President Obama’s Carter Moment
The beginning of the Russian military intervention on September 30, 2015 marked a substantial escalation in the Syrian Civil War. The first day of the Russian airstrikes were directed largely against rebel held Homs and the surrounding rebel controlled areas, killing at least 36 civilians, including at least five children according to the Syrian National Council. This is in contrast to the official line from the Assad regime and the Russian government that the airstrikes are directed against ISIS targets. The trend has continued throughout the past several weeks and has resulted in ISIS gaining territory in Syria at the expense of the Syrian rebels. Since the world should be able to see through the façade and understand that Russia is actively targeting the non-ISIS opposition, world leaders must ask: One, what does this mean for the Syrian Civil War, and two, what will the United States do?
With regards to the War, with active Russian intervention, it is likely that the opposition will lose some of the ground it has gained in recent months. Yet, airpower alone is unlikely to significantly turn the tide in favor of the Assad regime and the war will likely continue with increased causalities and refugees. The Russians showed the world their brutality and indiscretion against rebellious Chechens in the 1990s and early 2000s and will likely replicate their tactics in their attempt to defend Assad against the Syrian rebels.
As for how the United States and the Obama Administration will react, the Obama Administration continues to be wary of becoming substantially more involved in Syria. Despite assurances to the contrary, the Syrian Civil War is becoming more and more of a proxy war between the United States and Russia as Syrian moderate rebels suddenly have “bountiful supplies of powerful American-made antitank missiles.” This move to further arm the moderate Syrian rebels should continue and be expanded, as it already has improved morale and given the moderates more leverage against the al-Nusra Front and allied Islamist groups. Since the Obama Administration has no plans to impose a no-fly zone, a move that would risk direct confrontation and possibly war with Russia, the United States should arm the moderates with MANPADs and other anti-air devices. Much like in Afghanistan, the Russians will only cease their activities in Syria when causalities and material losses begin to mount up.
President Vladimir Putin is rational and understands and respects strength. The Russians will continue to push the United States around on the international stage from Ukraine to Syria to Iran until it is met with an equal counterforce to challenge it. In the case of Syria, if Putin realizes that he cannot flaunt his military without consequences, he will be forced to either escalate or tame his operations in Syria. Russia is a revanchist power that is in a process of modernizing its military, while its population continues to decline and its economy contracts in the face of American and European Union sanctions. Declining manpower, a weak economy, with the Russian military deployed in Ukraine, the Caucasus and former Soviet states, its long borders, and now Syria all implies an overstretched military. If the Russian intervention in Syria becomes bogged down like the Soviets in Afghanistan, the ability of Russia to replace its losses and maintain its regional and global strategic positions could be challenged with a well-formulated plan to support the moderate Syrian rebels.
Much like President Carter in 1979, the United States had been in a worldwide retreat for his presidency. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Carter realized he needed to increase military spending and play the Soviets at their own game. Therefore, if the provision of additional weaponry indicates that President Obama is having his own Carter moment, he should expand the program to create a viable force to defeat Assad and ISIS.