With all eyes on Syria and a global order decayed by invasions, interventions, and arming of rogue factions by the Kremlin, the Democratic Party appears poised to lay the blame for Russian aggression at the foot of President-elect Donald Trump.
In citing the very tangible fears that Russian head of state Vladimir Putin seeks global domination, the Democrats seem to consistent exclude a major detail from their arguments: every region where Putin has increased his sphere of influence is an area where the Obama administration made a conscious decision not to lead.
How Putin achieved such a sweeping propaganda victory over Obama in Syria is clear. After announcing a “red line” barring chemical weapons use in Syria and then standing aside as Assad used said chemical weapons, the value of America’s word to commit to international legal norms dropped significantly. Putin seized the opportunity, staging what there is now plenty of evidence to believe was the false disposal of all of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal.
While not holding Assad to his “red line,” Obama also dithered on the struggle to eliminate the Islamic State, supporting the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG and YPJ) – the most prominent and successful anti-ISIS force in Syria – but only enough to infuriate both the YPG and the Turkish government, which considers the militia a terrorist group. Turkey has long been a committed counterweight to Assad in the region with plenty of reason to support the United States over Russia; Russian jets have repeatedly violated Turkish sovereignty while on missions for Assad.
Sensing that the White House was insufficiently committed to Ankara, however, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the United States of supporting “terrorists” (sound familiar?) and made his peace with Putin, with rumors even surfacing that Turkey would consider lending Russia space in Incirlik airbase, next to American fighter jets.
The Kurds, meanwhile, have becoming increasingly impatient with the Obama administration’s refusal to commit to them despite their consistent victories on the ground against the Islamic State, while Russia and Assad have focused on taking out their political rivals instead. Neither the YPG nor the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was invited to a recent anti-Islamic State coalition meeting in July. While rumors of the U.S. sending heavy munitions to the Kurds surfaced, they ended up only receiving light weapons.
In a move that surprised few, Russia has offered to step into the void. “By supplying weapons and expertise, the Russians have won the loyalty of players that were exclusively pro-American,” an unnamed diplomat told Breitbart Jerusalem. “And I mean groups other than the PKK, which have long since turned into a Russian force.” The PKK and YPG often collaborate on the battlefield.
Another faction in Syria enamored by Russia’s willingness to engage, however self-interested that engagement may be, are the Christian minorities targeted by both the Islamic State and the Kurdish factions. “Putin and Assad have maneuvered to become the explicit protectors of Eastern Christianity in situ,” Forbes contributor Melik Kaylan wrote two years ago. “As the U.S. and Europe are too tangled up in ideological confusion and contradictory goals to step into the breach, we furnish Moscow with easy triumphs in this area as in so many others.”
Thus in Syria, Putin has managed to make alliances with Assad, anti-Assad Turkey, anti-Assad Kurdish militias, and Christians seeking autonomy. Practically the only faction Russia has not forged an alliance with in Syria is the Islamic State.
Except for the record numbers of Russians who have joined the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The story plays out similarly outside of the Middle East, as well. In Afghanistan, for example, Russia has imposed itself on both sides of the struggle against the Taliban. Russian officials claimed to be “providing certain assistance in strengthening the capabilities of the Afghan government forces” in October 2015, Afghan forces the United States had invested millions to train. A year later, the Taliban claimed it, too, was receiving Russian “moral and political support.”
“We needed support to get rid of the United States and its allies in Afghanistan and Russia wanted all foreign troops to leave Afghanistan as quickly as possible,” an unnamed senior Taliban official told Reuters this month.
Where Putin cannot play both sides – nations with no tangible dueling powers or simply too close to Russia to trust it, he has used the specter of military force. In the Baltic nations, Russian officials blamed “xenophobic and neo-Nazist sentiments” for their creeping militarism there, including placing nuclear missiles and several more warships near the post-Soviet states in that region. He did the same in Ukraine, to devastating results, after years of the Obama White House doing nothing in the face of Putin’s open re-colonization of eastern Europe. Challenged by words alone, Putin responded with words: “We have not gone to war.”
On the other side of the world, in Cuba, President Obama’s failure to lead once again triggered a military response from Putin. The Communist-held island, of course, was never going to become a staunch U.S. ally under dictator Raúl Castro, but Obama’s attempt to appease the dictatorship prompted Putin to mull the reopening of a Russian military base there and dig Russia’s economic talons deeper into Havana with a nuclear partnership. It is difficult to believe that when President Obama promised his appeasement of Castro would open Cuba up to the world, he meant a rekindling of close relations with Putin’s beloved former Soviet Union.
There is little reason to believe Putin’s ambitions have an end point. Ironically, the Democrats’ concern of a new world order led by Russia is reasonable, given all they have done to empower Putin while in control of the White House. Regardless of how the Trump administration approaches the Russian problem, one thing is clear: the Putin whose ambitions Trump will have to curb is a much more powerful one than the man whose nation candidate Obama called “neither our enemy nor close ally” in 2007.