Trying to drum up support for air strikes against Syria at the G20 in St. Petersburg, President Barack Obama found his message falling on deaf ears, especially No. 1 Syrian-ally Russian President Vladimir Putin. While Vladimir was a 10-year-old lad when the 14-day Cuban Missile Crisis pushed the world to the brink, today’s Syria crisis is rapidly sending the international community to the precipice. Bypassing the U.N. Security Council and seeking Congressional approval for air strikes, Obama plays his own game of Cold War chess. When American chess master Bobby Fischer faced Russian Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland July 11, 1972, the outcome went America’s way Aug. 31, 1972 when Spassky quit. While American Cold War hawks praised the results back then, Obama’s collision course with Russia is no game, pushing the world closer to the edge.
Obama got a cool reception in St. Petersburg, where U.S.-Russian relations hit a new post-Cold War low. When over a thousand Syrian civilians died from Sarin nerve gas exposure Aug. 21, Obama was pushed to take action. Syrian officials, home to the Mideast’s largest chemical weapons’ stockpile, denied packing Sarin into artillery shells in East Damascus. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad blamed whatever happened on Israel. Putin wants more proof to form a judgment but readily accepts al-Assad’s preposterous explanation. “It was a very friendly conversation. We stick to our guns. Everybody remained with his position,” said Putin following a brief meeting with Obama in St. Petersburg. When Putin says, “we stick to our guns,” he means it, dispatching three more Russian warships to the East Mediterranean, though it’s not certain what he plans to do to defend al-Assad.
Now placed into the experienced hands of 77-year-old Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Obama won’t get the limited or narrow operation he once proposed to deal with al-Assad’s chemical weapons attack. As the debate shifts to counting votes in Congress, Obama has made a Faustian bargain to get air strikes approved by an otherwise hostile House of Representatives. When you add to his request, Putin’s threats of defending Syria, it’s no wonder that freshman GOP Congressman are gun-shy. Obama put McCain in charge of corralling his GOP caucus in the House and Senate to back a plan to answer al-Assad’s chemical attacks. Stymied in the U.N. Security Council because of Russia’s veto power, the U.S. must go it alone or take a limited coalition, including France, Canada and Turkey, with him on any anticipated air strikes to stop al-Assad from more chemical attacks.
Putin raised the stakes by ordering more Russian warships into the region before any U.S. air strikes. Without moving the Red Army into Syria like he did in South Ossetia, Georgia in 2006, Putin hoped the Russian navy would get Obama to stand down. “Will we help Syria? Yes we will. And we’re doing it right now. We’re supplying arms. We are cooperating win the area of the economy,” said Putin, coyly evading any detail about what the Russian navy might due in response to U.S. air strikes. Sending two Russian amphibious vessels with a reconnaissance ship from the Sea of Marmara, through the narrow Dardanelle strait to the Bosphorus and out the Aegean to the Mediterranean, Putin sends an ominous message to Capitol Hill. Calling his conversation with Putin “candid,” Obama showed now signs of backing down in what looks like the closest U.S.-Russian confrontation since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Putin’s decision to beef up Russia’s naval presence in the Mediterranean coast off Syria is the most brazen attempt yet to discourage Obama from proceeding with possible air strikes. Since the Iraq War, the U.S. has wasted its political capital, finding very little support to stop al-Assad from violating the 1941 Geneva Protocol and 1993 Chemical Weapons Ban. “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line,” Obama said in Sweden, denying that Syria only breached his warning about using chemical weapons. As Obama found out in St. Petersburg, U.N. member states aren’t outraged by al-Assad’s use of Sarin nerve gas on Syrian civilians. Even Iranians, that faced Saddam Hussein’s repeated poison gas attacks, aren't inclined to betray a fellow Shiite regime, ignoring al-Assad’s chemical weapons use. Putin sees the U.S. mission as encroaching on Russia’s geopolitical influence in the region.
Heading on a collision course with the Russian navy, Obama must decide whether confronting al-Assad’s chemical weapons use is worth a possible confrontation with Russia. Even if Putin is beating his chest, Barack must pick his battles wisely. Had Putin moved the Red Army into Damascus, Obama would be forced to stand down. Sending warships into the region gives the U.S. reason to pause as they contemplate possible repercussions of Syrian air strikes. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey wouldn’t speculate about possible Russian intentions or, for that matter, the safety of the U.S. Fifth Fleet. Putin’s warnings give Capitol Hill reason to pause before two old geopolitical foes compete for supremacy in the Middle East. Obama’s already fired his “shot across the bow.” If he chooses to go ahead with Syrian air strikes, he opens up a whole new can of worms.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.