From the cold, calculating viewpoint of Vladimir Putin and his inner
circle, the Syrian conflict is actually a boon for Russia. For the last
year, a former superpower that had lost virtually all of its relevance
in the Middle East has been the focus of global attention.
"When you look at it from the Russian point of view, they have
actually felt that they have a winning strategy," Carroll Bogert, a
senior official with Human Rights Watch who recently visited Moscow,
told me. "They have forced the world to beat a path to their door, that
they hold the trump card, that they are the most influential over the
And yet, Russian and the American views on Syria could hardly be
further apart. In a world where technology should make facts clearer,
delusions fester in Moscow. Bogert said that some Russian media outlets reported that the NATO bombing campaign in Libya killed
10,000 civilians. Western journalists and human rights groups put the
number at roughly 70.
Some in the Russian foreign policy establishment admit that Assad's
forces are carrying out human rights abuses, but most Russian analysts
accept the Assad regime's claim that it is crushing an al Qaeda-backed
Islamic insurgency. Most importantly, it is unclear that Moscow has the
influence it claims over Assad. Instead of putting the Kremlin's
perceived power to the test and potentially failing, dragging out the
conflict is in Putin's interest.
Assad, meanwhile, is slowly escalating his attacks and betting that
Washington's tolerance will rise as well. The Syrian leader knows that a
major U.S. military intervention is unlikely in an American election
"Right now, the regime is testing the U.S. resolve, slowly but surely
escalating its violence to see if Washington responds," said a
Damascus-based analyst who asked not to be identified. "It's been doing
this for 15 months and hopes to go all the way. They believe they have
much more to do on the scale of horror."
So far, the Obama administration has adopted a series of easy - and
often contradictory - approaches in Syria. It is letting Turkey, Saudi
Arabia and Qatar arm the Syrian opposition. At the same time, it claims
to support a diplomatic solution.
The result is that the Russians believe the American support for
diplomacy is insincere. And the Syrian opposition believes American
officials are not seriously backing them. Meanwhile, Islamists are a
growing force in the Syrian opposition.
In a telephone interview from Turkey this week, Mahmoud Mosa, a
civilian member of the Syrian opposition said U.S. officials had pledged
to provide non-lethal aid earlier this spring. Today, he is still
"They promised me they would provide us with communications and some medical equipment," he said. "But it has not happened."
In his meeting with Putin next week, Obama should set a deadline for
one final diplomatic push. It is unlikely that it will happen, but the
so-called Yemen option - in which Assad departs Syria as Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh left his country - should be tried.