SecDef: Man, Russia's going to regret their Syrian strategy, eventually

Somehow I assume Russia sees this very differently. CBS’ Charlie Rose can’t quite swallow this either, reminding Defense Secretary Ash Carter that Russia has strengthened their hand in Syria and pushed the US aside to at least some degree as a “player.” That won’t matter, Carter responds, because America will win this political and military battle — and then Moscow will rue the day, or something:

“I’ve said this very bluntly to our overseas partners — there can’t be any free riders here … because we’re going to be on the winning side,” Carter told “CBS This Morning” co-host Charlie Rose at the Pentagon Tuesday. “We’ll remember who contributed and who didn’t. And we aren’t out to do people favors here and we’re not asking for anybody to do us favors either, but people need to act in their own long-term interests so we’ll remember.”

Carter said any country on the sidelines “who needs to get in the game” should get in the game.

“That’s what I was doing in Brussels. And overwhelmingly people came on behind that, and to the Russians and the Iranians who are not contributing and are actually causing more problems in the region, that’s going to come back and get them,” Carter said.

“Everybody looks to Russia as if they have — this has been a win-win for them in Syria. They’re a player. They have supported Assad. Assad is in a much better position,” Rose pointed out. “I mean, people look at what Putin has done and said he’s been a master strategist in the way he’s played a weak hand.”

“Well, where does that strategy lead?” Carter asked. “It’s leading to the prolongation of the civil war in Syria, which is not in Russia’s interest. It’s not.”

Carter seems to really believe this; he doesn’t seem to be the dissembling type, at least not on this level. And it would be nice to be able to believe it, too, because Russia’s interests intersect much more with Iran than with the US in the region. How, though, does Carter see the continuation of the present status quo as a blow to Russia’s interests? Bashar al-Assad has been a client of both Moscow and Tehran since … always. The meltdown in Syria had Assad on his heels, so in the sense that the totality of the conflict went against Russian interests, Carter’s right. But Russia didn’t create that situation — they accuse the US of creating it as a means to depose Assad, and their intervention has indisputably strengthened Assad’s position, especially against the so-called moderate rebels that the US backed, against whom Russia directed the bulk of their attacks rather than against ISIS. And since that intervention, Barack Obama has backpedaled somewhat on the demand that Assad surrender power immediately in Syria as a condition of a settlement.

While Russia may have had a “weak hand” in the beginning, events have shown that their hand has improved. They are driving events on the ground in Syria, not the US or its Sunni allies who also wanted to see Assad ousted. Any negotiated resolution to the civil war will have to account for Assad’s control, and with Russian and Iranian desires to maintain their influence in the country. That puts Russia in position to hand out “favors,” not the US, who will end up struggling to keep the anti-ISIS alliance in place with Assad re-entrenched in Damascus. That ain’t exactly losing, at least from Russia’s standpoint.

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