by Garry Kasparov
NEW YORK DAILY NEWS Sunday, October 4, 2015
After years of American hesitation about what to do about the imploding Syrian nation and its murderous leader, Bashar Assad, Russia has stepped in aggressively on the side of Iran, Assad and the terrorist forces they support.
The White House sends stern press releases and half-baked training programs for anti-Assad rebels. The Kremlin sends dozens of fighter jets and anti-aircraft missiles, and Iran sends troops. President Obama says Assad must go now — and now and now — as the Syrian body count and refugee waves grow. Vladimir Putin bombs the U.S.-trained rebel groups (and not ISIS, yet) and tells the Americans to get out.
The U.S. occasionally hits ISIS targets in a hopeless game of whack-a-mole instead of dealing with the root cause: Assad’s systematic slaughter of the Sunni population that gives ISIS its recruiting power and tacit civilian support.
In a repeat of what has happened in Ukraine, where Putin’s last invasion is still sputtering along after a year and a half, Secretary of State John Kerry is reduced to muttering about diplomacy and potential cooperation with a Russian dictator who is opposing, even attacking, American interests. Even by the low standard of White House lip service, it’s a bizarre delusion to say you’re going to put out a fire with the help of the arsonist who started it and his pals, who are busy pouring gasoline on the blaze.
Putin couldn’t care less about ISIS or anything beyond supporting his clients in Iran and Syria while looking like a tough guy to boost his image at home in Russia. Moscow’s intervention will enrage Sunni jihadists from Syria to Pakistan, which suits Putin fine. His goal is to create chaos and more weaknesses he can exploit. The growing economic and political impact of the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe isn’t a side effect, it’s one of Putin’s goals.
Iran and Russia won’t stop their path of domination and destruction voluntarily, so the real question is why this should matter to the United States. Obama appears content to continue his policy of disengagement, following through on the recent nuclear deal to make Iran the regional superpower. Stepping up to counter Russian-Iranian hegemony would be much harder now than it would have been two or three years ago — even if Obama were interested in doing so.
As always, it is difficult to make the case for action when its costs are immediate and the price of inaction is distant and opaque. After long and painful engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, most Americans don’t want to hear that their soldiers or tax dollars should be invested in countering Russia and Iran or removing Assad. And while it’s a sad day when the United States shrugs at genocide, it’s understandably hard to generate the political will to do something about it.
But there will be real consequences to the U.S. abandoning the region, beginning with the surge in violence exemplified by ISIS.
America will not cease to be the preferred target of jihadists by packing up and leaving the Middle East. War and terror do not politely stay behind national borders and you cannot throw a blanket over the entire area. One of the harsh lessons of 9/11 is that the U.S. cannot run away and hide from the world. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and it’s far less costly to create stable conditions and prevent the creation of refugees instead of dealing with them at home.
The globalized American economy will also be hit hard by increased instability in the world’s oil-producing epicenter. I suppose gasoline at $6 a gallon would get the American public’s attention — but by the time that happens, it could be too late do anything about it.
And what of Israel? Is America ready to leave its one devoted ally in the region to its fate alone? Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced the new reality last week when he flew to Moscow to meet with Putin. With Obama putting his faith in Iran and with Russian jets just a few hundred miles from Israel’s borders, Netanyahu has little choice.
Obama may be hoping to pass this mess along to his successor, but he may not be so lucky. We cannot go back in time to stop Putin from invading Ukraine. We cannot go back to stop North Korea from developing a nuclear weapon. We can’t go back to save the hundreds of thousands murdered by Assad and to protect the millions of refugees he has created.
But we can act now to deter Putin’s next invasion, to prevent the next nuclear-armed dictatorship, to save the next hundred thousand lives, and to protect the next million victims. If doing that is not in America’s interests, it is not because America’s interests have changed, but because America has changed.
Kasparov is the former world chess champion and chairman of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation. His new book, “Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped,” is out next month from PublicAffairs.