The civil war in Syria has ushered a new cold war between Russia and the United States. President Vladimir Putin is now challenging President Barack Obama in the heart of the Middle East, a region the United States has considered as its own sphere of influence since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Russian president perceives an America in decline and believes Russia ought to be considered at least as equal to the United States, and China.
For Russia, Syria today is similar to what the countries of the Warsaw Pact were during the old Cold War; Syria has been a loyal client state since the 1950s, and maintaining the Assad regime in power has become a top national security interest. It is also an opportunity to demonstrate to the world that Russia stands by its friends, unlike the United States, which abandoned President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in 2011.
The recent op-ed article by Putin in The New York Times introduces the Putin Doctrine, which shrewdly calls for the peaceful resolution of conflicts and opposes any outside intervention in civil wars without the UN Security Council’s approval. It presents Russia as the guardian angel of international law and order — "We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law."
Putin also directs a spotlight on the United States to which "military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace." Indeed, turning the table on America with its self-image as the "shining city on the hill" underlies Putin’s new cold war rhetoric and actions.
Yet, in reality, it is Russia, which has enabled Bashar al-Assad to butcher more than 100,000 Syrian citizens by supplying Syria with lethal weapons and other military equipment to suppress the uprising. Without Russia’s active support, the Assad ruling family would have been long gone.
The Obama administration, however, has refrained from pointing a finger at Russia for its culpability in the civil war. Putin, the new convert to international law, ought to be reminded that he could be subject to prosecution by the International Criminal Court for complicity in genocide and crimes against humanity for his assistance to the Syrian regime.
Unfortunately, after the massacre of 1,400 Syrians using poison gas by Assad’s army, President Obama has chosen to focus his attention only on one aspect of the crisis, the use of chemical weapons by the regime. Without a doubt, the use of poison gas constitutes a horrible war crime for which Assad must pay a price, but it has also deflected attention from the systematic genocide that has been taking place in the last two-and-half years in Syria.
The Geneva meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov focuses only on the surrender of Syria’s chemical weapons. It leaves all other issues surrounding the civil war in abeyance. This approach will guarantee an eventual victory to Russia’s client state, Syria.
After all, allowing the United Nations to act as a watchdog over Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons pales in comparison with losing power. In other words, the Obama administration has provided Assad a lifeline, which is exactly the type of victory Russia was hoping for in this climate of the new cold war, vindicating its guardianship over Syria and return to global prominence.
Since the onset of the Arab revolt in December 2010 in Tunisia, the United States has lacked a clear, focused and consistent policy: Policy zigzags such as the abandonment of Mubarak, the embrace of President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood, and subsequent support of the military coup. The overthrow of the Egyptian president led to the Brotherhood’s loss of power, and the United States seems unsure of its next moves. The administration refused to refer to the event as a coup for fear of congressional sanctions against the military.
The Obama administration has also shown ambivalence regarding the Syrian opposition fighting Assad because it includes some radical Islamic elements, and consequently refrained from providing any significant military assistance.
The United States has yet to determine what are its core national interests in Syria and the Middle East as a whole. The events of the last two weeks demonstrate clearly that the administration is confused and lacks a clear direction. A division between the promise of military intervention in Syria and passionate rhetoric on the one hand and being seduced by Russia’s offer to neutralize Syria’s chemical weapons on the other characterize America’s policy today.
Irrespective of the outcome of the current negotiations concerning Syria’s chemical weapons, the civil war will continue for the foreseeable future. The next flash point between America and Russia, however, is likely to occur over Iran’s determination to acquire nuclear weapons.
Obama will do everything to avoid a military confrontation with Iran over this issue. Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, has expressed a desire to continue to "negotiate" a diplomatic solution, which could be regarded as a tactic to buy more time so the nuclear project moves toward completion.
Russia stands firmly behind Iran politically and militarily just like it supports Syria. It has provided Iran with nuclear reactors as well as sophisticated military hardware, including missiles and electronic warfare equipment. Despite Obama’s declarations that he will not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons, the likelihood that America will assert its power against Iran and its sponsor Russia is low as is the case with Syria.
Putin perceives Obama’s United States as an inward looking, dithering and confused nation, unable to determine its true interests and role in the world.
Putin, a former KGB officer during the old Cold War era, well versed in the game of realpolitik — the exercise of power politics — is determined to re-establish the old Soviet power in the Middle East and elsewhere. Obama, on the other hand, seems unable to respond to Putin’s raw challenge. The president, however, must realize the new cold war is here to stay and the United States must change course and begin to stand up forcefully to Russia which is contesting America’s global leadership once again.
Yehuda Lukacs is associate provost for international programs and director of the Center for Global Education at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.