THE BLOG
09/30/2015 02:11 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2016

Putin's Axis of Dictators May Save Assad

What ails our depressed, strife-torn world: not enough dictators. That's what Vladimir Putin (oh, I mean DOCTOR) Putin prescribed to the UN...just take an Assad and a Rouhani and call him in the morning.

This week's UN General Assembly cavalcade of superstar dictators was a depressing juxtaposition coming on the heels of a remarkably inspirational U.S. papal visit.

Just picture the Turtle Bay turnstile...Pope Francis' inspiring address urging world leaders to set aside their differences to heal the world's poverty and oppression. Flash forward to Russia's Putin grasping the UNGA lectern after a decade's absence asserting more dictators will create a new "stable" world order - by bombing Syria and Ukraine. The Amen Choir of UNGA autocrats were on their feet ready to dance the Barynya.

For good measure, Iran's Supreme Leader stand-in Hassan Rouhani could not resist the temptation to pile on the U.S. "we must not forget the roots of today's wars...can be found in the occupation, invasion and military intervention..." by the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the U.S.'s unwarranted support for the inhumane actions of the "Zionist regime" (aka Israel). That's the guy we just signed a nuclear agreement with whose nation is the world's number one state sponsor of terror, and which is Putin's closest Assad ally in Syria.

Putin seized upon the catastrophic rise of ISIS as an alibi to triple down on Russia's support for Syria's Assad regime -- asserting that the road to defeating ISIS lies through Damascus. Typical feint by Putin. It seems that the only person surprised with Putin's air strikes in Syria is President Obama - and that alone says all that needs to be said about this White House's abject naiveté why it's Syria "policy" is an unmitigated disaster on every count.

Putin also would have none of Obama's clarion call to statesmanship. He defiantly asserted that "...we can no longer tolerate the current state of affairs in the world." The real bogeyman of global disorder, Putin asserted, is NATO and the United States. In a vain attempt to curry favor with his new-found bully buddies Putin exclaimed that the United Nations is the only institution that stands in the way of American domination of the world.

What is most diabolical about Putin's orchestrated defense of Assad wrapped in an anti-ISIS appeal is how much his brazen assessment is gaining traction in the least likely of places -- western Europe. Europe's leaders, overrun by a torrent of Syrian refugees with no end in sight, are throwing their lot in with Putin on Assad - bowing to the cruel reality on the ground that Assad won't be leaving anytime soon for fear that the torrent of refugees would turn into a tsunami of boat people. And any rush to force Assad and his family to the exit could make matters worse by enabling ISIS to establish its caliphate capital in Damascus.

Obama had once infamously declared "Assad must go." Now, the U.S. is talking about Assad's "managed transition." That is code for we are in no hurry to get rid of Assad, either. So much for Secretary Kerry's empty admonitions.

That is the sad reality of the ground game in Syria today - coupled with a free-fire zone free-for-all of Russian, American, French, Syrian, Turkish and "coalition" warplanes (add Israeli drones) buzzing overhead without an order of battle bombing targets with abandon in an almost cartoonish display of indiscriminate air might -- all without a strategy.

Let's take a step back.

Despite all the kabuki drama in New York nothing that the U.S. says or does is going to change the Syrian equation -- nada. Obama forfeited having much of a say about Assad's coming or going when he took his red-line ante off the table and failed when confronted at every Syrian policy turn of opportunity in the road thereafter. Too late arming moderate rebels. Too late providing urgent humanitarian relief. Too late comprehending the threat that a disintegrating Syria poses to U.S. homeland security. Too late coordinating a policy with Turkey. Too late recognizing ISIS' threat. Too late demanding Sunni states stop supporting extremist anti-Assad forces. Too late to put any political pressure on Assad. The list of "too lates" is bottomless.

And yet, even today before Congress, Kerry enjoys boasting about HIS 43 nation anti-ISIS coalition - quantity over quality - a paper tiger coalition that has hardly affected hardly anything on the ground because Obama won't permit U.S. Special Forces target spotters to make that air coalition effective. Kerry is flailing as is his want. He demands a political solution in Syria that would lead to a "transition government" but there is no one to hand power off to.
If Kerry had the presence of thought to stay off his plane for a while and get back to basics perhaps the U.S. could come up with a plan which would: a) refocus Arab and European efforts against ISIS by organizing the boots on the ground needed to carve up ISIS; b) put some time in Baghdad to shore up its internal efforts against ISIS; 3) cajole Syria's other patron states (China and Iran) to create an anti-ISIS coalition that has some teeth to it.

Alternatively, everything that Russia does, will - for the short term -- favorably impact Assad's bloody hold on power. So why is anyone surprised Russia is pouring more arms into its client state...Russia has been doing that for decades and has a convenient naval base at Tartus to unload all that equipment. Neither Iran, China, or Hezbollah (and Israel...yes ISRAEL) want to part with the devil they know, and each in their own way are determined to keep Assad's regime from collapsing. They know ISIS and Al Nusra Front will pillage and murder any Shiite left standing.

Mind you, Putin is no hero here. While Russia's escalation may keep the Caliph out of Damascus, it will certainly fuel the refugee exodus, produce even more vicious fighting and civilian carnage, and serve as Hollywood blockbuster advertisement for Sunni recruits to join ISIS' forces. Afghanistan redux??
But Obama's Middle East foreign policy team put his leaky ship of state on this course - get out of the Middle East, turn the keys over to the Iranians; pivot to Asia, and exit stage left declaring victory with honor. Anyone warning them of Syria's consequences was shown the door including Robert Ford -- our best mind on Syria who was the courageous envoy there.

Regrettably, the unmitigated stubbornness of his National Security Council team to grasp the strategic essentials of the Middle East is the root cause of this Greek tragedy. Now, it is too late to throw our weight around without a plan that focuses on what really is essential to U.S. interests in Syria. And so far the Administration hasn't a clue what an effective plan may look like. It talks as if it has a plan, but that, too, is fantasy.

Here are some remedies:

1. Syria is Putin's Bait: The U.S. never had a geo-political stake in Syria. Syria has been Russia's #1 client state for 50 years. Syria is Russia's #1 purchaser of arms. China, too, is Assad's major big-power benefactor. Assad's fall would convert Syria into a partitioned Sunni extremist-dominated state pouring Jihadis into Chechnya and Dagestan. Putin has a geo-strategic imperative to prevent that from happening and to expand Russia's influence with the new Middle East world order that Obama and Co. have bequeathed him. The emerging Russian-Iranian Shiite alliance had the vote in the Middle East and has even snared Iraq into it - again much to the surprise of the Obama team. The U.S. must refocus to ensure that Lebanon and Jordan remain able to withstand the consequences of the Syrian extremist and refugee crisis now within their borders. That requires more strategic planning with Israel, Egypt and Turkey...I don't see any of that happening.

2. ISIS is Job #1 for US & Allies. The U.S. and its European allies have few anti-Assad cards left. The two cards that Obama and his team have failed to play so are 1) robbing ISIS of its territorial bases in Raqqa Syria and Mosul, Iraq; and 2) containing the flow of ISIS fighters to and from those areas. If Putin is going to join in and help - all the better. Cutting the Caliphate down the middle (i.e., severing its lines of communications between Syria and Iraq is essential to robbing ISIS of its attraction to Jihadis and to its own legitimacy. Putin and Iran will never be brow-beaded into changing their conduct in Syria - so Kerry should quit bellyaching about it and focus instead on protecting U.S. interests where they matter, i.e., numbers 1 & 2, above. That means organizing an ARAB expeditionary force to chop up ISIS's territory. I don't see Kerry doing anything of the sort, yet. By the way, the Europeans have yet to be brought into a planning enterprise to get this organized.

3. Homework/Homework on Homeland Security. A bi-partisan Congressional Committee issued a damning report yesterday on the Obama Administration's "two hands tied behind its back" military and intelligence failures against ISIS asserting that the U.S. is losing the battle to stop Americans from traveling abroad to enlist in ISIS. More than 25,000 foreigners have flocked to war-torn Syria and Iraq since 2011 to fight with Islamist terrorist groups including ISIS, according to U.S. government estimates noted in the report. The Obama Administration has a bipartisan "F" grade on the one danger that matters most to Americans in this conflict. We have no military, political, or strategic policy in place to deal with this. All the more reason why we need to refocus our energies and stop our Syrian flailing.

4. Just a Few Boots on the Ground. I have repeatedly called for the U.S. to unshackle itself by permitting forward spotting teams to support air strikes against ISIS - without which 75% of coalition airstrikes fail to occur or miss their targets. Obama has consistently overruled his military and intelligence advisers -- as if these boots on the ground would short-sheet his pledge not to have boots on the ground in Syria. Penny wise-pound foolish, to say the least.

5. Safe Havens/No Barrel Bombing Fly Zones. The U.S. and Turkey have been haggling over whether there should be safe-havens for Syrians defended by U.S. and Turkish forces. The U.S. can do so much more to provide the urgent humanitarian relief Syrians desperately need within Syria while leveraging strategic safe-havens to place more military pressure on the Assad regime by training Syrians to defend these safe-havens that would also be no-fly zones against Assad's dreaded barrel bombing. We have a coalition Mr. Kerry...43 members? Where are they???

Syria is so broken it is inevitable that it is going to be partitioned - the only question is when and whether the extremists will hold just a sliver of what is left. Our goal must be principally to expedite the demise of ISIS and its threat to us, and push Sunni Arab states to end their clandestine support for ISIS and Al Nusra in Syria and Iraq. Russia, Iran and China are all in for Assad until someone finally takes him down, which is surely to happen given the hundreds of thousands seeking retribution against him.

What remains of America's Middle East policy is now in the hands of our adversaries. It will take a new, bold, creative foreign policy team to pick up the pieces of this broken china - and that is 15 months away.