Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Syria, Russia, and American Weakness

by Elliott Abrams
May 7, 2013


On Tuesday, Vladimir Putin showed his contempt for the United States by making our secretary of state wait three hours to see him. It is an unprecedented and unheard-of insult.

But the background makes this insult less startling. Kerry was in Moscow to plead for Russian help in sorting out the administration’s terrible dilemma in Syria. President Obama does not wish to intervene but the humanitarian toll–75,000 killed since he said in the summer of 2011 that Assad must go–and the presence of Iranian and Hezbollah forces in Syria make that position increasingly indefensible. We may not want some sort of proxy war in Syria but Iran and Hezbollah do. And their presence has helped attract some 6,000 Sunni jihadis, whose presence destabilizes not only Syria today but potentially several other countries tomorrow.

Faced with this challenge what did Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry do? They asked Putin for help. This is astonishing in itself, for the last four years offer proof that Putin is an enemy of the United States and seeks to weaken us, not to help us. The notion that we have common interests in Syria beggars belief.

There are messages Mr. Kerry might theoretically have delivered that might have elicited a different reaction from Putin. Try this one: “We will not permit a Hezbollah and Iranian victory in Syria and we will not accept Assad’s continuation in power. Nor will we accept a never-ending civil war there that produces a million refugees, whose presence may destabilize Jordan. So we will destroy Assad’s air power and he will lose the war, unless you get him out of there.” That might wake Putin up and maybe he would see American representatives without the humiliating three-hour wait. Today, we look weak and irresolute and he treats us accordingly.

In fact there are roughly 550,000 refugees in Jordan and the number grows by 60,000 a month. Are we prepared to see Jordan destabilized? Are we prepared to see Iranian and Hezbollah expeditionary forces changing the outcome of a conflict in the Middle East?

Perhaps. Nothing we have yet done in Syria really answers that question, although the unwillingness to act suggests that we are, and that the worst outcome the White House can contemplate is action–not defeat.

But defeat is possible. Should Assad stay in power due to Russian and Iranian and Hezbollah support, and should Hezbollah’s domination of Lebanon thereby be solidified, and should our long-time ally Jordan be destabilized by the presence of three-quarters of a million or a million Syrian refugees, we will have been defeated and our position in the Middle East dealt an historic setback. Any hope of a negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis would be gone. The alliance system we have built up in the Gulf would be shredded because our own credibility would be gone.

This is what is at stake in Syria. The picture of an American secretary of state hanging around for three hours, desperate to see Putin and seek his help, is pathetic–and suggests a profound misjudgment of Putin (who has nothing but contempt for weakness) and of Russian policy. There is little room for pity in the international politics of the Middle East: the strong prevail and the weak suffer. Our allies have believed we were the strong party, but must now doubt our will. The Israelis know that there is no substitute for power and the will to use it, so they are giving demonstrations in Syria of their own policy–in the absence of any American determination to prevail.

This is a situation fraught with danger for American allies and American national interests. Appealing to Russia for help is the true measure of this administration’s failures.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by The Source of Strength

    We are weakened and befuddled but, thankfully, Israel is a rock, for now.
    We do share a common interest in Syria- stability. With Weimar Egypt as a ‘dirty side’, Israel can do no better than an ophthalmologist, forced to ‘keep up appearances’ as a client state for Iran, and his London-bred wife, a former Deutsche Bank staffer and JP Morgan banker.
    If it were possible for Iran’s allies to look the other way while its unambiguously nefarious nuclear facilities are destroyed, with concessions to the Assad regime offered as an incentive, Israel would be able to leverage this conflict to obtain exactly what it needs from the United States to allow it time to adjust to the reality of life in the Middle East- submission to G-d.

  • Posted by Dean Smallwood

    This is only one more affirmation for those of us who knew in 2008 that Obama was in way over his head .

  • Posted by Phil

    Firstly, I think any rational person would require a little more detail and facts about why Kerry was ‘made’ wait in Moscow before extrapolating further conclusions and knock-on effects for the sake of ‘seeming’ right. Personally I think your conclusions about this are premature and overly simplistic as swashbuckling and ‘manly’ as they come across. Those who write rather than do sometimes can’t resist flexing what they can in an environment of testosterone fueled preemptive war which has pervaded Washington thinking since 2001. Can anyone say neocon? etc
    However, perception of strength, to the Russians, can be important…. but it’s not like they represent any sort of power right now and so they do not warrant a shift in policy just to send them a message. Actually it’s a ridiculous thing you prescribe. To throw dangerous shapes to get their attention? when there is subtle and complex debate to be had – none of which is about hurting each other as this is simply NOT about US/Russia any more – credits rolled on that movie a long time ago as much as some writers and thinkers of IR long for that simplicity once more.
    The reality of ACTION is simple here: US Troops WILL NOT hit the ground in Syria! Can US and partners create a functional, safe NFZ for the Rebels to operate within? Possibly, but it would definitely require a large cruise missile type attack to take out a few thousand targets. It would certainly at some point include flying Raptors over the area which would certainly put US airmen at risk. The cost would run into a number of billions of dollars, just to get as far as grounding Assad’s air force. After that – his ground troops would still be able to hit rebels – because the US is never going to hit those brigades from the air risking civilian casualties and igniting an IRAQ-TYPE critical response from the world which would then translate to domestic political pressure within congress, which would be justified.
    So the question is: Can a purely cruise missile type targeted attack over a week or two weeks be enough to ground all of Assad’s air force jets? and what about his Helicopters? Taking out air defenses, Radar stations, air fields, planes on the ground and supporting infrastructure would NOT stop Helicopters from getting in the air and attacking Rebels. No stand-off weapon can hit a small helicopter target from long distance (i.e. from a carrier group at sea 100 miles out) and without risking civilian collateral). We’re talking 15 bases, 300+ jets and 80 Helicopter gunships. If you don’t permanently ground the gunships you don’t create a NFZ. And what about the Scud launchers? You need to fly over and hunt these down just like in Iraq 1 – not going to happen! Would take 6 weeks at least and many thousands of sorties unless if was finely targeted and limited to a very particular zone. The Scuds and gunships and tanks and artillery pieces will remain in operation with/without any NFZ effort which refuses to fly thousands of flights right over enemy space – with moderately advanced high alt capable air defense. The bottom line here is: A real NFZ REQUIRES US airmen to risk their lives. Probability says at least one plane will go down – what is the play when that happens?
    I want Assad out before he kills 250,000 just like everyone else and I too believe in Pro-Action here but solely on humanitarian grounds because I firmly believe one can predict at least 100,000 more deaths during this thing as Assad is in End-Game mode now and will watch the world burn to the ground before he dies Damascus so I agree that the Russians would be doing a huge humanitarian good if they could get him out. But threatening or bullying or attempting bravado for the sake of the Russian attention is to underestimate Putin’s mindset, his perspective. He’s no Russian bear who only responds to force like some simplistic Clingon Metaphor. He simply needs a reason to turn on Assad. Finding that reason is the way forward here – why would he want to help the US position in the world into the future? Why would China for that matter? You do it for humanitarian reasons first – that’s how you gain the support of the world. You decide whether airmen lives will be risked or not? You decide that now. You set your ground targets, make a plan and draw lines in the sand and come together with an international coalition of the willing and you give Assad and his guys an ultimatum which will guarantee their safety and safe passage.

    You have to accept that you cannot control this thing past creating a NFZ and that you do it for humanitarian reasons first and foremost, for the Syrian people. That’s how you create good will, that’s how hearts and minds are won, that’s how you limit the growth of anti-US jihadism.

    It’s not helpful or wise to leverage bravado filled Obama criticism on the back of John Kerry’s waiting time. If you’re going to tell us how it should be then get into the military side of it and lay the cards down. What is necessary to get him out WITHOUT boots on the ground? This is the ONLY thing that matters.

  • Posted by Phil

    Different war different scenario but there are parallels: In Desert Storm 1000 sorties were flown per day ! and 43 aircraft were lost to surface fired weapons (SAMs & AAA) resulting in more than 40 deaths. There were approx 2250 aircraft on the Coalition side and about 500 on the Iraqi side and it took a month to gain total air superiority. I very much imagine you could divide that aircraft number by at least 5 if the US went for a NFZ in Syria. How many bases can be relied on in the region and how many carriers would/could be moved into place carrying how many aircraft? 3-4 carriers carrying 40 jets each and 2-3 well positioned bases? So a total of approx 300 well positioned jets/tankers ? Could do 200+ sorties per day sure but would they send them over protected airspace? even after a cruise missile onslaught? History says you’re going to lose some no matter what ya do and some is more than none! You can’t do it without jets – you can’t guarantee rebel territory – gained ground – without jets in the air – and without grounding those MI-24 and Gazelle gunships !

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