October 9, 2015 | Commentary on American Leadership, International Conflicts, Terrorism

For every Russian tank sent to Syria

The Russian airstrikes in Syria make it clear that Vladimir Putin has joined yet another war. The bear's entry into the desert offers opportunities for the United States. Unfortunately, the Obama administration shows no interest in seizing them.

Syria, under leader Bashar Assad, was already an Iranian client state. Now it's partly owned by Russia as well. Indeed, the Russians are piling up an impressive collection of clients.

Moscow controls the occupied regions of Georgia. It maintains a presence in Armenia, protects the pseudo-state of Trans-Dnieste, in Moldova, and crushed Chechnya in the war that launched Putin's career. And, of course, there are Crimea and Ukraine.

Much of Putin's appeal rests on his claim that he's restoring Russia's greatness, returning it to the status of a world power. And sure enough, Russia has built a little empire that insulates Putin's autocratic regime.

What that little empire doesn't do, though, is give Russia any enduring advantages. Russia's problem is that it lacks the economic base to be a world power. It can bully small states, but it cannot play on equal terms in the big leagues. And the lands Putin has grabbed have no significant resources or industry.

Putin is playing the geopolitical game brilliantly. By protecting the Alawite zone of Syria -- the Alawites, a religious minority, are the backbone of Assad's regime -- Russia protects its access to the Mediterranean port of Tartus, still controlled by Assad.

It assists Iran, another anti-American regime with which Russia already has close military and economic ties. And it shows that, unlike the United States, it helps its friends and punishes its enemies.

On its own, Russia's involvement is bad for the United States, because Russia's friends aren't ours. But that isn't the biggest problem. Russia's goal in Syria isn't to defeat the so-called Islamic State group. It's to ensure Assad survives.

But every regime in the Middle East will see Assad's survival as a victory for Iran. They will also see it as a Shia triumph. They will fear Iran's military power and its revolutionary fervor. They will fear for the future of their own regime. And they will have the arms that the Obama administration has sold so prolifically.

In short, Russia's intervention is another step toward a major Middle Eastern war. Syria is bad. But an open clash between Iran on one side, and a frightened, Saudi-led Sunni alliance on the other, would be worse. That's the fundamental reason why Russia's involvement is not in our interest.

The Russian incursion does create opportunities as well as cause problems. Unless they overreach, the Russians can likely hold the coastal Alawite region of Syria. And if Syria was all Russia had on its plate, it would have little to worry about. But Syria is not all. There is Georgia, Ukraine, and all the rest.

Collectively, Russia is taking on a lot of commitments. The United States should make those commitments costly, because Russia cannot afford to pay high costs for long. That's not a call for shooting down Russian jets. It's about using all the means at our disposal to make Russia work harder and sweat. For every Russian airstrike, an anti-tank missile to Ukraine. For every Russian plane to Assad, an anti-aircraft missile to Georgia. For every Syrian killer who visits Moscow, a Russian kleptocrat banned from the United States. Syria is not a separate case; it is part of the whole, and we should treat it as such.

But that's not what we're doing. Far from making Russia pay, we're trying to pay them off. Secretary of State John Kerry has suggested the United States would give Russia concessions if Moscow persuaded Assad to stop using barrel bombs to kill civilians.

That's what the administration calls American leadership: paying off one thug to persuade another thug to find a more humane way to kill his own people. That's not leadership. It's certainly not thinking creatively about how to turn Russia's involvement to our advantage. And it's not right.

About the Author

Theodore R. Bromund, Ph.D. Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

This article orginally appeared in Newsday