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Moscow's move ups pressure on Obama

Michael KniggeSeptember 16, 2015

From the beginning of the conflict in Syria, Washington has been caught between a rock and hard place on how to respond. Russia's latest military move in Syria has dimmed recent hopes for a diplomatic solution.

Nordirland Treffen Obama Putin G8 2013
Image: Reuters

In what appears to be a coordinated effort timed for the opening of the UN General Assembly, Russia and Iran have upped their military and diplomatic stakes in Syria.

While Moscow has in recent days expanded its military footprint in the country, Tehran announced on Tuesday that after consulting with Moscow, in the next few days it would begin to implement its political plan to solve the conflict.

Washington seems to have been surprised by their latest moves vis-a-vis Syria.

"I know of no prior notice that was given to the United States with respect to these additional activities that Russia has taken," US State Department spokesman John Kirby said on Tuesday. That left US Secretary of State John Kerry to once again express American concerns about Moscow's move to his Russian counterpart - his third call to Sergey Lavrov in 10 days.

No strategy

There has been no official US reaction to the announcement that Tehran would soon begin to implement its political plan for Syria. "The Islamic Republic of Iran's political plan to settle the Syrian crisis will enter the operational phase after consultations with the Russian officials in the next few days," Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian said on Tuesday, according to semi-official Fars News Agency.

James Davis, a US foreign policy scholar at the University of St. Gallen, is not surprised by the Obama administration's slow response to the military and diplomatic advances made by Russia and Iran.

Russland militärische Aufrüstung
Russia has said it will increase its military support for the Assad regimeImage: picture alliance/dpa/Sana

"This administration has not shown itself to be very adept at devising a coherent strategy for the Middle East as a whole or for Syria in particular," said Davis. "One of my criticisms of the Obama approach is that we haven't decided whether it matters enough to us."

From the very beginning, said Davis, the US had been a reluctant actor in the Syrian conflict, driven to spurious responses only by developments on the ground. Instead of having a robust debate about Syria, "we have half-heartedly supported some of the rebel groups and then increasingly decided ISIS was the danger, meanwhile still criticizing the abhorrent behavior of [Syrian President Bashar al] Assad," he said, using another acronym for the "Islamic State" (IS) militant group.

Escalation between US and Russia

Russia's decision to increase its military footprint in Syria to try to boost the Assad regime's waning power has diminished hopes of reaching a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Michael Ratney, the new US special envoy for Syria, has been engaged in constant shuttle diplomacy between Geneva, Moscow and Riyadh since taking office in late July.

But Moscow's latest military move has implications far beyond the immediate conflict in Syria. "It is also a step of further escalation between the US and Russia," said Kristina Kausch, who heads the Middle East program of Madrid-based think tank FRIDE. "For the West it is important to understand that for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin this is not about Syria, but about holding on to geopolitical claims in a region that he sees as increasingly embattled."

With the toppling of dictators Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya by the US or with US help, Moscow has lost its longtime allies in the region. Even Iran, another traditional partner of the Kremlin, made an important step toward the US with the recent signing of the nuclear agreement.

"So Assad's regime is Russia's last foothold in the region," said Kausch. It is in the context of Moscow wanting to assert its claims that Moscow's latest move has to be viewed, she added.

Virtual intervention

Militarily, however, the Kremlin's move is largely for show ahead of the UN General Assembly, said Pavel Baev, an expert on Russia's military at the Peace Research Institute Oslo. "It is to all intents and purposes a virtual intervention.

"The perception of Russian military might is very much exaggerated, partly because of the spectacular success achieved in Crimea," he added. "In fact, Russia is very overstretched in its military capabilities because it needs to deploy battalions in the Donbass war zone" in eastern Ukraine.

According to Baev, all that Moscow can spare to deploy to Syria is one or two air force squadrons to fight IS. But since Russia does not have high-precision weapons in place, its strikes are going to be less effective than those led by the US.

Syrien Kämpfe um Kobane 18.10.2014
The US has engaged in an air campaign against IS since 2014Image: Reuters/K. Pfaffenbach

Washington to decide

While Moscow's increased military support for Assad doesn't make reaching a solution in Syria any easier, said Baev, it's certainly no game changer.

"I think it's important not to overreact," he noted, adding that Putin has recognized that Turkey is preoccupied with the Kurds, Europe has a huge migration problem to deal with and America's bombing campaign against IS is making little progress. "Putin is simply trying to exploit the very obvious confusion in Western policies toward Syria for his own benefit."

That is why it's incumbent on the Obama administration to finally make up its mind about Syria, said Davis, the US foreign policy scholar.

"For me the failure on the American side is deciding whether it matters and whether we care enough about the outcome. And if we do care, we are not doing enough, and if we don't care, we are doing too much."