Putin Will Find Appearances Can Deceive in Syria

Russia will suffer if intervention fails.


Credit: Dmitry Avdeev

It's now a tenet of conventional wisdom that our policy in Syria is an embarrassment as well as a flop. Washington insiders place great importance on "optics," and the sight of Russian President Vladimir Putin flexing his muscles is making their eyes sting. 

"Current and former Obama officials say the president's reluctance to respond more assertively against Putin is signaling U.S. weakness and indecision," reports Politico. One current aide lamented anonymously that "we act like we're totally impotent." 

Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state under George W. Bush, and Robert Gates, secretary of defense under Bush and Barack Obama, couldn't agree more. The Russian strongman "sees a vacuum created by our hesitancy," they wrote in The Washington Post. "Moscow matters again in international politics, and Russian armed forces are on the move." 

And their point is? Moscow matters again, true—but in a hellish region that has a way of bringing outsiders to ruin. Russian armed forces are on the move in the same way they were in 1979 in Afghanistan, where they lost 14,000 lives before departing in humiliation. 

The detractors attach too much to symbolism and perception. Bush looked formidable on that aircraft carrier with the "mission accomplished" sign shortly after the Iraq invasion. But it was an illusion. 

The critiques don't address, much less answer, the questions about Syria that ought to be central: What important American interests are at stake? How does Russian intervention threaten them? 

Putin is assisting a regime that has been a Russian ally for decades. He may help Syrian President Bashar Assad quell a civil war that has fueled both the Islamic State group and al-Qaida. His prize for success? Keeping a naval base and maybe having a say in a negotiated settlement. 

A deal to end the war that involves the Russians might require Obama to give up his demand for Assad to step down. But it would also do useful damage to our extremist enemies. Obama may not think so—or may just not want to say so—but we stand to gain if the current regime can regain control of the country.

In that case, Cato Institute analyst Benjamin Friedman offers a sardonic suggestion: "Maybe once we pull off that trick, we can get the Chinese to take over in Afghanistan." 

If the Russians fail, though, they will suffer. Putin's embassy in Damascus was hit by mortar rounds this week, and the head of al-Qaida affiliate Nusra Front proclaimed, "If the Russian army kills the people of Syria, then kill their people." The blowback we have faced for so many years will veer toward Moscow. 

The rulers in Riyadh financed the rebels who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, and they are expected to arm and fund those fighting the Russians in Syria. The Saudis will be spending money, which they have in abundance, while the Russians will be sacrificing lives, which they don't. 

Jonathan Schanzer and Boris Zilberman pointed out in The National Interest that "a Saudi economic war against Russia is also underway"—which consists mostly of pumping enough oil to keep the price of Putin's chief export depressed. Oh, and "some Saudi preachers are casting this conflict as a religious one." The Kremlin shouldn't count on a happy ending. 

What does the U.S. stand to lose from Putin's venture? Nothing of critical importance. Assad's regime poses no threat to us, and most of its enemies do. Our involvement in the region has yielded us mostly huge losses and the chronic threat of terrorism. If we extricate ourselves from the brambles just as Putin plunges in, we'll be better off, not worse. 

We once felt obligated to police the Persian Gulf to prevent the Soviets or anyone else from using its vast oil reserves for coercive purposes. Fortunately, the 1970s are over. The oil weapon, always overrated, is now about as frightening as a fly swatter. 

Hawks think we have to use military force to stop terrorism. By now, we should comprehend that intervening in a foreign civil war swarming with jihadis is the best possible way to generate terrorist attacks on American targets. 

What the alarmists regard as weakness and indecision can be more accurately characterized as firm prudence and immunity to panic. The administration's critics let themselves be addled by appearances. 

Obama has mostly managed to focus on things that affect our security. Putin, by contrast, is making a mistake that is familiar to Americans. How do you say "mission accomplished" in Russian?

© Copyright 2015 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

NEXT: Why We Should Pity the Anti-Rape Activist Who Convinced Herself She's a Rapist.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. When you so lamely yet openly have to foreshadow your closing line – to remind readers of a ten year old manufactured controversy dating back to the previous administration – it is pretty apparent you suck as a writer. Even if you are only a centralized authority fellating writer of leftist agitprop.

    1. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to note that Putin, through his actions in the middle east, is showing Obama/Hillary his own reset button.

  2. Anybody else notice the change in how the American media covered Syria once Russia got involved? It went from “it’s a hopeless morass where ‘moderate’ rebels don’t resist” to “OMG!!! PUTIN IS KILLING THE MODERATE REBELS!!!” Um, what? How can Putin kill people who don’t exist?

    While i will take the media’s word that Putin is destroying caches of CIA-provided weapons, what’s usually left unsaid or left ambiguous is who exactly these caches were provided to; who exactly have we been arming in Syria?

    I’ve been admittedly conditioned to distrust Putin by our media but this amazing and blatant about face and the carrying the water for the CIA are making me question every other anti-Putin story to come out out Western media over the past few year. Is he responsible for Ukraine’s chaos? Did his military or his allies shoot down that plane? Seriously…

  3. Hard to argue with our Libya strategy. I hear the campaign in Afghanistan is doing well too…

  4. It seems Mr. Chapman has forgotten, yet again, that the Obama administration was hell bent on bombing Assad until the American people rose up and said “Hell no.” The administration wanted to get involved. Badly.

    Let’s see if Chapman can write another article filled with obvious bullshit and duplicity. Well I’ll be Goddamned, mission accomplished!

    Why does Reason even give this scrunt a forum?

    1. Yea, get rid of Assad. We know that getting ride of Hussein and Khadafi worked out so well. It’s like Chapman asked, what important american interests are at stake, what benefit would removing Assad have done for us other than put a feather in uncle sam’s hat for a “successful” invention in another country, make that a temporary successful intervention.

      1. An interesting argument. One that I do not remember Chapman offering when the Obama administration was discussing mechanisms for removing Assad from power.

        Now that Putin has put the kibosh on Obama’s role in Syria it’s revisionism all the way down.

        1. Anyone saying the Obama administration didn’t actually want to get directly involved in Syria is one of three things:
          1. A liar.
          2. A fool.
          3. A spinmeister desperately trying to cover for a failed policy (whether we should have been pursuing that policy is a separate argument).

          Chapman, I think, is all three.

        2. It’s like Chapman asked, what important american interests are at stake, what benefit would removing Assad have done for us other than put a feather in uncle sam’s hat for a “successful” invention in another country, make that a temporary successful intervention…

          An interesting argument. One that I do not remember Chapman offering when the Obama administration was discussing mechanisms for removing Assad from power.

          I’d suggest you learn how to search this site if I thought you would even bother.


          1. Thanks for the suggestion, as noted I was working from memory. But your link is 404’d.

            1. Found it!


              LOL, this article wasn’t about the Obama administration’s “Assad’s gotta go” rhetoric, it was Chapman excusing Obama for running away from his ‘red line.’

              “Just because we might let Assad get away with gassing his people doesn’t mean…”

  5. Google pay 97$ per hour my last pay check was $8500 working 1o hours a week online. My younger brother friend has been averaging 12k for months now and he works about 22 hours a week. I cant believe how easy it was once I tried it out.
    This is wha- I do…… ??????

  6. OK. Enough nonsense. This isn’t about how long the Russkies and the Assads have been butt-buddies. Nor is it about warm water ports. It’s about *why* they’re such good buddies, and why *this* particular warm water port. You never find the real explanation for this in the MSM, so here it is: It’s about natural gas. Qatar and Russia are neck and neck for top exporter of natural gas. Russia sells its to Europe, and, therefore, has some political/economic clout, as you may have read in the last couple of years. Qatar wants to sell their gas to Europe, too. The US would like for Qatar to sell its gas to Europe, and undercut the Russians so that Russian leverage over Europe is diminished. If Qatar wants to build a gas pipeline to Europe, it has to go through … let’s see…. Syria? Yes. That’s why the “rebels” were initially financed by Qatar, to the tune of over a billion $.

    1. That’s the Why. Here’s the How: ISIS is a wholly owned subsidiary of US/NATO intelligence. It and Al Qaeda have always operated to further US foreign policy goals, specifically, to weaken Russia. (Am I the only one that wonders why these rabidly fundamentalist muslims don’t attack Israel?) Afghanistan circa 1980? Check. Chechnya? Check. Balkans? Check. (Clinton’s war was for an oil pipeline, again, to undercut Russia’s influence.) Libya? Check, and check. France stole Libya’s gold reserves and the US got rid of a secular muslim leader. (The Al Qaeda flag now flies over most government buildings in Tripoli) The Benghazi scandal was that advanced weaponry was being shipped to Turkey to be used in Syria. Syria? How is it that Russia degraded ISIS by 40-ish % in a week, and the US has been “attacking” ISIS for over a year, with no results? BTW, those ubiquitous Toyota trucks that ISIS has? Toyota first sold them to the US State Dept. Why are ISIS supply lines coming out of Turkey, a NATO member (and notorious for its “Deep State”, a fascistic integration of intelligence, drug smuggling, and multinational corporations)?

      It’s a sad, depressing state of affairs that, US foreign policy is so murderous, so depraved and vile, that a scumbag like Putin looks reasonable when compared to it.

      1. Dude,your tinfoil hat is too tight….try one size larger. You’ll thank me later.

        1. I have a far, far, FAR more sophisticated explanation of ALL of this:

          The Middle East: Goat-fuckers gotta fuck goats.

          Russia’s interest in the above: Bears are hungry, they need meat and fat. Fucked goats don’t taste so good (they stress out and lose weight and add bad-tasting adrenaline to their meat while they get raped). The Russian bear wants to eat pure, un-defiled, clean, un-fucked goats.

          Any other questions?

  7. Russia may already be suffering a set back.…..n-syria-2/

  8. I can’t help but feel that Chapman is playing around with false choices.

    There’s not going to be any “wars” waged against the United States regardless of what happens to Russia’s intervention. And if Russia’s miscalculation somehow resulted in terrorists hitting us multiple times, Chapman’s not likely to support any efforts to curtail immigration from that region or strike back militarily. “We’re being punished for OUR previous involvement elsewhere” will be the ready made Ron Paul rationale.

    More importantly, terrorists won’t reason “Since America has not gotten involved in Syria, we will target only Russia”. It just doesn’t work that way. They’ve hated on the Jews and America for decades. They’re not radicalized by one or two bad mistakes that can corrected, and most of our overreaction was due to their aggression on civilians. It’s a cycle.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.