October 1, 2015 | Commentary on Russia, National Security and Defense, American Leadership

Countering, not cooperating with Putin, should be order of the day

The Kremlin is not our friend. Nor is Moscow a 10-foot tall threat to our national interests.

What America needs is a middling foreign policy that looks to marginalize Russia's capacity to mess with us. And there is no better place to start this approach than in Syria.

Putin has made a muscular move to support besieged Syrian strongman Bashar Assad. It came after it was clear Congress couldn't block the Iran nuclear deal. Coincidence? Probably not.

Russia and Iran have common cause in the Middle East. One of the regimes' shared goals: getting Tehran out from under the heel of international sanctions.

The Iran deal will dump billions of dollars into Tehran's coffers - enabling Tehran to do a lot more business with Russia.

Once President Obama effectively sidelined congressional opposition to the agreement, Russia and Iran moved on to Goal Two: Prop up the dictator in Damascus.

With permission to move through Iranian airspace, Russia shipped a tidal wave of "humanitarian support" - including tanks, troops, combat aircraft and support facilities - to beef up Assad's military might.

It was thumb in the eye of the White House, which has insisted, quite publicly, that Assad's departure is a prerequisite for solving country's seemingly intractable civil war.

Yet, some argue that now's the time to make a deal with Moscow. It goes like this: Refugees are flooding - and destabilizing - Europe; ISIS is running wild ... so America and its friends in both regions could use Putin's help to put out the fire.

The Kremlin likes that talk - if only because it distracts attention from Moscow's meddling in Georgia, Ukraine, the Baltics and other spots along its Central European border. But the argument simply is not realistic.

Moscow is happy to help Tehran prop up Assad, thereby building a buffer against ISIS. But there is zero evidence of Russian interest in helping us.

While Russia and Iran want to protect themselves from ISIS contagion, both countries seem satisfied to watch the likes of ISIS and al-Qaida destabilize the rest of the region and harry the Americans and Europeans.

Even if we were to reach some sort of "agreement" with Moscow, the Russians wouldn't do anything in Syria that they weren't going to do anyway.

It's the Putin way. Witness his flouting of the INF treaty. Why give the Russians something for nothing? It would only exacerbate Putin's already massive contempt for this administration and its foreign policy.

Far better that the White House show a little backbone. The U.S. should start with an unrelenting diplomatic effort condemning both Moscow and Tehran for aiding one of the world's worst human rights abusers. Assad is, after all, a practitioner of genocide.

Next, the U.S. and the Europeans must accept that they need to deal with the refugee crisis - and the rise of ISIS - on their own terms.

That starts with a more integrated effort to interdict the flood of refugees moving north - an important humanitarian effort in itself. The journey is perilous. Refugees are most at risk when they are on the move. At the same time, the White House needs to lead an effort to create legitimate safe havens for refugees within the Middle East.

Finally, the U.S. needs a realistic military strategy to break ISIS control of territory in Iraq. That's the root cause of the growing problem.

As for Assad, the U.S. must never acknowledge he can stay. At the same time, the White House should be realistic. He is not going anywhere as long as he has the support of Moscow and Tehran.

But the Oval Office should make providing that support painful as possible - not enable it.

-A vice president of The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), James Jay Carafano directs the think tank's national security and foreign policy research program.

 

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

This piece originally appeared in the Bradenton Herald