The Russian air force has just begun bombing rebel positions around the city of Homs in Syria. The ostensible justification for the Russian involvement, which now involves more than 30 combat aircraft in the country, is to battle ISIS. But of course ISIS is nowhere near Homs. The rebels that the Russians are actually bombing appear to be American-supplied fighters.
This will come as a surprise only to someone who has just arrived from the moon and has no idea of who Vladimir Putin is or what he is up to. Apparently such people actually inhabit the senior ranks of our government at this moment. How else to explain the anonymous quotes of injured outrage emanating from government officials? “Russian commanders are ignoring their own requests for military-to-military ‘de-confliction’ with the U.S. as their warplanes attack Syrian resistance fighters Wednesday, a defense official told Politico. “It completely bypasses every bit of legitimate discussion we’ve had with them so far.”
Imagine that: Putin is not keeping his commitments.
It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry at the level of naiveté in Washington, where responsible office-holders honestly seem to imagine that the Russian dictator can be trusted to keep a solemn international commitment. If anyone had bothered to consult with the Georgians or Ukrainians, they would have rapidly disabused our leaders of this farcical notion.
The good news is that “deconfliction” between U.S. and Russian air strikes may not turn to be so important, because the Russians are going to be dropping bombs in a different part of the country from the Americans. Our aircraft are bombing ISIS. Their aircraft are bombing more moderate fighters who are in many ways the more significant threat to Russia’s ally, Bashar Assad. Oh and Turkish aircraft are bombing the positions of Kurdish militias that are the only effective anti-ISIS fighters on the ground in Syria.
What a perfect division of labor. Its effect will be just what the Russians and Iranians, who are Assad’s biggest backers, intend: to keep the dictator in power in at least a small part of Syria. That will leave Assad free to carry out his reign of terror, which is responsible for most of the deaths in Syria and most of the refugees fleeing the country.
Now even if President Obama wanted to take more serious steps to stop Assad — and there is no sign that he does — he would find it increasingly difficult to do so. As General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, recently noted, Russia is building an “A2/AD bubble” over Syria. That stands for anti-access/area denial — military nomenclature for defensive systems such as anti-aircraft missiles that will make it hard for U.S. or Israeli forces to operate in the area.
So, in addition to the creation of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the ongoing killing of the Syrian civil war, the general chaos of Libya, the loss of territory to the Taliban, and the general expansion of Iranian influence, the Obama administration is leaving another legacy to its successor: Growing Russian power in the heart of the Middle East. It makes you wonder why anyone would want to be president, given the size of the mess that Obama’s successor will inherit.