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The Syria Lessons

PRINCETON – As the United States and Russia try to broker a conference that can bring the various sides in the Syrian conflict to the negotiating table, potential Western participants, at least, should be thinking about the larger implications of the Syrian conflict for dictators and democracies around the world. Here are the lessons thus far:

Bad guys help their friends. The Russians and Iranians are willing to do whatever it takes to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power. Hezbollah, supplied by Iran, has now moved openly onto the battlefield in support of the Assad regime. Russia and Iran have kept the Syrian government supplied with heavy weapons and other military assistance, including a Russian shipment of sophisticated anti-ship missiles with advanced radar systems. These will help Assad hunker down and fend off all comers in an Alawite mini-state that will include the Russian-leased port facility at Tartus.

Diplomacy without a credible threat of force is empty talk. “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” Theodore Roosevelt counseled. President Barack Obama rightly wants to lead in global affairs through civilian more than military power; he understands that military solutions to foreign-policy problems are hugely expensive and often counter-productive in terms of advancing US security and prosperity over the long term.

But Obama’s strategy in Syria seems to be “speak loudly and throw away your stick.” Obama has made it clear over and over (as has NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen) that he has no interest in intervening militarily in Syria. And the US response to the latest Russian missile shipment? Secretary of State John Kerry said: “I think we’ve made it crystal clear we would prefer that Russia was not supplying assistance.”