Just when the Obama administration finally starts talking about establishing a no-fly zone over Syria, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin sends the Assad regime the means to shoot U.S. planes down. There are competing strategies at work: “leading from behind” versus “up yours, America.”
On Thursday, Syria’s president Bashar Assad announced the arrival of the first of several shipments of advanced S-300 surface to air missile systems from Russia. Though Assad’s claim was later disputed, sending missiles to Syria would be a risk-free move for Putin. It would boost Russia’s reputation among its Arab allies, because even if some of them oppose the Assad regime, they oppose being betrayed by their primary arms supplier even more. If nothing else, Putin shows his loyalty by supporting Assad. And who knows who may be the next authoritarian ruler facing an armed uprising?
The Kremlin is also showing good business sense. Syria paid for the missiles, and a sale is a sale. Should the worst happen, Russia need not fear that this advanced weapons system would become part of an Islamist arsenal. Assad’s probable radical successors lack the training, expertise and discipline to keep the S-300s operational. Furthermore, if they somehow managed to keep the weapons working, they would not be aiming them at Russian jets anyway.
For Israel the risk is real, but limited. Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said this week that the S-300s constituted a “threat,” a clear signal that the Russian missiles are on borrowed time. Israel cannot tolerate Syria possessing advanced air defense systems since it would blunt their primary means of projecting power on the periphery of the Jewish state. The Israeli Air Force (IAF) will probably take out the missiles after they are delivered but before they are operational. This would further enhance Israel’s credibility when it comes to enforcing their self-declared red lines. And while Assad may try to whip up Arab hysteria in the wake of an attack, his past attempts have had no takers. As for the Iranians, they had better hope none of their technicians are in the area when the IAF arrives.
The big loser in the scenario is the Obama administration. Events are unfolding outside of the ability of the White House to influence them. The sense of American impotence in the region is palpable. The Kremlin is boldly pushing an agenda that is harmful to U.S. interests, and Putin knows that Obama is too weak or tuned-out to do anything about it. The State Department probably did not receive even so much as a courtesy call regarding the missile shipments. Likewise, when Israel moves against the S-300s, the president may first learn about the attack from press reports. Of course, that’s where Mr. Obama finds out about everything, or so he says.
James S. Robbins is Deputy Editor of Rare. Follow him on Twitter at @James_Robbins