The Assad Bandwagon: Putin’s Fulcrum for Expanding His Middle East Assets
US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin talked Monday, April 29, at cross purposes on the situation in Syria. It was clear to Obama from the word go that he had not the slightest chance of getting the Russian leader aboard for joint action with the United States for ending the Syrian bloodbath.
His offer to send Secretary of State John Kerry to Moscow to discuss the matter with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was essentially a despairing bid to end the conversation on a positive note.
The US president knew Putin was holding the high cards on Syria compared with his own weak hand.
Even a decision at this late date to supply the Syrian rebels with heavy arms – directly or through an Arab third party – would no longer tip the scales against Bashar Assad’s army and unseat him but do more harm than good. They were more than likely to fall into the wrong hands – rebel groups tied to Al Qaeda – or end up in the Middle East’s black markets for weapons.
The Russian president’s bet on Assad – and sponsorship of the Iran-Syria-Hizballah axis – had clearly paid off, while Obama had forfeited the game by his policy of avoiding US military intervention in any Middle East conflict.
The scale of Moscow’s success in Syria comes out clearly in a step-by-step track of the state of the battlefield, such as the exclusive and systematic updates DEBKA-Net-Weekly has been offering week by week.
(Read the latest exclusive report appearing in this issue on how Iranian and Hizballah forces contributed to the strengthening of the Syrian army’s battlefield gains.)
Moscow scales down Obama’s options for Syria
This week, the Obama administration continued to be consumed by its concerns over the use chemical weapons in Syria and fears of US-supplied heavy weapons falling into the hands of al Qaeda-linked rebels and fellow Islamist militias.
Putin, less troubled by such anxieties, took the opposite tack.
1. He stepped up Russia’s supplies to the Syrian army of a wide range of heavy weapons: rockets, tanks, self-propelled artillery and light arms, with no thought of them possibly falling into the hands of al Qaeda or other terrorists. Assad is not being asked to pay for the merchandize at this time.
2. Putin is forwarding precise Russian intelligence updates to President Bashar Assad and his high military command covering the action on the different battle fronts and the military movements conducted by Syria’s neighbors, Turkey, Israel, Jordan and the US units deployed in those countries.
3. Moscow is coordinating its diplomatic and military moves in the Middle East and Persian Gulf.
with Tehran and Hizballah in Beirut.
In contrast to Obama’s ifs and buts on US military options in Syria, Putin has unhesitatingly thrust both feet onto Syria’s blood-soaked terrain and taken one step after another to frustrate US military operations and render them unfeasible.
US is therefore left with diminished options for intervention in the Syrian war, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources – not much more than long-range missile strikes against Syrian regime and military targets, a tactic of dubious precision and effectiveness.
Short of military partners and regional assets
America is also fast running out of potential partners for military action, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Washington add, thanks to the president’s indecisiveness.
Washington can’t currently count on a single European NATO member or Middle East ally for joining such action, excepting only Israel and Jordan.
And even they are only prepared to plunge into the Syrian mess if a substantial US force is made available and deployed to the region.
(See last week’s DEBKA-Net-Weekly 585 – Obama's 20,000-Troop "Surge" to Shield Jordan from Syria). With regard to a choice of allies, therefore, America has moved far down the ladder compared with its situation on the eve of the Libyan campaign of 2011. Two years on, in 2013, most European Union members are not above accepting lucrative commissions for their military industries, but are otherwise unwilling to send troops to Syria – or in no position to do so due to economic constraints and cutbacks of their military forces.
As Commander-in-Chief, President Obama also finds himself short of air and naval assets present in the Middle East to back up a military operation against Syria. In the vast area from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, the US maintains a single aircraft carrier. For action against Syria, the aircraft carrier stationed opposite Iran would have to be moved close to Syria. This would stir strong objections from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, even though they back the Syrian rebellion against the Assad regime.
Washington’s “Pivot to Asia” stays grounded
Obama’s phone call to the Russian president came on the day Putin was playing host to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Kremlin. This visit delivered another setback to a key Obama policy objective, his proclaimed "pivot to Asia," whose purpose was to reorient Washington’s foreign policy on Asia instead of the Middle East.
Russian and Japanese leaders ended the visit eager to go to work on a peace treaty between the two nations. They also signed a pile of documents for developing economic ties.
Putin announced that the Russian natural gas monopoly Gazprom would have a stake in building an LNG terminal in Japan, and that the Russian Far East would welcome Japanese investment in its energy industry and infrastructure.
After Moscow, Abe travels soon to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, where a major nuclear power technology deal is in negotiation.
The Obama administration’s bitterness over Putin’s role in the Syria civil conflict was exacerbated by the sight of Asian investment in energy markets flowing toward Moscow – not Washington.