Not waiting as the West dithers on the Syrian civil war, Russian jets pounded rebel forces for the first time. Meanwhile, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives caved in to conservative pressure and announced he would resign within weeks — days after the first papal address to Congress in history appeared to take the Church from a Republican alliance to a Democratic one.
The week of Sukkos featured several major political and global security news items. President Barack Obama was boosted on his leftist domestic agenda by the arrival of Pope Francis, who addressed a joint session of Congress, led mass parades through Philadelphia and New York’s Central Park, as well as endorsed Democratic views on alleged climate change and income inequality.
However, Obama’s foreign policy feet were cut off suddenly by the appearance of Russian warplanes over the skies of Syria. His nemesis, President Vladimir Putin, said he was joining the fight against the Islamic State. But the targets getting hit were the al-Qaida-linked al Nusra group and a secular U.S.-backed rebel group.
Putin’s message was clear: Syria’s leader Bashar Assad, despite Obama’s frequent calls for his ouster, is not going anywhere without a fight. The message couldn’t have been delivered any blunter: Putin’s bombs and jets are more powerful than the meetings the West has held for years to schedule additional meetings to decide where the next meeting is going to take place.
Ouch. That note must’ve hurt, coming from Putin. Obama has tried to sideline him for years since his takeover of parts of Ukraine. Now, Obama was forced to agree to Putin’s request for their first face-to-face meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly summit in New York last week.
Then, on Sept. 25, House Speaker John Boehner, a conservative lawmaker from Ohio who is deeply distrusted by conservatives over his failure to block Obama’s progressive actions, announced he will resign both his leadership position and his congressional seat at the end of October.
The move has set off a leadership scramble among Republican lawmakers, with Kevin McCarthy of California, who entered politics just 15 years ago, appearing to have backing to replace Boehner. McCarthy is the House majority leader, having replaced Eric Cantor of Virginia last year upon the latter’s stunning primary loss to a tea party candidate.
But conservatives are not trusting of any establishment candidate; several others have since said they will run for the post of speaker. The speaker is the one who sets Congress’s agenda and decides which bills can come on the floor for a vote.
Obama stood on the tarmac of a military base in Maryland two weeks ago to do what he rarely does — personally greet a world leader who came for a visit. But his honoring of the pope was hardly an indication that Democrats have suddenly adopted the Catholic position on moral values.
Obama and the Pope have had quite a ride together these past few years, a series of successes both hope to add to.
Their collaboration on easing Cuba’s isolation has borne fruit — the United States and the communist island nation 90 miles from its southern shores reestablished diplomatic ties earlier this year for the first time in 55 years.
Obama wants to tag his scheme to raise the minimum wage, require paid sick leave and fine businesses who allegedly cause global warming to the popular pope.
During a meeting on the White House’s South lawn, the pope said he found it “encouraging” that Obama was cutting carbon emissions allegedly linked to climate change. Meanwhile, the president not only praised The Pope’s vision of “empathy” but also said his “unique qualities as a person” gave the world “a leader whose moral authority comes not just through words but also through deeds.”
On Friday, after word of Boehner’s resignation became public, Obama said he hoped lawmakers would “really reflect” on what the pope said, especially the idea “that we listen to each other and show each other respect, and that we show regard for the most vulnerable in society.”
A presidential alliance with the leader of the world’s billion Catholics is not new — Ronald Reagan used it to devastate the Soviet Union in the 1980s. But the papal dossier has usually been the GOP’s turf, due to the Church’s rejection of immoral behaviors.
The sudden rise of the progressive Pope in 2013 after his predecessor’s surprise abdication gave Democrats the chance to outflank the Republicans on their ground.
But while Obama sees in the Pope’s progressive message the world as he wants it to be, in his entanglements with Putin he faces the world as it really is.
Even as Putin in his U.N. address in New York called for a coordinated response to the Syrian crisis, he wasn’t waiting around for an answer.
His decision to launch airstrikes Wednesday in the war-torn country caught world leaders still debating a common approach to the conflict off guard, the Washington Post reported. U.S. officials in Baghdad were asked Wednesday morning to keep their aircraft out of Syrian airspace. France, whose own war planes are working in unison with U.S. jets in targeting Islamic State camps, was given no heads-up, according to Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
The move ratchets up the pressure on leaders unable to agree on how to resolve a civil war that has killed 250,000 people and sent millions more fleeing toward Europe. While Russia insists that its initial targets were Islamic State terrorists, U.S. and European leaders openly questioned whether the attacks were instead taking aim at Assad’s other opponents.
“If this is a part of international action against ISIL, that appalling terrorist death-cult outfit, then that is all to the good,” British Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters, using an acronym for the terror group. “If, on the other hand, this is action against the Free Syrian Army in support of Assad the dictator, then obviously that is a retrograde step, but let us see exactly what has happened.”
Russia’s first military action in the Middle East in three decades targeted several Islamic State targets in Homs and Hama provinces, Syrian state-run media reported, citing an unnamed military source. But Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, disputed that claim.
“Targets hit are not in areas where Islamic State operates,” Ford, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said via email. “Thus, strikes [are] not about fighting Islamic State but instead about helping [an] increasingly weak Assad government.”
Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Tuesday instructed his staff to open lines of communication with Russia to avoid any clashes between U.S.-led coalition planes and Russian aircraft. In the meantime, U.S. flights over Syria would continue as planned.
But U.S. officials were particularly irked that they didn’t get much warning of the strikes, even as they make plans to resume military talks with Russia about Syria. The only warning they got was earlier that day, when a Russian general stationed in Baghdad showed up at the U.S. Embassy there and told the American defense attache that airstrikes would begin about an hour later.
The sudden raid left the Americans surprised and angry but with few options on how to respond, according to a U.S. official cited by Bloomberg News.
The White House was reduced to delivering warnings to Putin that he had dangerously overreached and “will pay the highest price for that.” But there has been no change to its strategy in Syria or its approach in dealing with Russia in other areas of conflict, such as Ukraine.
“The West doesn’t have a mechanism to block what Russia is trying to do, and there’s very little appetite in the White House to get the U.S. in the middle of this,” said Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Moscow’s support for the Assad family dictatorial rule over Syria goes back to the Cold War when Damascus allied itself with the Soviet Union.
When, in 1971, Hafez al-Assad, the current president’s father, led a coup and took over the Syrian government, he signed a security pact with Moscow. In return, Assad gave the Soviets a naval base at Tartus, to this day Moscow’s only port on the Mediterranean Sea, through which Russian arms have flowed to Syria for decades. The Kremlin over the years has provided more than $2.5 billion in military assistance to Damascus.
When the revolt against the Assad regime began in the spring of 2011, Obama called for Assad to “step aside.” But he said concurrently that the U.S. would not take any action to back up that statement.
Putin, however, from the beginning supported the Assad regime by blocking anti-Syria U.N. resolutions and supplying military advisors and arms to the Syrian regime, including Russian Mi-8 and Mi-17 helicopters that carry out barrel-bomb attacks.
Apparently, Obama believed that Russia will soon find itself in a Syrian “quagmire” similar to the U.S. in Iraq.
“This is not some chessboard superpower contest,” Obama told reporters in response to a question. “Mr. Putin had to go into Syria not out of strength, but out of weakness, because his client … was crumbling.”
Rather than building support for Assad, a minority ruler, Russia would alienate Syria’s Sunni majority and the Sunni-ruled countries of the region he has been trying to court, Obama said.
“This attempt by Russia and Iran,” the regime’s other backer, “to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire. It won’t work,” he said. “And they will be there for a while, if they don’t take a different course.”