Putin: Friend or Foe in Syria?

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By Patrick J. Buchanan

What Vladimir Putin is up to in Syria makes far more sense than what Barack Obama and John Kerry appear to be up to in Syria.

The Russians are flying transports bringing tanks and troops to an air base near the coastal city of Latakia to create a supply chain to provide a steady flow of weapons and munitions to the Syrian army.

Syrian President Bashar Assad, an ally of Russia, has lost half his country to ISIS and the Nusra Front, a branch of al-Qaida.

Putin fears that if Assad falls, Russia’s toehold in Syria and the Mediterranean will be lost, ISIS and al-Qaida will be in Damascus, and Islamic terrorism will have achieved its greatest victory.

Is he wrong?

Winston Churchill famously said in 1939: “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”

Exactly. Putin is looking out for Russian national interests.

And who do we Americans think will wind up in Damascus if Assad falls? A collapse of that regime, not out of the question, would result in a terrorist takeover, the massacre of thousands of Alawite Shiites and Syrian Christians, and the flight of millions more refugees into Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey — and thence on to Europe.

Putin wants to prevent that. Don’t we?

Why then are we spurning his offer to work with us?

Are we still so miffed that when we helped to dump over the pro-Russian regime in Kiev, Putin countered by annexing Crimea?

Get over it.

Understandably, there is going to be friction between the two greatest military powers. Yet both of us have a vital interest in avoiding war with each other and a critical interest in seeing ISIS degraded and defeated.

And if we consult those interests rather than respond to a reflexive Russophobia that passes for thought in the think tanks, we should be able to see our way clear to collaborate in Syria.

Indeed, the problem in Syria is not so much with the Russians — or Iran, Hezbollah and Assad, all of whom see the Syrian civil war correctly as a fight to the finish against Sunni jihadis.

Our problem has been that we have let our friends — the Turks, Israelis, Saudis and Gulf Arabs — convince us that no victory over ISIS can be achieved unless and until we bring down Assad.

Once we get rid of Assad, they tell us, a grand U.S.-led coalition of Arabs and Turks can form up and march in to dispatch ISIS.

This is neocon nonsense.

Those giving us this advice are the same “cakewalk war” crowd who told us how Iraq would become a democratic model for the Middle East once Saddam Hussein was overthrown and how Moammar Gadhafi’s demise would mean the rise of a pro-Western Libya.

When have these people ever been right?

What is the brutal reality in this Syrian civil war, which has cost 250,000 lives and made refugees of half the population, with 4 million having fled the country?

After four years of sectarian and ethnic slaughter, Syria will most likely never again be reconstituted along the century-old map lines of Sykes-Picot.

Partition appears inevitable.

And though Assad may survive for a time, his family’s days of ruling Syria are coming to a close.

Yet it is in America’s interest not to have Assad fall — if his fall means the demoralization and collapse of his army, leaving no strong military force standing between ISIS and Damascus.

Indeed, if Assad falls now, the beneficiary is not going to be those pro-American rebels who have defected or been routed every time they have seen combat and who are now virtually extinct.

The victors will be ISIS and the Nusra Front, which control most of Syria between the Kurds in the northeast and the Assad regime in the southwest.

Syria could swiftly become a strategic base camp and sanctuary of the Islamic State from which to pursue the battle for Baghdad, plot strikes against America and launch terror attacks across the region and around the world.

Prediction: If Assad falls and ISIS rises in Damascus, a clamor will come — and not only from the Lindsey Grahams and John McCains — to send a U.S. army to invade and drive ISIS out, while the neocons go scrounging around to find a Syrian Ahmed Chalabi in northern Virginia.

Then this nation will be convulsed in a great war debate over whether to send that U.S. army to invade Syria and destroy ISIS.

And while our Middle Eastern and European allies sit on the sidelines and cheer on the American intervention, this country will face an anti-war movement the likes of which have not been seen since Col. Lindbergh spoke for America First.

In making ISIS, not Assad, public enemy No. 1, Putin has it right.

It is we Americans who are the mystery inside an enigma now.

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