Borrowing a phrase from Jeremiah Wright, it looks like President Obama’s foreign policy chickens have come home to roost.
We’ll start with the ugliest rooster in the bunch, our debacle in Syria. As of this writing, the Russian Air Force is two days into a bombing campaign against “terrorist” targets, in support Syrian dictator Bashir al-Assad. According to satellite imagery, there are more than two dozen Russian warplanes at an airfield in Latakia, near the Mediterranean Coast; the jets began arriving there two weeks ago and initiated combat operations this week:
Russian SU-30 Flanker multi-role fighters (left) and SU-25 Frogfoot ground attack aircraft on the ground in Syria. These assets are now flying ground attack missions in support of Moscow’s objectives in the region (AllSource Analysis imagery via ABC News)
Of course, it’s bad enough that Mr. Obama’s dawdling–and sheer incompetence–have created a power vacuum that Vladimir Putin was happy to fill. But the Russian leader added insult to injury by targeting U.S.-supported “moderate” rebels in the first missions flown by his aircraft. That put the President in a rather embarrassing position; after initially telling Russia’s military to stay out of the conflict, Mr. Obama’s national security team had to scramble and develop a plan for “de-conflicting” operations between U.S. and Russia aircraft. At last report, those talks are still on-going, and until some sort of agreement is reached, there is the possibility of an engagement between American fighter jets and their Russian counterparts.
Making matters worse, Russia issued its own ultimatum to Washington just before its air campaign began. A Russian general delivered the message: American aircraft were to depart Syrian airspace immediately and remain outside the country’s borders. Of course, the U.S. ignored Moscow’s directive, but the directive underscored the contempt Mr. Putin has for President Obama and the United States.
Meanwhile, the smart boys and girls at the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department have another Syria-related problem on their hands: what to do about Russian airstrikes against our erstwhile allies on the ground? According to media reports, discussions are underway about possibly creating a “no-fly zone” over areas occupied by U.S.-supported rebels.
Presumably, that area would be very small, given the wholesale failure of American efforts to vet, train and equip moderates to fight against ISIS. The Associated Press estimates that about 80 U.S.-trained fighters are currently battling terrorist elements in Syria, after an investment of more than $500 million. And late last month, Reuters reported that one group of American-backed rebels gave a portion of their equipment to the Al Qaida-affiliated Al Nusra Front, in exchange for safe passage.
That disturbing development eliminates another option for protecting the rebels, by equipping them with advanced, shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. Obviously, if our carefully trained and vetted rebels are willing to hand over tons of equipment (including six new pick-up trucks), they’d have no qualms about surrendering MANPAD SAMs to their buddies in Al Qaida, which would use the weapons against U.S. warplanes operating over Syria (and elsewhere).
But the real concerns lie with those Russian jets at Latakia. ISIS doesn’t have an air force, but Moscow’s airpower contingent includes at least four SU-30 Flankers which have excellent air-to-air and ground attack capabilities. Why send the Flankers–roughly equivalent to a U.S. F-15E–if Putin wasn’t preparing for all eventualities, including a potential dogfight with coalition aircraft.
And make no mistake: the Russian dictator isn’t backing away from that contingency. If Moscow were truly interested in coordinating the air campaign, they would provide a list of missions, callsigns, targets and IFF “squawks” that could be incorporated into an overall air tasking order, and directed by AWACS. But Mr. Putin has a different agenda at work in Syria and partnering with the allied coalition is somewhere near the bottom of his priority list.
In fact, the Russians would like to inflict some sort of humiliation on western air assets. Along with bailing out the Assad regime; protecting Iran’s western flank, and extending Russian influence to the Persian Gulf and Red Sea (among other objectives), Mr. Putin wants to drive the U.S. out of the region and sell some military hardware to boot. If a Russian pilot “accidentally” shot down an American jet– or one belonging to our partners–the Kremlin won’t lose much sleep, figuring correctly that Mr. Obama will never hold them accountable.
That’s the price you pay for empty threats, endless vacillation and leading from behind. Putin, the former KGB Colonel, has rightly sized up his adversary in Washington and finds him weak, feckless and incompetent. It’s an ideal environment for advancing Russia’s aims, and Mr. Putin plans to take full advantage of the situation. Having been largely banished from the key states of the Middle East over the past 30 years, Russia now finds itself as the new king-maker, supporting friends and allies and taking the fight to the terrorists while the U.S. slinks from the regional stage.
It is a positively stunning and frightening turn of events. What’s worse, some in the GOP see nothing wrong with this changing of the guard. In a recent interview with CNN, Republican front runner Donald Tump seemed quite content to let Putin take on the Syrian problem. In fairness, he has a point; our current Syria policy is an absolute disaster, and it makes little sense to continue programs that aren’t working.
But Mr. Trump is missing the bigger picture. Someone ought to ask him about the ramifications of a new Russian sphere of influence, extending southward into the Persian Gulf, across Iraq (which has grown closer to Moscow and Tehran in recent weeks) and westward through the Black Sea into the eastern Mediterranean. With that move, the Russians gain access to even greater energy reserves, allowing them to increase their leverage with western Europe, and at some point, potentially fracture NATO.
Sadly, all of this might have been prevented, by following the recommendations of our generals in Iraq; avoiding encouragement of the Arab Spring, with no regard for the forces behind it and their long-term consequences, and pursuing coherent strategies in places like Libya and Syria. Instead, Barack Obama has made a total hash of the region; Vladimir Putin is moving in and a man who wants to be the next President sees little wrong with that tectonic shift