The primary justification for U.S. involvement in Syria changed the moment Vladimir Putin deployed Russian military forces to bolster the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Up to mid-September 2015, the U.S. had been in Syria to accomplish two main goals: to impair the war-fighting capabilities of the Islamic militants of ISIS and to assist the moderate elements amongst the Syrian rebels in toppling the Assad regime. But now, in the wake of Putin’s intervention in the Syrian Civil War, the United States has a far more important reason for supporting the Syrian rebels.
The world community recognizes that Vladimir Putin is a thug. He has given us umpteen examples of his ruthlessness. He lords over a lawless totalitarian state apparatus, he murders political opponents, he threatens his neighbors, and he is hell-bent on diminishing the West’s, and particularly America’s, global influence. Putin wants to show the world by his actions in Syria – and in the Baltics and the Ukraine – that the Western democracies are internally divided, corrupted by capitalist greed, afraid of confrontation, and thus unable to challenge Russia’s international machinations. It is true that the West, and especially its dominant power the United States, are presently experiencing a cultural malaise. The rot in the Western system is apparent in: 1) crippling domestic political divisions (look at the strife currently besetting the U.S. House of Representatives over its choice of Speaker); 2) a deep-seated ethical and moral crisis brought on by neo-liberalism and its fanatical faith in unregulated capitalism; 3) and a weakening of democratic institutions (again, polls in the U.S. show the public approval rating for the U.S. Congress in the single digits). Putin wants to exacerbate the West’s and America’s structural and ideological crisis to the advantage of his own political standing and that of the Russian state. He also hopes to prove that his brand of authoritarianism is a more effective means of organizing societies, and advancing national interests, in the modern era. This was the same goal of his Soviet predecessors in the Kremlin – the people Putin swore an oath of allegiance to while a young KGB recruit. And this is why for the U.S. Syria now matters more than ever.
If Russia preserves the Assad regime, not only will the West be shown to be impotent – as it was in the Ukraine – authoritarianism as a political philosophy will be strengthened not only within Russia but elsewhere, including China. Moreover, a Russian success in Syria will encourage Putin to militarily intervene in places likely to be more strategically important to the U.S. and Western Europe.
Yet, by stepping into the Syrian conflict, Putin has given the United States a tremendous opportunity. And the Obama administration would be wise to seize it. Putin has put his neck out in the Middle East, Obama should put a noose around that neck and squeeze it. America can weaken Putin, and the growing strength of authoritarianism, if it smashes the Kremlin’s military effort in Syria. It is quite possible the Obama administration has already recognized how the U.S. can benefit, and benefit handsomely, from Putin’s projection of power into the Middle East. Just last week, Obama spoke of Syria as Russia’s “quagmire.” If Obama isn’t already doing it, he should be working diligently to create that Russian quagmire. The recent flood of U.S.-made TOW missiles into Syria is almost certainly a component of the administration’s effort to defeat Russia and its Syrian allies, as was the large para-drop of small-arms ammunition to Syrian rebels in the north of that country a few days ago. But TOWs and small-arms ammo may not be enough to drain Russian power in the mess that is Syria. The CIA should work with its Arab and Kurdish allies to ensure that shoulder-fired U.S. anti-aircraft weapons are moved into Syria, placed in reliable, highly-regulated hands, and directed against Russian fighter bombers and attack helicopters. Defeating Putin in Syria will make the world safer for a weakened, but still redeemable Western democratic system.