Preachers say: Do as I say, not as I do.
—John Selden, Preaching
Today’s question is what is the difference between what the United States may or may not do in Syria and what Russia may or may not have done in the Ukraine. The main difference is that according to Vladimir Putin what happened in Crimea and eastern Ukraine has nothing to do with anything Mr. Putin or Russia did whereas what’s about to happen in Syria has a great deal to do with what the United States plans to do. If Mr. Putin were not credible, the differences between what’s happening would be less pronounced.
Russia now owns Crimea and rebel forces in eastern Ukraine are trying to take over that part of Ukraine. This is all being done without any help from Vladimir Putin. If anyone has any doubts about that they were put to bed by a spokesman for the foreign ministry, Alexander Lukashevich. On September 11 he reaffirmed that: “No Russian troops are fighting in southeastern Ukraine. There were no and there are no Russian troops in Ukraine. The Russian army is not fighting there. There are volunteers who cannot stay away from the suffering and events unfolding in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.”
NATO members and non-NATO members are of course upset with Mr. Putin because (a) they don’t believe him or his spokesman and (b) they don’t think he has a right to engage in military action in a sovereign country irrespective of his reasons for doing so. That is why sanctions are being placed on Russia.
What Mr. Obama proposes to do in Syria is quite different. Syria is governed by Bashar al-Assad. Three years ago Syrian Sunnis began a revolt against Mr. Assad and the result has been three years of a brutal and bloody civil war. During the war Mr. Assad has used poison gas, barrel bombs and other cruel methods of waging war to kill some of the 88.7% of the people who reelected him as president on June 3, 2014. The Sunnis being less well armed have been unable to drive Mr. Assad from power and as a result of the conflict more than 200,000 Syrians have been killed, and more than 1 million have become refugees. The Sunnis who began the revolt have been joined by some exceptionally violent Sunni types known as ISIS or Islamic State who have been fighting the less extreme Sunnis as well as Mr. Assad and his forces. When ISIS captured a government base near the Syrian city of Raqqa in July 2014 it beheaded the officers and soldiers it had captured and placed the severed heads on posts in the central town square for all to see. In September and August ISIS beheaded two American journalists and one British journalist and posted videos of the beheadings on line. Those three beheadings (but not the earlier ones) galvanized the west. Although the United States had been flying bombing missions over Iraq to fight Islamic State, following release of the videos of the beheadings it determined to do more. In an address to the nation on September 10, 2014, President Obama announced that in order to defeat ISIS he will authorize direct attacks against ISIS not only in Iraq but also in Syria.
Bombs may be dropped inside Syria without the permission of its president. As Mr. Obama explained in his speech to the nation: “I will not hesitate to take action against ISIS in Syria, as well as Iraq. . . . If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.” Mr. Lukashevich commented on the president’s plan saying: “This step (bombing in Syria) in the absence of a UN Security Council decision, would be an act of aggression, a gross violation of international law.” (Since Russia was uninvolved in the Ukraine he did not need to explain why Russia had not taken those steps or why what it did was not a similar violation.) So here is how it all is working out.
Mr. Putin invaded Crimea and is engaged in efforts to take over eastern Ukraine but says he did not do that. Mr. Obama acknowledges that he plans to bomb a country that has not given consent to being bombed because Islamic State is taking refuge there. Mr. Obama does not plan to put any U.S. troops in combat operations in Iraq or Syria although less than a week after he offered that assurance, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chief of staffs, said at some point he might recommend to the president that the United States have troops involved in attacks on Islamic State when accompanying Iraqi troops. His remarks were followed the next day by Mr. Obama saying there would be no American troops engaged in combat in Iraq. Neither Mr. Obama nor General Dempsey mentioned the possibility of ground troops in Syria. It will only be subject to bombing—at least for the next few weeks.