An increasingly dangerous game

The past few days have seen President Obama frittering away American credibility and strength in the Mideast, putting American fighting men at risk and pretending to fight ISIS while really only marking time until he can hand off his foreign policy disasters to a new president.  To make matters worse, our secretary of state is engaged in another risible conference to “resolve” the Syrian crisis by yukking it up with Russians and Iranians who are well-practiced at bamboozling the luxury-loving Kerry, who seems to like posh European hotels as much as his wife’s many grand estates.  But while Obama and Kerry dither, the serious actors in the area are playing a much more meaningful and dangerous game – in particular, ISIS, Russia, and Israel. 

Contradicting many doubters, Russia has demonstrated a serious capacity to generate and sustain air strikes in Syria, and supplemented that a few weeks ago with an impressive if gratuitous cruise missile strike that was likely meant to grab American and Israeli attention more than it was to destroy elusive rebel targets.  Last week, Russian warplanes bombed anti-Assad rebel positions on the Golan Heights near the Israeli border and close to the strategic town of Da’ara – another brush-back pitch of sorts toward Israel. 

With America effectively out of the picture, Putin had been riding high, but now Russia faces stiffer stuff in dealing with both the Muslim fanatics of ISIS and the formidable Israelis.   

The jury is still out on what brought down the Russian airliner over Sinai, and given Russian aviation foibles in the past, it is possible that the airliner somehow broke up in midair due to some malfunction.  But Russian airline officials are now saying the plane was brought down by an external event, increasing the likelihood that ISIS’s claims of responsibility are more than mere braggadocio.  Even if new evidence were to show that ISIS is not responsible, that will not convince many people in the region that the terror group laid Russia low.  Putin had no interest in fighting ISIS, but now he might have to.

Meanwhile, the Israelis appear to be acting strategically – something Obama can’t understand – by not attacking Russian bombers in the air, but rather giving Russia some chin music of its own.  Not long after the Russian Golan bombing, Israeli planes struck Hizb’allah positions in Syria, and then did it again, hitting a Syrian army base for good measure.  Either the Israelis spoofed Russian radars and air defenses or the Russians backed down from a potentially embarrassing engagement with Israeli fighters. 

This is the way to play the Russians: with misdirection and power, and avoiding direct confrontations that might provoke a larger more serious (even nuclear) conflict.  In Commentary, Max Boot proposed just such an American strategy against Russia, which would pressure Putin not in Syria, but in Ukraine and Eastern Europe.  It is exactly the right thing to do, and exactly the opposite of Obama’s feckless and dangerous insertion of U.S. ground troops into Syria.

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