Putin’s gambit, two questions

Vladimir Putin’s proposed resolution to the U.S. confrontation with Syria raises the following question: why did Putin propose it?

After all, it seemed increasingly clear that Congress was not going to authorize a strike, thus making it more likely than not that Obama would call the whole thing off. Moreover, if conservative critics of the proposed attack are to be believed, any attack would have been so insignificant as to leave Assad essentially unharmed and, indeed, bolstered by virtue of bragging rights.

To be sure, Putin’s gambit gives him bragging rights and leaves Obama looking weak. But Obama would look weaker if he had lost a vote in Congress and/or delivered an “unbelievably small” response.

To find Putin’s real motive, we should look at the matter geopolitically — which is generally the best way to look at these things.

Russia’s overwhelming interest is the protection of Assad’s regime — its only real ally (but stay tuned) in a crucial part of the world, i.e., the Middle East and the Mediterranean Sea. Thus, I believe that Putin proposed his resolution to maximize Assad’s chances of retaining power and winning the civil war.

If so, Putin probably believes that a U.S. attack would create a real risk to Assad, enough of a risk to make a settlement worthwhile even as the odds of an attack were decreasing. Putin probably believes (1) that Assad can continue to gain ground in the civil war without relying on chemical weapons (but with some such weapons held secretly in reserve in case his situation falls apart completely), but (2) that a U.S. attack might well reduce Assad’s crucial advantage in the air, disrupt his command-and-control operation, energize the rebels, and so forth.

This, I believe, is a sound calculation.

The second big question pertains to President Obama’s willingness to accept Putin’s gambit, assuming he does. It’s clear that Obama, sensing defeat of his resolution by Congress, sees the gambit as a way out. My question is: would Obama have accepted Putin’s proposal if it were clear that Congress would have passed his resolution?

The answer is unknowable, as Rand Paul might say. But given Obama’s dislike of using military force, it’s quite possible that he would have gone along with Putin’s gambit even if he were operating from a position of political strength. To me, that’s a sad thought.


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