West’s Inaction In Ukraine Paves Way For Putin’s Syria Gambit

MOSCOW, Russia -- A year and a half of lukewarm Western response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has led to a Russian military buildup in Syria that threatens the mission of the U.S.-led coalition.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad, at the Kremlin in 2006. Russia has been a longtime ally of Assad.

The coalition is fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and backing rebels opposing Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The recent amassing of Russian troops in Syria raises concerns that the coalition forces may come in direct confrontation with the Russian troops, whose declared mission is to support Assad.

Russia maintains that supporting Assad is the only way to defeat ISIS.

And lo and behold Russia proposes negotiations to supposedly minimize the risk.

On Friday, the American and Russian defense chiefs held their first direct talks in more than a year, as Secretary of State John Kerry said the talks would “help to define some of the different options that are available to us as we consider next steps in Syria.”

Moreover, Russophiles in the United States, are already talking about cooperating with Russia in fighting ISIS.

Russia is under Western economic sanctions for its aggression in Ukraine.

That talk is an early pitch for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s implicitly proposed trade with the United States and its European allies.

The message that Putin’s military adventurism in Syria is sending the West is this:

“Quit supporting Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko against us, drop the sanctions — and we will quit supporting Assad.”

This is exactly what the West shouldn’t do, in part because Putin has no intent to deliver on the implied promise anyway.

Accommodating Putin hasn’t worked as the U.S.-Russian relations “reboot” teaches us.

So before one sits down to negotiate with the Russians, one must make sure he can afford to speak to him from a position of strength.

Before negotiating with Russia, the United States and Europe must make sure they have done everything to make sure Syria’s neighbors deny their airspace to Russian aircraft so that Russia cannot continue with its buildup in Syria.

The West should also finally and without delay deliver weapons Ukraine needs to repel the Russian aggression.

And finally the West should boost the sanctions.

This also would give Putin something closer to home to worry about and may keep him from meddling overseas.

Putin has been supporting Assad militarily since the start of the 4½-year civil war in Syria, both politically and with arms shipments.

He is upping the ante now, because he senses the unwillingness of the West to commit militarily in Ukraine.

He appears to expect the European Union — which is stressed by the growing flow of Syrian refugees — to grasp at a chance to come to terms with Russia, which may then see to it that its close ally Assad stops barrel-bombing his own people.

So he is tempting the European leaders to sacrifice Ukraine in the hope to see the refugee crisis go away.

Putin’s track record, however, suggests that he is not going to back down in Syria even if the West gives him a carte blanche in Ukraine.

After the United States let him get away with invading Georgia several years ago, he followed up with annexing Crimea.

Absent a strong response from the West, he then invaded eastern Ukraine.

Then the West failed to send weapons to Ukraine, at which point he felt comfortable enough to send Russian troops to Syria.

Russia had maintained only a tiny naval base left in Syria as a leftover from the Soviet times until earlier this month, when it flew nearly 2,000 troops as well as tanks, howitzers, and armored personnel carriers to an airfield near the Assad family’s ancestral home in what Western military and intelligence experts believe to be an effort to establish an air base.

Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was absolutely right to complain recently that the Obama Administration could and should have done more to prevent those Russian supply flights.

They used the airspace of Iraq, where the United States has recently installed a president.

Because of the U.S. failure to prevent those flights, Putin now has a bargaining chip he can use in dealing with the West.

Western experts agree that the Russian military support may be a game changer that would keep Assad in power indefinitely.

And unless the United States and the European Union confront Putin in Ukraine, he is unlikely to give up his new leverage in Syria.

The only effective way to negotiate with Putin — a self-perceived restorer of the former Soviet grandeur — is from a position of strength.

The least the Obama Administration can do right now is discourage Putin from coming to New York later this month to attend the 70th United Nations General Assembly, where he is expected to appeal to other countries to join him in support of Assad.

Source: Toledo Blade