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Russian Aggression Complicates Obama's Options in Syria

Even before Russia began intervening in Syria's civil war, President Obama was under increasing pressure to change his approach to the conflict.
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Even before Russia began intervening in Syria's civil war, President Obama was under increasing pressure to change his approach to the conflict.

Now things have become more urgent.

Russia this week added cruise missiles to its growing military campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — the man Obama says needs to leave office before there can be peace. Russia has said its aim is to target ISIS, but its bombs have also hit other rebel groups fighting Assad, some of whom are backed by Washington.

That escalation has prompted calls for Obama, who thus far has been reluctant to get more involved in the civil war beyond efforts to counter ISIS, to move quickly to outmaneuver Russian President Vladimir Putin — or at least try to defrost their diplomatic relationship.

So far, the only significant move has been away from the battlefield. The Pentagon announced Friday that it would end its failed $500 million program to train and equip Syrian rebels and move ahead with a far less ambitious plan that involves no American ground troops.

"The program that got shut down today is symptomatic of the halfway measures the U.S. has employed in Syria, and those halfway measures created the void that Putin stepped into," said David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official and editor of Foreign Policy Group. "We should see it for what it is — Obama's approach to Syria has failed."

The Russian intervention is already threatening to push the Syrian conflict into further chaos, he said.

"Some kind of active push" on a political resolution to the Syrian conflict "is essential if we want to get a lid on this thing," Rothkopf said.

Obama administration officials have said they believe Putin is making a big mistake, and have refused to cooperate militarily with Russia. But in the short term, officials acknowledge Russia's new Syria strategy is having the desired effect: establishing itself as a player that cannot be ignored, and propping up Assad, whom Putin says needs to be in power if ISIS is to be defeated.

That is why pressure is building on Obama to do tweak his strategy.

Stephen Sestanovich, a Russia analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday that United States was to blame for encouraging Putin through "several years of policy confusion." Retired Army Gen. John M. Keane told the committee that Putin was "counting on the U.S. fear of escalation and fear of confrontation to stop any thought of retaliation."

Nina Khrushcheva, dean of the New School's Milano School of International Affairs, recommends a mix of muscle and diplomacy.

First, she said, Obama needs to demand a no-fly zone over northern Syria where Russian jets are operating.

Then, Obama should set aside his apparent disdain of Putin and accept the Russian president as a partner in the crisis.

The way to do that is to emphasize the their countries' shared goals — namely, beating back ISIS and preventing a repeat of what happened in Libya, where a dictatorial regime fell but the country devolved into chaos.

"They need to talk to (Putin), forge common interests," Khrushcheva said.

Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, said she sees potential hope in the messages Obama and Putin delivered to the United Nations General Assembly last month.

Obama seemed willing to talk to Russia about avoiding conflicts in the air over Syria, and Putin seemed open to seeing someone other than Assad run Syria, Bennis said.

"They're in bed together. They should be able to figure out how to talk to each other without giving up too much of the political positioning back home," she said.

Bennis would like to see Obama abandon his military strategy and focus on pushing cease-fires and investing in humanitarian efforts. She realizes that's unrealistic. But something has to change, she said.

"Nothing as worked," Bennis said. "What does it take to see that we should do something different?"

But Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said he didn't expect the president to change course just because the Russians have inserted themselves into the conflict.

He expects the Obama administration to let the Russian gambit play out — as long as the conflict doesn't spread to regional allies such as Turkey and Israel.

There is potential for a new diplomatic opportunity to end the war, Cook said, but he is skeptical it would work.

Obama "has no intention to match the Russian move in Syria, and I don't think there's a reason to," Cook said.