March 2, 2012

Putin's Obama gambit

Warning: chess metaphor imminent
A couple of seemingly disparate items caught my attention this morning which lead me to believe that the president is going to take military action against Syria in the coming months. While that may seem counter-intuitive since the president has avoided making moves against both Iran and Syria over the course of the Green Revolution and the rest of the Arab Spring, it makes sense given the fluid nature of geopolitical realities.

President Obama is certainly has a political nature. Despite his resolute political philosophy, he doesn't seem to be above taking advantage of opportunities that are presented to him.  From the Beer Summit to the keeping open of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility after his devout promises to close it as soon as possible,  to the national debt discussions, the president has always sought to take advantage of circumstances in order to aid his political objectives.  The current crisis in Syria is no different.  However, circumstances have changed.  The dynamic has changed, and he will take advantage of it the same way Vladimir Putin is taking advantage of him.

So what's changed?  Putin is backing away from his support of Syria.  This represents a significant paradigm shift in the situation in Syria.

Via the Globe and Mail;
In a striking rebuke to Syria’s embattled government, Russian leader Vladimir Putin has warned that the Assad regime’s days may be numbered and a ceasefire with rebel forces must be reached.

With international support waning for President Bashar al-Assad, Mr. Putin declined to stand squarely by the dictatorship that he was once thought to prop up.

“We don’t have a special relationship,” the Russian leader said in an interview with the editors of six major international newspapers, including The Globe and Mail.

“It is up to the Syrians to decide who should run their country. We need to make sure they stop killing each other.” This from the man who less than a month ago publicly claimed that vetoing the United Nations resolution to sanction the Syrian government for gunning down its citizens was a recipe for more bloodshed.
That sounds like Putin saying things he has to say.  But consider that less than a month ago, the situation was very different.

The L.A. Times reported in early February,
Putin faces what some have dubbed "Russian Spring" protests in his bid to be elected president next month. Some commentators have said the Russian leadership is especially wary of United Nations-backed regime change in autocratic states. Moscow was unhappy with the scenario last year in Libya, where U.N. action paved the way for a Western-led bombing campaign that helped topple Moammar Kadafi.

However, Russian officials say their actions on Syria, including a veto Saturday of a U.N. Security Council measure calling on Assad to step aside, have been motivated by a desire to avoid more bloodshed. The joint veto by Russia and China drew condemnation from Syrian opposition groups and governments that are calling on Assad to step down.

The comments by Putin come a day after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov received a boisterous welcome in Damascus and met with Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years. The top Russian diplomat said he had exacted a vow from the Syrian leader to help end the violence that has ravaged the Middle East nation for almost a year. Assad also pledged to hasten reforms and talks with the opposition, Lavrov said…

The week has seen a number of nations, including the United States, several European countries and Gulf Arab states, recall their envoys from Damascus. Some Arab states opposed to Assad also expelled Syrian diplomats. The Russian foreign minister said the withdrawal of diplomats from Damascus would not help peace efforts.

The Syrian government assault on the rebel stronghold of Homs continued Wednesday, said opposition activists, who reported a fifth consecutive day of shelling with heavy civilian casualties.
Not only has Putin changed his tune, he's done it very quickly. Why would he do that?  He's an opportunist. The situation in Syria has increasingly looked increasingly indefensible and Putin knows that.  He has his own agenda and his about face reflects that.  Putin is facing re-election challenges which is one major consideration, but there are two other considerations that tie into that one worth mentioning.

(1) Putin expects to win re-election despite protests against corruption, his party and him personally.  He's likely to make sure that he wins, by whatever means necessary.  So his considerations extend beyond mere re-election.  His geopolitical agenda includes support of international troublemakers like North Korea, Syria and Iran.  Abandoning support of one of those he has previously supported actually makes sense.  The bigger prize in terms of an alliance is Iran.  In a chess metaphor, Syria is a chess pawn, and Iran is a rook.  In chess it's okay to sacrifice a pawn in order to protect or keep a rook in play.  It's a smart move.   By caving on Syria, both domestically and internationally it becomes far more defensible when Russia comes to the defense of Iran, in light of other events that are likely to transpire vis-a-vis Israel.

(2) His geopolitical rival is the United States.  Obama is facing re-election and all of his mile wide but inch deep credibility on foreign policy public support is at risk.It is always at risk for any president, but current events make the president's credibility especially precarious.  With Israel poised to take action against Iran's nuclear program, the president faces some unappetizing choice.  Even liberal pundits at The Atlantic recognize the situation and the political reality.
Israel could decide to attack Iran, forcing the president into a Sophie's Choice of either entering a catastrophic war in the Middle East or else rebuking Israel in an election years. Who knows what else might happen?
President Obama cannot stand idly by and let Iran develop a nuclear weapon.  He cannot stand idly by if Israel does something about it.  He'll either have to admonish Israel and let them fend for themselves (a loser with voters to be sure), or he can provide Israel aid and support (not a loser with voters exactly, but potentially a loser with a portion of his base).  It's a difficult situation to be sure.  The president can however take his preferred path of avoiding the Iranian problem altogether and still shore up his fragile but positive foreign policy credentials with voters by acting tough on Syria.

The president is a political opportunist.  Finally getting tough on Syria might strengthen his credibility on foreign policy and still allow him to opt out of aiding Israel if they chose to strike Iran.  It's a risky gambit, but it is a better political alternative than doing nothing in either the case of Israel/Iran as well as Syria. It will mitigate the political damage to some extent for the president.

Putin, an erstwhile ally of Syria has provided that opening for Obama.  It allows Putin to face a weaker geopolitical rival in Obama for the next four years than he would have to face in Romney, Gingrich or Santorum.  It will also give him more maneuver room with Iran against a less stalwart opponent in Obama. The fallback position for Putin is that should Iran and Israel come to blows before the election, he has the option to say Russia has been on the right side in Syria but will not stand by in the face of Israeli aggression in Iran's case. Knowing Obama was given a pass in Syria and will be less likely to react to Russian intervention in Iran, Putin will expect Obama to blink.

That Obama may not have a choice to blink if Russia goes too far is another matter.  However, here's the scenario I believe most likely to follow now.  Given the opening on Syria from Russia, and the fact that the U.N. resolution was vetoed, Obama will approve military intervention as his last option.  He'll get support from a number of Arab countries which have already condemned Syria. That he believes, should help him with voters.

Putin will lament that the U.S. actions were aggressive and unavoidable but that Assad had gone too far in Syria.

After the United States has cleared enough room in Iraq, Israeli planes will be able hit Iran in an effort to stop their nuclear weapons ambitions.  Russia will condemn the actions and offer aid in some for to Iran.  Having spent time condemning the U.S. in his internal election gambit, Putin will offer aid to the poor Iranian regime being needlessly attacked by Zionist forces.  He'll do so with the knowledge that Obama has cover to do nothing to help Israel and will probably avoid any sort of engagement in that theater.  

It's a chess match and while taking advantage of the opportunity presented to him, he will end up successfully check-mated on the Middle East by a crafty and more experienced Putin.  That's not good news for Israel, or for America.

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