As Obama dithers on Syria, Russia gloats
President Barak Obama's tortured deliberations over a military strike on Syria is reminiscent of Hamlet, the obsessive Prince of Denmark, "to strike or not to strike, that is the question."
Moscow, Washington's arch-opponent on the Syria issue, believes it is winning a zero-sum game — Russia’s favorite sport when it comes to geopolitics. Obama is certainly not winning.
Strategy is conspicuously missing — even the president’s allies, such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter and Obama’s own geopolitics tutor, have admitted as much.
If Obama attacks, he loses domestic and international support, and he still likely won't be able to stop the spread of chemical weapons. If he does not, dictators and terrorists alike have an incentive to continue using poisonous gas on their opponents, as Gamal Abd-el Nasser did in Yemen in 1962, Saddam Hussein did in 1988 against the Kurds, and Aum Shinrikyo did in the Tokyo metro in 1995. Syrian chemical weapons, many forget, were destined for Israel.
Relations between the US and the veto-yielding UN Security Council permanent members China and Russia, both of which strongly oppose any proposed strike on Syria, have become touchy. Beijing and Moscow are a duo that regularly opposes regime change by military intervention. Especially if the causes of intervention are massive atrocities or violations of human rights, as was the case in Kosovo and Libya.
In addition, Moscow and Beijing would hate to see a coalition led by the United States against the Assad regime succeed, each for its own reasons. China and Russia relented on the 2010 UN Iran sanctions, but oppose any additional measures against Teheran’s nuke program.
However, if the US does attack Syria, Russia could do more than simply get angry. It could supply advanced weapons to Damascus and Tehran -- including long-range S-300 anti-aircraft missiles and massive P-800 Yakhont anti-ship missiles -- and send trainers, advisors, and possibly pilots, as the USSR did for decades. To cover up its involvement, Moscow might use “private” contractors, as it did in Iraq in 2003.
The Russian General Staff has already announced that it will send additional reconnaissance ships to the Eastern Mediterranean. The Russian Navy is eyeing the possibility of establishing a permanent squadron deployment in the Mediterranean, as was the case during the Soviet era.
Despite a bout of hysterical anti-Americanism at home, so far at least, Russia has been playing chess, not seeking hostilities. This week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that the use of force against Syria is “unacceptable” and rejected evidence linking the Assad regime to the use of chemical weapons.
The official Russian reaction to international intervention in Syria has been limited and diplomatic. "We are not going to war with anyone," Lavrov said, while Russian President Vladimir Putin only called on Obama “to think carefully” before striking Syria — hardly a blood curdling statement.
It is unlikely that Iran would attack American or Israeli targets in case of a limited US strike. Tehran is pushing hard to develop its nuclear and missile program and does not want to jeopardize it. The ayatollahs also want to see Assad remain in power, and do not want the military strength of Hezbollah destroyed — which coincide with Moscow’s objectives.
Yet, both Iran and Russia have in the past supported Hezbollah (2006) and Hamas (2009/2011) in their military engagements against Israel, and may do so again. Unlike Europe and the US, Moscow refuses to recognize either organization as terrorists. Any similar attacks now, could spiral into a regional conflict.
A limited and ineffective strike against Syria might simply waste US deterrence and credibility in the Middle East, something that Moscow would only applaud. The beneficiaries of botched or ineffectual strike would be Syria, Iran, Russia and China, all of which would gain political capital, while Assad would earn the image of a leader who stood up to the "Great Satan" — with acceptable losses.
The US meanwhile, needs to remain strategically focused by stopping Iran’s nuclear program and ensuring the security of oil traffic in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. Any interruption of the oil flow could send prices skyrocketing.
Russia would get to keep its Syria-Iraq-Iran anti-Sunni deterrent belt, which in Moscow’s view prevents radicals from flooding the North Caucasus, home of the alienated Chechens, Dagestanis, and other Muslim minorities. Finally, if a US-led strike fizzles or fails to achieve any appreciable strategic objectives, Moscow will have a chance to save its naval bases in Tartus and Latakia and polish up its status of as leader of the anti-American camp.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org). He often testifies before committees of the US Congress on geopolitical and energy issues.