Moving his pieces around the geopolitical chessboard like former Russian grand master Boris Spassky, 61-year-old Russian President Vladimir Putin faked his way to checkmate with U.S. President Barack Obama. Threatening to topple the rogue regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for gassing to death hundreds of civilians, Obama finally put his foot down, promising Cruise missile strikes on Damascus. Looking at the big picture, Putin didn’t want to rock the boat where he sells billions in arms and leases the Tartus Mediterranean naval base. Had Obama gone ahead with bombing al-Assad, it might have dislodged Putin from Tartus and threatened Russian clout in the Middle East. Putin’s unexpected “deal” to take control of al-Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal saved Obama the of indignity losing a key vote in Congress to authorize military action against al-Assad’s rogue state.
Putin’s plan to take control of al-Assad’s chemical weapons took the wind out of Obama’s sails for military action. Jaded by years of Mideast wars, the American public and Congress displayed opposition to Obama half-baked plan of “punishing” al-Assad for using Sarin nerve gas. Putin’s plan rescued both al-Assad and Obama, whether or not he really convinces al-Assad to give up his weapons of mass destruction. Obama’s Sept. 10 primetime speech signaled that military plans against Syria are now on indefinite hold. “We agree on a way forward based the president’s speech last night,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), nixing plans to move aheard with a use-of-force vote. “The president asked Congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force in Syria and pursue a diplomatic solution to see if that works,” said Reid, officially nixing Obama’s military option.
When you consider the expected “No” vote in Congress and overall dangers of military intervention, no matter how downplayed by the White House, Putin outclassed the 2009 Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning Obama. Tensions hit the boiling point at the G20 conference in St. Petersburg where Barack and Putin barely exchanged words or could look at each other. Putin’s decision to send six warships to the East Mediterranean in the proximity of the U.S. Fifth Fleet was the closest potential confrontation with Russian and the U.S. since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill realized that Obama’s “narrow” or “limited” military action could cause problems for Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. While delivering another skillful speech to the American public, the president didn’t change any minds about attacking Syria with lawmakers or the American public.
Avoiding an almost certain political defeat in Congress, Obama tried to sell Syria as a matter of U.S. national security, suggesting, without intervention, other rogue states like Iran would grow bolder. After bashing former President George W. Bush’s doctrine of preemption, Obama walked a tightrope stretching the Syrian crisis into a legitimate case of U.S. national security. Calling off military plans hands Putin a statesman-like victory, allowing Russia to consolidate power in Syria and Iran. Slated to meet with Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Kyryystan Friday, Putin plans to sell Iran more nuclear and missile defense technology, making it more difficult now for Obama to contain Tehran’s feverish nuclear program. Offering Tehran its S-300 missile defense system makes the prospects of U.S. intervention less likely.
Putin’s wheeling-and-dealing with Tehran indicates he’s more invested in out-maneuvering Obama, much the same way the late Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev tried to get the better or the younger, less experienced late U.S. President John F. Kennedy in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. “Working together in the nuclear energy sphere” and “question of military technical cooperation” at the Bishek summit, said Putin spokesman Dimitry Peskov indirectly slaps the White House in the face. Not only does Putin seize control of the Syrian crisis, he preempts the U.S. from seeking more concessions from Tehran for its illicit nuclear program. “If the ‘party of war’ prevails in the United States . . . then I consider it absolutely justified to suggest considering more serious measures by Russia, including broadening of supplies of defensive weapons to Iran,” said Alexi Pushkov, head of the Russia the Duma’s International Relations Committee.
Putin’s latest maneuvering defused the Syrian crisis, while, at the same time, gave the Kremlin greater clout in the Middle East. Obama’s decision to go to Congress Aug. 31 mirrored his ambivalence about air strikes and ended a strategic window to degrade al-Assad’s dominance over various rebel groups, including Brig. Salim Idris’s Free Syrian Army. Acting with too much deliberation gave Putin the clout to pit world opinion against the U.S. but, more importantly, to orchestrate a temporary fix to his liking. Accepting Putin’s plan essentially throws U.S.-friendly rebel groups under the bus. Moving hastily to strike more arms and nuclear deals with Tehran, Putin looked to nail down future moves on his geopolitical chessboard. Supplying Iran with more nuclear technology and military hardware reveals the real motive behind Putin’s peace plan: To neutralize U.S. clout in the Middle East.
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.