In Syria, Fight ISIS—Not Russia
Denouncing Russian air strikes on Aleppo as “barbaric,” Mike Pence declared in Tuesday’s debate:
“The provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength. … The United States of America should be prepared to use military force, to strike military targets of Bashar Assad regime.”
John McCain went further:
“The U.S. … must issue an ultimatum to Mr. Assad — stop flying or lose your aircraft … If Russia continues its indiscriminate bombing, we should make clear that we will take steps to hold its aircraft at greater risk.”
Yet one gets the impression this is bluster and bluff.
Pence has walked his warnings back. And there are few echoes of McCain’s hawkishness. Even Hillary Clinton’s call for a “no-fly zone” has been muted.
The American people have no stomach for a new war in Syria.
Nor does it make sense to expand our enemies list in that bleeding and broken country — from ISIS and the al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra Front — to Syria’s armed forces, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.
These last three have been battling to save Assad’s regime, because they see vital interests imperiled should it fall.
We have not plunged into Syria, because we have no vital interest at risk in Syria. We have lived with the Assads since Richard Nixon went to Damascus.
President Obama, who has four months left in office, is not going to intervene. And Congress, which has the sole power to declare war, has never authorized a war on Syria.
Obama would be committing an impeachable act if he started shooting down Russian or Syrian planes over Syrian territory. He might also be putting us on the escalator to World War III.
For Russia has moved its S-400 anti-aircraft system into Syria to its air base near Latakia, and its S-300 system to its naval base at Tartus.
As the rebels have no air force, that message is for us.
Russia is also moving its aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, into the Med. Vladimir Putin is doubling down in Syria.
Last weekend, the Russian Foreign Ministry warned that U.S. attacks in Syria “will lead to terrible tectonic consequences not only on the territory of this country but also in the region on the whole.”
Translation: Attack Syria’s air force, and the war you Americans start could encompass the entire Middle East.
Last week, too, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, warned that creating a “no-fly zone” in Syria could mean war — with Russia. Dunford’s crisp retort to Sen. Roger Wicker:
“Right now, senator, for us to control all of the airspace in Syria it would require us to go to war, against Syria and Russia. That’s a pretty fundamental decision that certainly I’m not going to make.”
And neither, thankfully, will Barack Obama.
So, where are we, and how did we get here?
Five years ago, Obama declared that Assad must step down. Ignoring him, Assad went all out to crush the rebels, both those we backed and the Islamist terrorists.
Obama then drew a “red line,” declaring that Assad’s use of chemical weapons would lead to U.S. strikes. But when Obama readied military action in 2013, Americans rose up and roared, “No!”
Reading the country right, Congress refused to authorize U.S. military action. Egg all over his face, Obama again backed down.
When Assad began losing the war, Putin stepped in to save his lone Arab ally, and swiftly reversed Assad’s fortunes.
Now, with 10,000 troops — Syrian, Iraqi Shiite militia, Hezbollah, Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Afghan mercenaries — poised to attack Aleppo, backed by Russian air power, Assad may be on the cusp of victory in the bloodiest and most decisive battle of the war.
Assad and his allies intend to end this war — by winning it.
For the U.S. to reverse his gains now, and effect his removal, would require the introduction of massive U.S. air power and U.S. troops, and congressional authorization for war in Syria.
The time has come to recognize and accept reality.
While the U.S. and its Turkish, Kurdish and Sunni allies, working with the Assad coalition of Russia, Hezbollah and the Iranians, can crush ISIS and al-Qaida in Syria, we cannot defeat the Assad coalition — not without risking a world war.
And Congress would never authorize such a war, nor would the American people sustain it.
As of today, there is no possibility that the rebels we back could defeat ISIS and the al-Nusra Front, let alone bring down Bashar Assad and run the Russians, Hezbollah, Iran and the Iraqi Shiite militias out of Syria.
Time to stop the killing, stop the carnage, stop the war and get the best terms for peace we can get. For continuing this war, when the prospects of victory are nil, raises its own question of morality.
Patrick J. Buchanan is a founding editor of The American Conservative and the author of the book The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose From Defeat to Create the New Majority.