09/03/2013 12:24 pm ET Updated Nov 03, 2013

Cold War Chess: Why a Strike on Assad Would be Good for Russia, Bad for America, and Useless for Syria

While there is a strong moral argument to be made to attack Assad's regime in Syria in the wake of the chemical attacks that killed hundreds of civilians, America should tread cautiously and pay closer attention to Russia's role in all this.

On the face of it, Vladimir Putin's warning to the US against an attack on Syria is par for the course. Russia always hates the idea of its historical enemy exerting its military muscle anywhere, and has supported Assad for a long time. However, beneath the predictable rhetoric lies a dangerous current of neo-Cold War tendencies that seem to be taking hold in the former Soviet Union, and which should worry America very much.

Military powers throughout history have required an enemy to generate strong nationalism and to keep the ruling class in business. Prior to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Russia had just such an enemy in the US, which enabled the Kremlin to keep strict control of its people and wage a global game of high-stakes chess against the West. The Cold War was the perfect cover for those who wanted to rule with an iron fist - because there was a clear (if mostly fabricated) threat to be addressed.

But then everything changed, and the ruling bloc in Russia found their influence in the world and their power over their own people declining, mainly because of a lack of a war to be fought and an enemy to be defeated. With capitalist corruption having replaced communist corruption as the poison of choice, the new influencers were the oligarchs, the billionaire industrialists and media tycoons who controlled the nation through their obscene wealth.

Enter Putin, a former member of the security services and a stubborn throwback to the old Cold Warriors of Russia, who could not see himself sharing power with nouveau riche businessmen and gangsters, and preferred the tyranny of government to the tyranny of money. But to remain in power in the new Russia, Putin cannot simply unleash the secret police every time he wants (or at least not as freely as his predecessors could during the Cold War) and needs an enemy to fight in order to rally the Russian people behind his government. He needs a basis for his power, and the new enemy, of course, is the old one - the US - and the new conflict, naturally, is the old one.

In other words, a return to the Cold War, consisting of a clash of ideologies and global interests.

But Putin is no fool. He has no intention of fighting this new conflict on his own shores, or even directly on American soil. Not when he can do it through satellite states like Syria and Iran, a model that the former Soviet Union had perfected during the original Cold War and which also has the benefit of enabling Russia to control the oil supplies in those countries.

By supporting the dictatorial regimes in such places and by threatening to side with them during any conflict with the West, Russia has laid a land mine for us. Never mind Putin's words. If the US attacks Syria, it will give the Russian leader the excuse he wants to mobilize his military and political apparatus behind a new Cold War, and that is precisely what he wants.

Of course, America cannot and should not be bullied by Russia, and if attacking Syria is the right thing to do then by all means we should. However - and this is a big one - given the stakes here for us, it is worth asking whether such a limited strike against Assad's military capabilities will accomplish anything at all. For one thing our nation has been badly burned by two messy wars, our financial resources depleted, and our military stretched thin, and for another the limited strikes being contemplated, consisting solely of Cruise Missile attacks, will do absolutely nothing to deter Assad. If anything, they will strengthen his resolve and give him further excuse for brutality.

Given that, the only thing that we will achieve by attacking Syria at this time is to assuage our national conscience by making a statement about the use of chemical weapons. But that is a statement that the whole world has already made, and Assad has clearly rejected it and shown no intention of adhering to any international laws governing warfare, so how why would he change his mind now? Especially since the current attack would leave his setup more or less intact.

So unless America is prepared to wage an all-out conflict in Syria aimed at toppling Assad, deal with the aftermath - which is sure to involve chaos and renewed fundamentalism like in Egypt, and give Putin the excuse to accelerate his timetable of launching a new Cold War, we should hold off on intervention, at least for now.

Whether we like it or not, we are now playing a game of diplomatic and military chess in the Middle East, and like any good player, we must think through several moves ahead if we want to have any hopes of winning. So far our government has not done that. There does not seem to be any 'plan' except to launch a largely symbolic attack, which will do nothing except paint us into a corner and limit our future options.

Like I said, there is a moral case for intervention in Syria, but even a moral action requires a coherent strategy in order to be effective, and so far the US has none on Syria. Until we have that, making any precipitous move, even with Congressional approval, could have harmful consequences for us and the world.

SANJAY SANGHOEE is a political and business commentator. He has worked at leading investment banks and hedge funds, has appeared on CNBC's 'Closing Bell', Arise TV, and HuffPost Live on business topics, and is the author of two thriller novels, including "Killing Wall Street". For more information, please visit