Putin’s Military Strikes in Syria Are a 'Mine Is Bigger Than Yours' Show

Putin’s Military Strikes in Syria Are a 'Mine Is Bigger Than Yours' Show
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MOSCOW—You’d think that things are shaping up well for those trying to find an enduring settlement of the gruesome Syria crisis and get down to the business of destroying the Islamic State. That’s not how it looks from here.

What you find in the Russian capital are an odd combination of worry that Russia may be in over its head now that it has begun its own bombing campaign against jihadist militias, and a touch of hubristic pride (never good) that Moscow has reasserted itself militarily for the first time since the Cold War era.

Related: Putin Doubles Down on Syria Bombing Campaign

But above all, Russians are befuddled. They don’t understand the Obama administration any more than many of its American critics, of which this columnist is one.

Why, they ask, do Washington and its coalition partners “dilute the fight against ISIS,” as one policy analyst puts it, by insisting that the Assad government be removed as a precondition of any settlement? And why is the U.S. allied with regional powers, notably Turkey and Saudi Arabia, whose aims are patently at odds with those seeking to restore a stable, secular order in Syria?

Maybe Secretary of State Kerry will explain some of this when he arrives here Tuesday for talks with President Putin. But events last week suggest otherwise.

The big news came Thursday, when the hodge-podge of Syrian militants, political dissidents, and leaders of the rump opposition agreed at a conference in Riyadh to nominate representatives to participate in internationally sponsored settlement talks to commence Janurary1, 2016. In principle, it’s exactly what’s needed, but no one—here or anywhere else—is going to the bank on this just yet given the big problems that are already evident.

Related: Al Qaeda's Syria Wing Says Truces Only Benefit Government

A couple of days before the gathering in the Saudi capital, Kerry announced at the climate talks in Paris that a new round of preparatory negotiations—the third since late October—is tentatively set to open in New York this Friday.

“Depending on the outcome of the Saudi-led conference of the opposition, as well as a few other issues,” Kerry added cautiously and wisely.

The agreement in Riyadh arrived on schedule, and Kerry called it “an important step forward.” We’ll see in the next few days if the New York round of the Vienna process, as it’s called, bears any fruit.

The new pact among opponents of the Assad government has as much chance of standing up as the first soufflé I ever attempted. And if it does, I question whether it’s what those looking to restore order in Syria need or want.

Three reasons:

• It’s fine that exiled political formations such as the Syrian National Coalition sat at the table with armed militiamen, but talk is always cheap. The 100 delegates in Riyadh have wildly varied agendas, which include turning Syria into an Islamic state (small “s”). Armed rebels, many of them hard-line extremists, are to name a third of the negotiating commission’s 33 members.

Related: Kerry Says Aiming for New York Syria Meeting on December 18

Even before the gathering concluded, one jihadist group walked out, while those that stayed dismissed the pols, and Islamists fought with secularists. They couldn’t even agree on getting the word “democracy” into the communiqué. “Democratic mechanism” is as far as the thought got.

Bottom line: This looks like an agreement for the sake of an agreement, a Rube Goldberg of the kind the Obama administration is good at. The Russians are all for the peace process begun in Vienna in October—it was their idea, not President Obama’s or Kerry’s—but one understands when they crinkle their noses.

• Let’s not miss that the conference took place in Riyadh. And I’m sorry, but the spectacle of the Saudis insisting on democracy, or a democratic mechanism, or anything of the sort in Syria is a touch too much to take.

Kerry green-lighted Riyadh as the venue to validate Saudi Arabia’s place in the coalition and pander to its newly assertive role in the region. But the Saudis are obsessed with ousting the Assad government to the exclusion of all else and are, of course, sympathetic (to put it mildly) to the Islamic State. Bad move, Mr. Secretary.

Related: U.S.-Russia cooperation key to fighting Islamic State in Syria

• The Democratic Union Party, the chief Kurdish political party in Syria, was excluded from the conference. The Kurds armed wing, YPG, estimated as some 20,000-strong, is the most effective force now fighting the Islamic State. But Turkey prefers to attack the Kurds rather than ISIS, and since Turkey must also be cast as an upright member of the coalition, Syrian Kurds can’t be part of the peace process.

Bottom line: Very bad move, Mr. Secretary.

Ahmed al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister said last week that Assad has only two alternatives: He can negotiate his exit, or be forced from power.

It’s hard to find the democratic mechanism in that proposition.

It’s also all too easy to see that the regional partners in the U.S.-led coalition are in it as Sunni chauvinists pressing for advantage in their region-wide conflict with Shiites—Assad being Alawite, a Shiite sect.

Few Russians view their new intervention in Syria as a repeat of the quagmire they made of Afghanistan in the early 1980s after the Carter administration began funding what became Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. But this was intended as a short, sharp campaign, according to Roman Kosarev, a Russian correspondent just back from Syria, and it isn’t looking like one any longer.

Moscow’s determination to see its commitment through rests on one urgent reality and what sees as a strong political position.

One, the threat of Islamic terror spreading into Russia’s southern republics is already evident. The New York Times recently reported that 7,000 radical Islamists from the North Caucasus region are already active in Syria—a figure analysts here say is conservative.

Related: Putin’s War of Words with Turkey Escalates to Nukes and Ethnic Cleansing

“This isn’t the Cold War. Syria isn’t Cuba or some other far-away place,” said Leonid Dobrokhotov, a professor at Moscow State University and a noted foreign policy adviser. “This is very close to our borders. Syria’s not a Syrian question: Syria’s a Russian question.”

Two, while Putin understands exactly how unsavory Assad is, Moscow is adamant that ousting him would instantly throw Damascus into chaos. Many officials are confident he will go—even eagerly—if Syrians are given elections and vote him out of power.

“Assad’s probably not ready for this,” said Vadim Kozyulin, a senior fellow at Pir Center, a research institute here. “He’s trained as an ophthalmologist, not a national leader, and at this point, he’s living day to day.”

In a brief exchange here late last week, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, a former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told me the U.S. simply doesn’t credit the difference between “backing Assad” and protecting Syrian institutions until a ceasefire is established and U.N- supervised elections are held.

But as far back as 2012, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (who was then president) and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met Assad in Damascus and backed him into a corner. Assad agreed to cooperate, even if the nationwide dialogue and democratic reforms the Russians demanded led to his departure.

Kerry could do worse were he to acknowledge this when he meets Putin Tuesday. But one can’t bank on this, either.

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