Vladimir Putin ordered U.S. troops into combat in Syria on Friday. That’s not what White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said when explaining the decision to send as many as 50 special operations forces into a training, assistance, and advisory role in that country, but that’s the reality. If the Russian president hadn’t made his move into Syria, the United States would not have felt compelled to finally, belatedly, shore up support for anti-Islamic State and anti-Assad allies in that embattled, long-suffering country.
How do we know that? The past three years are how we know that. Those years have been a period during which the president’s own top national security advisors were unable to get him to take more decisive action to stop the decay in Syria — which gave way to the upheaval that now fuels not only the rise of the world’s most dangerous extremists but also the overflow of refugees into Europe and neighboring countries in the Middle East. But Putin, apparently, has more sway in the Oval Office than Hillary Clinton, Bob Gates, Leon Panetta, David Petraeus, and a host of others whose counsel went unheeded ever did.
Putin’s decisiveness in engaging in Syria has shifted the balance of power in that country. It has not only unquestionably shored up President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but it has also sent a message that opponents of Assad (including some ostensible U.S. allies among the rebel fighters in Syria) were going to be the targets of the fiercest military attacks rather than the Islamic State extremists the United States and its allies were seemingly seeking to defeat. The Russians talked up their opposition to the Islamic State, but the pattern of their initial strikes indicated that the primary goal was protecting their man in Damascus. (Putin’s long-term motives in Syria remain misunderstood by many in Washington. They do not seem to understand that he does not seek to transform the country or do any of the things that would make Russia’s involvement a dangerous quagmire for him. He simply seeks to ensure that the regime in Syria’s capital is acceptable to him. That means keeping Assad in place or being involved enough to have a clear say in choosing his successor. That is all. If the rest of the country roils and sends refugees into Europe, shoring up nationalists and weakening support for the EU, all the better for Putin. In fact, it would be a win-win for the Russian Tarzan.)
Whatever stated anti-Islamic State purpose there may be for the U.S. forces involvement in Syria, it also — and perhaps even primarily — has a political purpose. (As a general rule, if a military action seems to be too small to advance a military objective then it probably is being done for political reasons.) Domestically, the move to send U.S. Special Forces into Syria helps the president address the perception of American inaction that was seen to have contributed to the Russian intervention while also helping to address concerns that the administration’s efforts to train the Syrian opposition have been a failure to date. As far as geopolitics is concerned, it lends credibility to America’s desired role in advancing the multiparty talks about Syria’s future taking place in Vienna this week. It says the United States is involved and also suggests to the Russians that the conflict in Syria may grow more complex for them (as we work toward not always overlapping goals) so it provides a little pressure on that front as well.
In fact, what it also ends up meaning is that for the foreseeable future in Syria there’s going to be a whole lot of “de-conflicting” going on. The United States and its allies, the Russians, the Iranians, and the Syrians will have to work to ensure that in the confused fog of the Syrian war — on which some battle zones contain scores of factions — the collateral damage does not include destabilizing otherwise stable relationships between major powers. A subsequent consequence that seems inevitable anyway, given the complexity of the Syrian conflict, is that the Russians or Iranians will be found increasingly attacking and killing fighters who are direct proxies of the Saudis, Qataris, and others. And when that happens, we will suddenly see the greatest geopolitical clusterfuck of the current era get even clusterfuckier.
I understand the White House’s decision clearly. It makes some political sense. It may help nudge political discussions regarding Syria’s future forward. Secretary of State John Kerry is pushing hard on this front, but at the moment there are too many moving parts to make real progress. And, as is the case in other conflicts, like that of Israel and Palestine, while the end deal is clear, getting politicians to admit that is going to be tough. (And the reality of that end deal looks like this: Assad stays for transition, leaves with immunity, is replaced by Assad-lite alternative acceptable to Moscow and Tehran, and the United States gets a fig leaf of promise of a more inclusive Syrian government — one that is soon forgotten because everyone values stability above niceties like democracy or respect for human rights — while much of the country will remain in turmoil because Damascus doesn’t, and may never again, control it.)
I also understand the decision to send in troops because of my extensive training in the field that is really the birthplace of geopolitics, which is to say “show business.” (My first half-dozen or so years after college were spent directing and writing for theater and television.) In show business, one of the most often quoted maxims is “acting is reacting.” It means that good actors listen to the other actors they are working with and respond to what they are given rather than anticipating their business or emotions simply because they are called for in the script.
In foreign policy, sometimes smart reacting is called for. As with theater, a performance is best when it comes naturally, quickly, and doesn’t seem forced or unduly delayed. But on the world stage, reaction is, of course, not enough. Leaders must lead. They must be willing to take the first step sometimes, show initiative, set the rules, and take risks. That is why canned (and let’s face it, tiresome and unconvincing) dismissals of Putin from U.S. officials and sympathetic commentators in the media aside, the Russian president has in Syria — as he did in Ukraine — really reset the terms of a situation in which his side had been losing ground. And he benefited because he did more than simply react. (Arguments that Putin has not benefited in Ukraine are unconvincing. He has Crimea. He has much greater influence in eastern Ukraine. Sanctions have hurt economically but not politically — his approval rating post-Ukraine and now Syria is near 90 percent. Or as Donald Trump would say enviously — “huge.”)
Will Putin’s gambit in Syria work exactly as he hopes? Maybe not. (Though I bet, as in Ukraine, he gets much of what he wants, even if not all of it and even if the cost is higher than anticipated.) But he is one of a breed of leaders who are looking at the last months of the Obama administration and seeing American passivity as an invitation for opportunism.
Iran is seizing the initiative as much as Russia is — beginning with but not limited to the collaboration of the two sides in Syria and Iraq. Iran sees America’s swoon and the not entirely unrelated struggles in the region’s Sunni pillar states — Egypt and Saudi Arabia — as an opportunity to gain influence. And in this sense Iran is also doing exactly what Russia has done: gaining control where it can, putting pressure where it can, and extending its sphere of influence. In this case, it must be said that America’s lack of leadership is compounded by the absence of a positive “moderate” Sunni agenda in the region. Like the GOP candidates for president, Egyptian, Saudi and many other Sunni moderate leaders may know what they are against but not what they are for. The result is that anyone with a clear agenda in the Middle East — whether a pragmatic one like the Iranians or a positively demonic one like that of the Islamic State — makes headway in the intellectual, policy, and action vacuum they have created.
And it’s not just a behavioral pattern being played out in the Middle East, China has done likewise in the South China Sea. In each of these instances, calculating international actors have seen America’s inertness, made an educated guess as to where the real red line that would trigger significant U.S. reaction might be, and then taken an initiative that has gone as far as, but not past, the red line. And these actors are making big gains wherever they see zones of U.S. indifference around the world.
And the U.S. pattern of reaction is the same over and over. It’s only after these opportunistic actors seize the day that we are roused into action. The kind of action that might make us look engaged but that does not change the situation very much — a destroyer sails around some artificial islands, a few troops and Humvees are deployed in Poland, some special operations forces are deployed in Syria. It is the equivalent of squeaking “Oh yeah?” to a bully who has come up to you on the beach, kicked sand in your face, and walked away with your picnic basket. It’s the Obama special, the illusion of action.
Acting may be reacting on the stage, but it’s not enough in foreign policy and not enough for leadership. Sometimes, you have to know what you want and be willing to have enough guts and courage in your convictions to make the first move.