Last week, Russian President Putin told German Chancellor Angela Merkel during his victory tour of Europe that Russia is not supplying arms to Syria that "...could be used in a civil conflict."
Chalk one more falsehood up to Mr. Putin.
How clever by half is this Kremlin! As it runs a veritable conveyor belt of helicopter gunships, artillery, tanks, and anything else one can find in the Russian arms bazaar into Assad's hands, the Russian leadership feigns support for a UN diplomatic effort to negotiate some sort of ceasefire in Syria. Based on global reaction and inaction, we are all the suckers for it.
Although not in the same league, the arms shipments denial smacks of Nikita Khrushchev denying Russia was sending nuclear missiles to Cuba when the evidence was so blatantly false for the world to see.
If only the Arabs were marching in their streets like their Russian counterparts against Putin perhaps that would get the Kremlin's attention and cause Putin to ask how much damage he is doing to himself throughout the Middle East by pouring gasoline onto the Syrian inferno.
I'd better catch myself. The Kremlin does not care one iota.
Just what is driving Putin to play his two-faced game with the other members of the UN Security Council and clutch the Assad dynasty for dear life?
First, Russia has staked out a strategic geopolitical interest in Assad's longevity. Moreover, Putin apparently takes a certain crude satisfaction in defying the west on Syria and seemingly revels in the growing criticism of Russian intransigence on behalf of its Assad puppets. Harkening back to the bad old days of the Cold War, Putin considers Syria part of Russia's Middle East "sphere of influence," which includes Iran, and Russia considers the growing influence of Sunni-stoked Muslim "Brotherhooditis" as a potential danger to the soft underbelly of Russia's already volatile Caucus region. An uninterrupted rule of the Assad clique fits neatly into Putin's grand foreign policy designs. In the Kremlin's calculation, it stands to gain far more by siding with the more Russian-friendly Shiites in Syria and Iran, than with the Sunnis who form the extremist Islamic groups challenging Russia's control of its southern reaches in the Caucuses (Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia) and Central Asia. Russia, by the way, has no need for their oil, either.
Second, Russia's growing Mediterranean fleet is now conveniently anchored in the deep, warm-water Syrian port of Tartus, which has become the home for Russia's Mediterranean fleet. The Russian's have reconstituted in Tartus the once-famous Soviet era Fifth Squadron, led by its main aircraft carrier admiral Kuznetsov, and supported by the nuclear-powered battle cruiser Peter the Great, and a flotilla of support ships and attack submarines.
Third, apparently the Kremlin must be starved for arms revenue. Its largest state arms export company, Rosoboronexport, has annually shipped over $700 million worth of arms to Assad, representing 78% of Syria's arms imports, accounting for 7% of Russia's annual arms revenue, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). According to Russian media source the daily Kommersant, Damascus and Moscow recently concluded a contract for 36 Yak 130 light attack aircraft for a contract price of $550 million, which also includes the helicopter gunships which Secretary Clinton yesterday criticized Russia for dispatching to Syria in recent days. And just last Saturday as the fighting in Syria was intensifying, Arab media outlet Al Arabiya reported that a Russian cargo ship, despite Russian efforts to conceal its cargo and identity, was seen offloading a large amount of weapons at the port of Tartus.
All of Putin's bold defiance on behalf of the Assad regime is another wake-up call for this administration that the then-and-again President Putin is determined to "re-reset" U.S.-Russian relations, and face down anyone who stands in the way of Russia reasserting its position as a counter to U.S. influence in the Middle East. Putin will cooperate with us when it is convenient for Russia. But make no mistake about it, with his re-election as president, the U.S. will have to navigate a full-fledged realignment of Putin's more assertive foreign policy in our bilateral relations, whether in the Middle East, or on arms control, or over a potential nuclear showdown with Iran.
So what can be done by the Obama administration to turn the Russian arms faucet off to salvage any hope to prevent Syria from becoming the 21st century Middle East version of a 1936 Spanish civil war?
Unfortunately, short of a naval and air quarantine around Syria, very little.
But other than hurling criticism of Russia's chicanery, why hasn't the Obama administration tabled a resolution before the UN Security Council demanding that all countries cease sending arms shipments into Syria? Dare the Russians to veto it, and when it does, get other countries to blacklist the Russian arms exporting company, Rosoboronexport. Where are the U.S. and European banking and finance sanctions against Rosoboronexport and the Syrian banks that enable the cash and carry arms deliveries?
As I have often written on this site, the Obama administration is engaged in a Syrian policy best designated (this week being the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in) as a "limited modified hangout" where the Chicago campaign headquarters, rather than the National Security Council, seem to be in control for what passes as U.S. Syrian policy. Since when does a presidential campaign apparatus trump America's national security interests? What are we waiting for? For Syria to completely explode like a nuclear bomb with fallout across the entire Middle East, and then for us to ask how could we have been so blind to the consequences of our inaction?
Stopping Russian arms shipments are only part of a broader problem. There is a humanitarian catastrophe in Syria -- compounded by an ineffective UN Blue Helmet force that has been paralyzed by the diplomatic ineptness of Kofi Annan and the relentlessness of Assad and his Russian benefactors. The massacres committed by Gestapo-like Assad goon squads are masking, if that is at all possible, the more dire humanitarian mayhem throughout the country. Aid is not getting through to the civilians caught in the cross-hairs of Assad's security forces. How many more thousands of Syrians will perish in what seems to be an abdication of moral duty and responsibility by western and Arab nations who can't even come up with a concerted plan to provide basic aid to the innocent Syrian women and children who are pawns in this fight to the death.
Definitely, I am against boots on the ground, but how about some angels in the air?
Follow Amb. Marc Ginsberg on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@ambmcg