Putin, Like Obama, Underestimates ISIS

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If anyone doubted Vladimir Putin when he said that his only goal in Syria was to crush the opposition to Assad, the latest military strikes should clear that up. Russia’s intention would be questionable if we thought it was there to do anything else other than keep Assad in control. However, he may have bitten off more than he can chew.

Russia will soon have to face the threat of ISIS not only controlling Aleppo, but the entire region. The question is whether Russia is aware of how dangerous the group actually is.

Make no mistake, Putin is not targeting ISIS. If you follow ISIS then you find rebels. Any strike that happens to knock out some ISIS fighters would only be a bonus, although Putin doesn’t want to get rid of ISIS too soon.

In other words, Putin wouldn’t kill off ISIS before taking out the rebels, because the rebels would then have the upper hand. So, Putin’s current interest in ISIS is only to lead him to the rebels. It’s like catching a mouse with cheese.

The problem is that the strategy poses a huge risk, one that may require International intervention. However, Russia doesn’t play well with others and any entity that thinks of going in more aggressively will have to remember that the only goal for Russia is keep Assad in power. Anyone who interferes with that goal will find a huge headache, and potentially a much bigger problem.

Russian Jet

There’s one other scenario that should be considered however unlikely it seems at the time. If facing certain destruction, the rebels may turn to ISIS to form a more powerful front. ISIS may consider this a strong strategic move since they would be the next targets once the rebels are eliminated. There’s an old Beouin Arabic proverb that says, “Me and my brother against my cousin, but me and my cousin against a stranger.” Right now, ISIS and the rebels are fighting cousins, but if they have to unite to fight the Russian stranger, they might.

What that may mean for Russia is taking ISIS head on in Syria, alone. By the looks of it that may happen sooner rather than later. Russia, like the rest of the world, has underestimated the power of ISIS.

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Putin isn’t Strong. Obama is Just Weak.

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While the United Nations and the United States chitchat about how they’ll try to put together a transitional government once Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria falls, Russia is busy doing everything they can to prevent that from happening. Everyone else seems to understand this other than President Obama’s administration in general and Secretary of State John Kerry in particular.

Whatever he thinks he’s hearing from his counterpart in Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, it’s either getting lost in translation or falling to the hopeful whims of an administration that missed their opportunity. You see, Lavrov might be talking hypothetically about what a transitional government might look like once Assad falls, but he knows that his boss isn’t going to let that happen. Russian President Vladimir Putin has no intentions of allowing a populist rebel uprising to take down another Middle Eastern nation, particularly an ally.

This doesn’t reflect a love for Assad. It’s Putin’s passionate hatred for populist uprisings in general. He views Syria as a great place to get entrenched in the Middle East, but more importantly he wants to maintain a stability that has been systematically destroyed by the United States and United Nations for the last decade.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not supporting Putin by any means. Rather, I’m pointing out how he feels in regards to intervention. He gave the United States the opportunity to get involved when Assad crossed President Obama’s “red line.” To understand this, we have to speculate intelligently about how all of that went down.

Intelligent Speculation

Vladimir Putin Barack Obama

Let’s look at a hypothetical but very likely scenario that probably unfolded in 2013. When it became very likely that the red line was crossed by Assad’s use of chemical weapons, President Obama’s phone rang. It was Vladimir Putin. He said that he frowned upon any use of force on Assad. He promised that he would work with Assad to get rid of any remaining chemical weapons.

He probably threatened Obama with “supportive action” if the Americans got involved.

Let’s look at the two primary red line statements by the President:

“I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line.”

— President Obama, news conference in Stockholm, Sept. 4, 2013

“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.  That would change my calculus.  That would change my equation.”

— Obama, remarks to reporters, August 20, 2012

Somewhere along the lines, his calculus was changed, but not by the red line. It was changed by Vladimir Putin. The Russians made a threat and the Americans blinked. That was the beginning of the end for the rebels. All Putin needed was a valid excuse to save Assad’s regime. The Islamic State gave him that excuse.

Obama’s JFK Moment

Obama's JFK Moment

This was it. This was the time for President Obama to do what other Presidents had done. He was virtually face-to-face with an enemy in the form of Russia and he had every right to initiate another regime change in the Middle East. Assad used chemical weapons on its citizens. Russia threatened. Obama was poised to show his strength and the might of his country by opposing evil and the monsters who defended it.

When John F. Kennedy faced a similar situation, one that posed an existential threat to the United States in the form of the Cuban Missile Crisis, he acted decisively. When Ronald Reagan faced a Soviet Union that wanted very much to destroy him, he was bold and allowed the strength of the United States to stare down the arguably more powerful USSR. The Cold War ended as a result.

President Obama had less on the line. The enemies were weaker. The direct threats to the United States were minimal. The importance was high for both the Syrians as well as our Israeli allies. Most importantly, he had the mandate of the world that was outraged at Assad and ready for the United States to save the day.

Instead, he caved. He demonstrated a weakness towards the Russian interests that has resulted in tens of thousands of additional deaths, a crisis that is now spreading to Europe and other countries in the form of millions of refugees, and a gift wrapped base through which the Russians can now influence the entire Middle East.

After much thought, it’s impossible to claim that this is pure weakness. President Obama is without a doubt the worst foreign relations President in recent history, possibly ever, but this particular scenario goes beyond his failings. There are only two plausible possibilities and one of them is pretty crazy.

The first possibility is that his Nobel Peace Prize has never really been earned and he’s been trying desperately to live up to it ever since he won it.

The other possibility is more of a conspiracy theory – he’s under orders from someone else to not act when action was clearly warranted. We’ll go ahead and dismiss that option as paranoia and focus on the overly-peaceful option.

Earning His Peace Prize

Obama Nobel Peace Prize

The President has a legacy domestically. He forced Obamacare through and he painted the White House with rainbow colors. While both will go down in history as tragedies, he’s happy with what he’s built. On the foreign relations side, his best claim to fame is that he was in office when Osama bin Laden was killed. Otherwise, the world around us has fallen apart on his watch and in many ways as a direct result of his actions… or inaction.

In the hypothetical situation above, I would imagine that Putin invoked the Nobel Peace Prize in his appeal to prevent Obama from acting on his threats. He doesn’t want the world to regret his Presidency any more than it already does. This more than anything is what prompted him to take such a weak stance on Syria.

Keep in mind that he expected aid to the rebels to do the trick. He didn’t anticipate the rise of the junior varsity Islamic State. He didn’t realize that leaving Iraq would open the doors to the worst turmoil the region has seen in decades. He didn’t think that the Arab Spring would result in the chaos that has ensued nor the rise of Islamic extremists pulling the strings and forming makeshift theocracies where once there was secular stability.

Vladimir Putin has learned that Barack Obama is weak. He didn’t anticipate that the US President was incompetent as well. That was just a bonus. Now, Assad’s regime will remain indefinitely, Russia’s position in the Middle East will be solidified, and ISIS will flourish outside of Syria as a result.

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