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Stopping Russia Starts in Syria

WASHINGTON, DC – The solution to the crisis in Ukraine lies in part in Syria. It is time for US President Barack Obama to demonstrate that he can order the offensive use of force in circumstances other than secret drone attacks or covert operations. The result will change the strategic calculus not only in Damascus, but also in Moscow, not to mention Beijing and Tokyo.

Many argue that Obama’s climb-down from his threatened missile strikes against Syria last August emboldened Russian President Vladimir Putin to annex Crimea. But it is more likely that Putin acted for domestic reasons – to distract Russians’ attention from their country’s failing economy and to salve the humiliation of watching pro-European demonstrators oust the Ukrainian government he backed.

Regardless of Putin’s initial motivations, he is now operating in an environment in which he is quite certain of the parameters of play. He is weighing the value of further dismemberment of Ukraine, with some pieces either joining Russia or becoming Russian vassal states, against the pain of much stronger and more comprehensive economic sanctions. Western use of force, other than to send arms to a fairly hapless Ukrainian army, is not part of the equation.

That is a problem. In the case of Syria, the US, the world’s largest and most flexible military power, has chosen to negotiate with its hands tied behind its back for more than three years. This is no less of a mistake in the case of Russia, with a leader like Putin who measures himself and his fellow leaders in terms of crude machismo.