the brink of collapse. The stated deadline is only mid-2014. Already, there are reports that Assad has dispersed and concealed his chemical weapons. With the passage of days, weeks and months, interest in controlling his stockpiles will wane and the possibility of taking action will be effectively forestalled. There will be no consequences to Assad’s actions, since Russia endorsed and the US capitulated to his demand that an agreement eschew any mention of reverting to military action should he renege on the deal.
In orchestrating his maneuvers in Syria, Putin has demonstrated not only his support of Syria and Iran, but his ability to stand up and deliver on behalf of his allies. Putin achieved regional hegemony through Russia’s alliance with a broad Shiite arc that encompasses Iran, Syria, and Lebanon and is likely to include Iraq. Egypt is currently out of the equation, but in the past it was the most stalwart of America’s regional allies. Today, it distrusts the Obama administration for its abandonment of Mubarak and its support of the Moslem Brotherhood regime, making it similarly susceptible to Russian influence.
Putin’s objective is to re-create a bipolar global dynamic in which Russia is the dominant power, demonstrating a determination to confront and undermine America on virtually all issues. While he is condemned in the Western world for his authoritarian rule, brutal suppression of dissidents and failure to root out rampant corruption, despite his country’s economic and military limitations, he has harnessed Russia’s energy resources to make impressive progress. .
Putin has now successfully promoted himself as an international statesman and will undoubtedly continue to exploit nationalism and anti-Americanism in order to raise his standing within his domestic constituency. His rhetoric reflects this new approach. He did not attempt to morally defend Assad’s actions. Indeed, President Reagan would turn in his grave were he aware of the sanctimonious and cynical paraphrase of his sentiments by Putin in a recent New York Times article, stating, “We are all different, but when we ask the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal…We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.”
These developments inevitably revive memories of the Soviet Union’s nefarious role in the Middle East during the Cold War and its collusion with Arab states attempting to destroy the Jewish state. It is also reminiscent of the global anti-Semitic campaigns that culminated in the infamous UN resolution that equated Zionism with racism.
But it would be incorrect and misleading to place Putin in the same category as the leaders of the Evil Empire. Unlike the pathological Soviet anti-Semites, Putin has not displayed a hatred of the Jewish people. On the contrary, he selected Israel as the first country he visited after his election and, while here, repeatedly remarked on how pleased he was to visit a state that included more than a million Russian-speaking citizens. He even warned, however disingenuously, that the Syrian rebels were preparing for a poison gas attack against Israel.
But this should not mislead us into regarding Putin as a philo-Semite. Rather, that he will collaborate with Israel if it best serves Russia’s objectives. However, he has continuously employed the Russian veto at the UN Security Council in relation to Iran and Syria, and has supported the Iranians, despite their nuclear ambitions which pose an existential threat to Israel.
Indeed, there are now reports that the Russians will provide Teheran with highly advanced defense systems, including five batteries of state-of-the-art S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems, which will certainly make any future military intervention far more hazardous. The Russian media has also reported that in the course of his forthcoming meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rohani, Putin is likely to offer a new nuclear reactor.
The most serious fallout from the Syrian debacle is the Iranian perception of Obama. His threat to intervene militarily if the Iranians sought to achieve their nuclear objectives was always in doubt but now it has simply become a joke. Not surprisingly, Teheran has praised the US for employing “rationality”. This will oblige Israel to make some very difficult decisions in the near future.
Israel must now persuade Russia, with whom it has developed good relations in recent years, to draw the line at providing weapons to its allies that would undermine Israel’s security and power of deterrence. This will test the influence of former Russians like Avigdor Lieberman, who claims to enjoy a unique relationship with the current Russian leadership. However in light of recent events, we must be aware that Putin’s total focus on furthering Russian influence in the region may lead to his abandonment of Israel in the process.
Israel must not allow itself to be drawn into the regional turmoil. We must deny Assad’s demand that Israel ratify the chemical weapons agreement before Syria does. We must reject Putin’s hint that Assad’s chemical weapons were a poor man’s deterrence against Israel’s nuclear power. We must also be prepared for the possibility that the Obama Administration may intensify pressure on us to “make greater sacrifices” to reach a settlement with the Palestinians in order to divert attention from its dreadful failure in Syria.
The unfolding of the Syrian story serves to underline the message: while Israel must retain the support of the American people and Congress in order to combat global political pressures and to withstand Russia’s increasingly active role in the region, we must depend on ourselves and forgo illusions of relying on US military support. As Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said, quoting Ethics of the Fathers following the Kol Nidre service on Yom Kippur at my Synagogue, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
The writer may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom