When addressing the United Nations’ General Assembly on Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin will surely have a swagger in his step. Thanks to his reassertion of Russian power on the world stage over the Ukrainian crisis, Putin enjoys domestic popularity that Western leaders would salivate over—despite an economy in recession and overly reliant on exporting oil and gas. On top of this, Putin can take additional delight over his ability to reshape the West’s thinking over the Syrian crisis almost overnight by deploying forces to aid President Bashar al-Assad. Putin is now offering assistance in fighting ISIS and supposedly is even willing to fight ISIS single-handedly. However, we must view this offer with deep skepticism. Often, accepting gifts from enemies is a dangerous proposition.
With over 200,000 dead and millions displaced, the Syrian civil war has devolved into arguably the world’s worst humanitarian crisis since Rwanda, and our failure to do anything substantive merits significant blame for this. Europe prefers to live in blissful decline than carry its weight in the Middle East and now faces refugee inflows unseen since the end of World War II, putting tremendous pressure on its political union. At the same time, the President failed to act when Assad crossed his red line by gassing his own people. Our effort to arm moderate rebels has been a total embarrassment; for $500 million, we have trained “4 or 5” active fighters. Considering our government lacks the competence to even count with confidence to 5, it is no wonder this training program has failed at every level.
Unfortunately, power vacuums inevitably get filled; that is the one time-tested truth of geopolitics. By abdicating our leadership role, we left space that has since been filled by ISIS, leaving us with a civil war where both sides are evil. Fight ISIS and the child-gassing Assad stays in power; fight Assad and watch an apocalyptic terrorist state reign. The moderate rebels have been all but vanquished in the cross-fire. From Syria to Ukraine to the Iran deal, the bumbling of the Obama Administration has consistently left the United States with no-win situations.
Our calls for Assad to go have virtually no credibility given our unwillingness to do anything about it. Assad’s days have supposedly been numbered for years after all. At the same time, our effort to roll back ISIS from the air alone is proving to be ineffectual. Since stopping its advance on Mosul, ISIS has regrouped, solidified its territory, and controls large swaths of Iraq and Syria. Containing it is simply not a viable long-term strategy, and when the White House resorts to using inaccurate intelligence, you can be sure things are not going swimmingly.
Putin needs to keep Assad in power or at least ensure that a pro-Russia government takes power. Russia has a strategically critical naval base in Tartus, providing the Navy with a year round warm water hub and a replenishment base on the Mediterranean Sea. Putin cannot allow a regime that would threaten this base take power. At the same time, having risen to power in part thanks to his aggressive response to Chechen terrorists, Putin does understand the threat Islamic extremism poses to the world and probably sees the need to crush ISIS. As such, he has moved troops, tanks, and aircraft to Syria to assist Assad. With Russian assistance, Assad can stabilize the fight and even take some territory back.
Putin is now reaching out to the President to form a joint task force to fight ISIS and resolve the Syrian Civil War. While Putin may accept Assad gradually leaving power over time, Putin wants Assad at the negotiating table, a prolonged transition, and assurances any new government will be in-keeping with Russia’s strategic interests. Make no mistake, the timing of this military buildup is not coincidental. Putin is looking to gain leverage into the UN General Assembly where he can make a triumphant return to the world stage and show his citizenry the key role he played in solving this crisis. Putin has picked the perfect time to apply pressure and force the West’s hand.
Already, our European allies are ready to sign on. Nations like Austria and France now appear willing to let Assad remain in power for some time—perhaps indefinitely.
We mustn’t strike a deal with Putin so easily as there is a significant cost. Putin sees the U.S. retreating from the world, particularly the Middle East, and he has the ability to turn Russia into the regional power. Now with its lackluster and unproductive economy, Russia can do little to project power outwardly and compete with the US by itself (though its national will and nuclear arsenal keep it from being influenced by the United States). However, Russia with one or two regional powers can form hegemonic alliances that can effectively counter US power.
We have already seen Putin pivot East, ensuring Russia will be China’s primary energy supplier for decades as he tries to ally with a rising global power and project strength in the Pacific Basin. At the same time, with $150 billion in fresh funds, an economy unshackled, and 77 million people, Iran has the potential to be the regional power in the Middle East, usurping Saudi Arabia over time. Of course, this is another nation Putin is hitching his horse to. Iraq has turned to Iran for help fighting ISIS since Obama has all but abandoned the region. Shia Iraq is quickly turning into Iran’s proxy.
Similarly, Assad is merely an Iranian proxy, and a proxy Iran needs to keep funneling Hezbollah weaponry. Assad is the key to Iran maintaining its sphere of influence throughout Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. This is the danger of inviting Russian participation in a coalition against ISIS and accepting Assad at the negotiating table. Doing so guarantees a Russian-Iranian axis that extends from the Gulf to the Mediterranean. All the while, Russia makes overtures to Egypt and Turkey, which become all the more compelling as Russian dominance in the region becomes clearer. Even without these two nations, this turn of events would be devastating for the United States, shifting the balance of power away from us in the region and isolating the Gulf States who could turn to nuclear weapons to re-balance—opening the door to an arms race in the most volatile part of the globe.
The case for accepting Putin’s offer today may he compelling in the short-term. 2,000 Russian troops would help in the fight against ISIS, and since we have dithered for so long, there is no viable moderate opposition anymore. This makes our position that Assad must go less tenable—there is no one who can replace him. But to strike a deal with Putin today is to ensure Russian influence in the Middle East only grows over time as the balance shifts towards the Russian-Iranian axis. Plus working with him likely weakens Europe’s resolve to maintain sanctions over Ukraine, which will provide his economy with much needed oxygen.
Are we really prepared to welcome Vladimir Putin back to the world stage as the central dealmaker and risk ceding regional influence to him? A weak-willed Europe unwilling to do anything to actually deal with ISIS and Syria is. The United States should not be. Instead of striking the proverbial deal with the devil, the US should fight to win against ISIS, re-engage with Iraq, deploy 10-15,000 ground troops, roll back ISIS, and pry Iraq back away from Iran. Then with ISIS on the run into Syria, we again have leverage over Putin and can resolve the situation there in a more advantageous fashion. Yes, this strategy is more costly today than Putin’s offer of expedient assistance but it will pay dividends in years to come as Russia remains the outsider looking in at the Middle East.