One lesson from the Arab Spring is clear. When a dictator flees to a “coastal region” or “tribal stronghold,” the end is near. So amidst reports that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has fled Damascus, it’s likely his days are numbered.
Despite this development, Russia still vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have merely imposed economic sanctions on Assad’s regime. With this veto, Russian President Vladimir Putin was drawing a line in the sand. And it’s high time that President Obama and U.S. officials acknowledge this reality, and realize that Putin’s Russia is an adversary, not an ally.
President Assad’s despotic regime is on its last legs, and the Russians know it. On Friday, Russia’s ambassador to France publicly stated that Assad was ready to relinquish power. Although the Syrian government denied the report, the recent gains made by the Syrian opposition in Damascus and on the Iraqi border, along with Assad’s decision to flee the capital, evince that the end is near.
Yet Russia still vetoed economic sanctions, claiming the resolution was one-sided because it only called on Syria’s government to stop killing its people (and presumably because it didn’t call on the Syrian opposition to stop defending themselves). Russia further claimed that the resolution might be used as a pretext to launch a Libya-like intervention in Syria.
But the resolution only called for economic sanctions. And it even gave Assad 10 days to stop the violence before the sanctions would go into effect. So why did Russia see a pretext for intervention? Simply because the United States and other nations refused to rule it out. But any U.N.-backed intervention would require a separate resolution approved by the Security Council, something Russia knows very well.
So what explains the Russian veto? To some degree, Putin likely wants to stand by Assad, even though his end seems inevitable. And after spending so much political capital and destroying Russia’s international reputation in Syria, there’s probably not much further harm in doing so.
But the veto was more likely intended as a message to America: that Russia is a world power on par with the United States, and that it won’t be bullied by the arrogant Americans. It’s a theme that Putin used repeatedly in his presidential campaign. And it’s a theme that has driven Russia’s foreign policy over the last few years.
Russia’s intransigence on Iran, opposition to a U.S. missile shield in Europe, support for anti-Western governments, and military aid to Syria and other despotic regimes have all been part of a policy of antagonism toward the United States.
Despite this, President Obama refuses to acknowledge reality or call a spade a spade. He continues to assert that Russia can be reasoned with, and even called Putin right before Russia vetoed the Syria resolution.
But after manipulating Obama for the past three and a half years, it’s Putin who has much of the leverage. And for all the talk of a “restart” between Russia and the United States, Obama’s diplomacy has produced almost no results. What is a new START Treaty, for instance, compared to an Iranian regime racing toward a nuclear weapon and a Syrian regime that has murdered nearly 20,000 of its own people?
President Obama’s efforts to improve relations with Russia were motivated by the best of intentions. But without a willing partner, the effort was doomed from the start. President Obama needs to recognize Putin for what he is: a despot who views the United States as an adversary.
This isn’t to say that we should cut off relations with Russia. Given its size, history, and influence in the world, this would be impractical and inadvisable. And with regard to its behavior on the international stage, Putin’s Russia is not a pariah that must be isolated along the lines of Iran and North Korea (though it could be argued that domestically, Putin’s regime is not much better).
But as we work with Putin, we must do so with the knowledge that he wants to thwart the United States and prop up authoritarian regimes that he sympathizes with. This will put our negotiations on a firmer footing, and improve the results of our diplomatic overtures.
President George W. Bush famously told the world in 2001 that he trusted Mr. Putin because he had looked into Putin’s eyes and seen his soul. But in 2008, after Russia’s invasion of Georgia and other acts of aggression and intransigence, President Bush admitted he had been wrong. President Obama should do the same.
David Meyers served in the White House from 2006 to 2009, and later in the United States Senate. He is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.