Is Putin more realistic on Syria than Obama?

Updated 9:52 PM EST, Tue December 1, 2015

Story highlights

U.S. said Tuesday it will send "a specialized expeditionary targeting force" to help conduct raids in Iraq

Michael Desch: Syria may be problem that requires more hard-headed realism

Editor’s Note: Michael Desch is a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame and co-director of the university’s International Security Center. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN) —  

Clinton ended her remarks with a heartwarming vignette about a French Muslim working at a kosher grocery store who protected French Jews during a previous terrorist attack last winter. No doubt, Lassana Bathily’s heroic actions make for great copy and an inspiring campaign speech. But if this is the sort of extraordinary behavior we need to defeat ISIS, our task is much tougher than Clinton’s upbeat remarks in New York suggested.

“I think Mr. Putin understands that with Afghanistan fresh in the memory, for him to simply get bogged down in an inconclusive and paralyzing civil conflict is not the outcome that he’s looking for,” President Obama said.

This is surely good advice. But I wonder whether we should follow it ourselves? After all, if we are talking about recent military interventions, it is hard to see how our ill-fated experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria could make President Obama think we have a better sense of strategy for this wickedly complicated part of the world than his counterpart in Moscow.

Michael Desch
Michael Desch
PHOTO: Matt Cashore

True, Obama was a skeptic of America’s original intervention in Iraq in 2003, and wisely agreed to leave in 2011 when the pro-Iranian Nuri al-Maliki regime in Baghdad showed us the door. But now he seems to be having second thoughts about having left, and is slowly returning U.S. military personnel to help stem the ISIS juggernaut in the Land Between the Rivers. Surely we should have learned from our original intervention that while with the presence of large numbers of American boots on the ground we can hold the place together, that success will only last as long as we are willing to stay there.

Remember, in Afghanistan, the Bush administration expanded a justifiable war to oust al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts into a massive exercise in nation-building to try to turn a historically fractious and weak state into a functioning democracy. Talk about building a castle on sand.

But rather than cutting U.S. losses, President Obama doubled down with his own troop surge in 2009, and then backed away from a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of 2016. But if Afghanistan can’t function without a major U.S. military presence, it is hard to see how we can consider the 2009 surge effective.

Meanwhile, in Syria, the Obama administration got swept up in the euphoria of the Arab Spring, and decided to encourage a nascent anti-Bashar al-Assad opposition movement. But while no one can deny that in principle it would be preferable if Assad’s minority regime were swept from the pages of history, shouldn’t we have asked whether it would be replaced by something worse, like ISIS?

Unfortunately, rather than clear-eyed thinking about the likely course of the anti-Assad rebellion, we continue to chase the will o’ the wisp of a “moderate” Syrian opposition to replace Assad. Sadly, if one exists, aside from the Kurds – another minority group that surely cannot rule the rest of the country – we have not yet found them. And that’s probably because they do not exist.

Putin, for his part, this week accused Turkey of supporting ISIS in Syria. Of course, that accusation isn’t fair, but it does not change the fact that the anti-Assad forces President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government is supporting are only slightly more moderate than ISIS. That’s the dilemma we refuse to face in pursuing regime change as part of the solution to the Syrian crisis: “more moderate” does not equal “moderate.”

On Tuesday came the announcement that the United States is again expanding its presence on the ground in both Iraq and Syria, with Secretary of Defense Ash Carter saying we will be sending “a specialized expeditionary targeting force” with a view to undertaking more raids in Iraq. But it is hard to square this country’s own troubled history in the region with offering advice to Putin and others about what they should and should not be doing.

Simply put, it is hard to imagine that President Putin wants Obama’s advice about Russian strategy in Syria. I am also not sure that he really needs it – the Russian president is no democrat, and he doesn’t let the niceties of international law and diplomacy get in his way.

But all this also raises an interesting and important question – who has a more realistic view of the situation in Syria? Obama thinks it is possible to defeat ISIS and get rid of Assad; Putin understands that those twin goals, each perhaps desirable by itself, are unlikely to be possible together. Maybe Syria is one of those problems that require cold-blooded and hard-headed realism to think about clearly.

Vladimir Putin has that in spades. Barack Obama lacks it completely.

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