Putin Must Learn Obama’s Lesson: Why the US failed to build a force to fight the Islamic State
The United Stated has responded to Russia’s efforts to bolster the Assad regime by ramping up material support of Western-backed rebels. Instead of trying to change the dynamics of the Syrian Civil War by creating an artificial rebellion solely dedicated to battling the Islamic State, the failure of the $500-million training program has left the Obama Administration few options outside of supplying rebels with arms, directly attacking Assad forces, or supporting the Assad Regime. In doing so now, however, the United States has also accepted Russia’s invitation to use the Syrian Civil War as a proxy war.
Where Russian President Vladimir Putin apparently believed the US could be coerced into accepting the Assad regime as an ally, especially with Putin intensifying his propaganda war aimed at stoking anti-American sentiments in Russia and around the world, America is doing what it does best when cornered: adapting. Just as in the Ukraine Crisis, Putin’s impulse is to double down on his miscalculations and undermine any Russian support he has garnered from the International Community. Instead, he should take stock of the costly lesson the Obama Administration just learned.
Russia’s escalating support for the Assad regime demonstrates a thorough misreading of the entire situation in Syria. The Syrian Civil War started, because the Assad regime attacked peaceful Syrian protesters who were demanding better living conditions. The Islamic State thrived in Syria, because it fought against the Assad regime. The aforementioned US program to train forces to fight against the Islamic State, and not the Assad regime, failed, because it did not address the aims of those fighting in Syria.
Unfortunately, Russian leaders have to believe their own distorted versions of reality in order to convince those who do not remember critical details about the Syrian Civil War that all anti-Assad forces are terrorists and must be targeted. Quite frankly, the Free Syrian Army was created by Assad’s forces attempting to defend protesters against their government. Although Russia and the Assad Regime may be able to convince a significant portion of the world’s population that Assad is somehow a “moderate” force capable of leading Syria back to stability, they will not convince those fighting Assad that he is anything but a terrorist.
The West does not determine the outcome of the Syrian Civil War; it is those fighting who do. What this means is that the Assad regime will always face opposition. Even if Assad and Russia manage to sufficiently suppress the myriad of insurgent groups, Syria will face the same ongoing violence and long-term instability as Afghanistan does. This means the US cannot support the Assad regime. It also means Russia cannot hope to win in Afghanistan. If anything, Russia will only turn Middle Eastern governments and the democratizing Peoples of the Middle Eastern into by enemies while erasing anti-American sentiments and making the US even more appealing in comparison to Russia.
The apparent effort to settle the Ukraine Crisis, i.e. leave Putin to keep Crimea and maintain influence over Ukraine, suggests Vladimir Putin hopes to avoid a direct military conflict with the United States. Clearly, the Syrian Civil War as a proxy war is escalating, which creates a new risk for a direct conflict between the United States and Russia. At the very least, the Syrian Civil War is quickly escalating to the point where the United States may take direct action against the Assad regime in order to protect Western-backed protesters, which would nullify any chance of a semi-orderly power transition.
If Putin wishes to avoid a direct US assault on Assad’s forces and a potential escalation between Russia and the US, he needs to help persuade Assad to give up power sooner than later. The truth is that Putin could significantly improve Russia’s image across the Middle East and Europe, if he helped the Free Syrian Army and Syrian National Council transition into power. Instead of just hoping to weaken US influence on the international stage, Putin could strengthen Russian influence by removing the greatest source of instability in Syria, i.e. Assad.
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