Mixed Messages And Motives Complicate Middle East

This week’s public handshake between US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin was the most awkward moment of the UN General Assembly meetings – until Secretary of State John Kerry joined his counterpart to speak to reporters after Russia launched air strikes in Syria.

Hours after Russia attacked targets in Syria, Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov tried to put on a united front, but news that rebels opposing Syrian dictator Bashir al Assad were among Russia’s targets added a sense of distorted reality to the event. Russia has denied it was not striking at ISIS, but, according to Reuters, evidence shows that anti-Assad forces were the focus of Russia’s military strikes.

Nikolas Gvosdev writes in The National Interest that the timing of the air strikes were a “slap in the face” of Obama and show Putin now believes “he can create facts on the ground that challenge the U.S. narrative.”

The fact that Russia were so bold as to inform the US just one hour before the strikes began that they were taking action comes on the heels of reports that the Iraqis, Iran, Syria and Russia had formed an intelligence coordination unit and Iraq’s decision to allow Russian overflights of its territory, all suggesting Putin believes that things are breaking his way, adds Gvosdev.

The Economist, which has been a vocal opponent of the foreign policy posture of George W. Bush, notes the impact of Obama’s timidity in the region and how they Wednesday’s actions were a natural consequence of that weakness.

“In Syria Mr Obama’s dithering means his options continually grow harder and riskier. Mr Putin is unabashedly defending a tyrant and deepening the region’s Sunni-Shia divide. America must hold the line that Mr Assad will not remain in power, and set out a vision for what should follow,” contends an Economist editorial.

The Economist continues: “As a judoka, Mr Putin knows the art of exploiting an opponent’s weakness: when America steps back, he pushes forward. Yet being an opportunist does not equip him to fix Syria. And the more he tries to save Mr Assad the more damage he will cause in Syria and the region—and the greater the risk that his moment of bravado will turn to hubris.”

Syrian, Afghanistan Chaos Spreading Beyond Borders
Although it might be easy to adopt an “oceans away” attitude toward events in Syria, the reality is that international instability is spreading to once-secure states and that impacts nations globally.

“The region’s turmoil (which the United States and its allies, in their pursuit of regime change in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Egypt and elsewhere, helped to fuel) is also undermining previously secure states. The influx of refugees from Syria and Iraq is destabilizing Jordan, Lebanon, and now even Turkey, which is becoming increasingly authoritarian under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Meanwhile, with the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians unresolved, Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon represent a chronic threat of violent clashes with Israel,” argues analyst Nouriel Roubini in a Project Syndicate op-ed.

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