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Globe and Mail columnist Konrad Yakabuski
Globe and Mail columnist Konrad Yakabuski

konrad yakabuski

The next U.S. president’s big problem: an emboldened Putin Add to ...

It is a cruel accident of history that has left the besieged residents of eastern Aleppo hostage to the U.S. electoral cycle, between an outgoing president who has all but washed his hands of Syria’s civil war and an incoming administration months away from being able to offer them any hope.

Aleppo is the Syrian city that Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson had apparently never heard of when he last month responded to a question about what he would do to ease the fighting there with a presidentially disqualifying, “What is Aleppo?” It is not clear that Donald Trump would have had a better answer, at least not one that made sense or inspired confidence in the Republican nominee’s appreciation of the consequences of his potential actions.

'Russia, if you're listening': Trump calls on hackers to find Clinton's missing emails (AP Video)

The naively vain Mr. Trump believes he can sit down with a like-minded Vladimir Putin, whose 82-per-cent approval rating he professes to envy, and divvy up the world into non-overlapping spheres of influence, even if it requires abandoning critical U.S. allies. That the Russian President’s domestic popularity derives from his control of the media, brutal suppression of the opposition, and strongman behaviour in Ukraine and Syria only seems to make Mr. Trump admire him more.

Related: The world is Vladimir Putin's stage, but cracks appear on the Russian President's homefront

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The global instability that a Trump-Putin tandem would sow is the main reason many members of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, including many prominent Republicans, are openly supporting Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Still, as commander-in-chief, Ms. Clinton would face a daunting list of geopolitical challenges that have grown more intractable since she stepped down as President Barack Obama’s secretary of state. Dealing with Mr. Putin may be her first big test.

Ms. Clinton warned Mr. Obama in a January, 2013, memo that “strength and resolve were the only language Mr. Putin would understand.” She earlier argued for arming moderate Syrian rebels in their fight against dictator Bashar al-Assad and imposing a no-fly zone to stop Mr. al-Assad from bombing his own citizens. Mr. Obama rejected this option, with the results the world has come to know. Up to half a million Syrians have died, millions remain displaced and an unprecedented refugee crisis is pushing the European Union to the brink.

That Mr. Obama faced no good options in Syria is no excuse for his failure to prevent Mr. Putin from gaining the upper hand in this conflict and allowing his Secretary of State, John Kerry, who on Monday pulled out of the latest round of ceasefire negotiations with Russia, to be played for a fool. Innocent Syrians have paid a terrible price for Mr. Obama’s 2014 decision to renege on his own vow to strike Mr. al-Assad’s forces if the Syrian dictator used chemical weapons on his own people.

The U.S. President was relieved when Mr. Putin intervened to broker a removal of Mr. al-Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile, sparing Mr. Obama from having to undertake what he has spent most of his presidency trying to avoid – military intervention. But it put Mr. Putin in the driver’s seat in Syria and ensured that Mr. al-Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, would remain in power.

The West’s options have only worsened since Russian planes joined Mr. al-Assad’s air forces in the Syrian conflict, purportedly against the Islamic State but also against non-terrorist anti-Assad rebels. Declaring a no-fly zone over all or part of Syria now would amount to a declaration of war on Russia. Mr. Obama has left his successor facing a new Cold War against an inscrutable foe. Any resolution of the Syrian war will require unpalatable concessions to placate Mr. Putin.

Ms. Clinton prophetically told Mr. Obama in 2013 that Washington’s relationship with Moscow would get worse before it gets better. The world may be about to find out what “worse” truly means. Mr. Putin, whose spies are accused of hacking into Democratic National Committee computers to sway the U.S. election in Mr. Trump’s favour, blames Ms. Clinton for fomenting pro-democracy protests in Russia. He sees her as a grave threat to his broader geopolitical goals in the Middle East, eastern Europe and Asia. The two leaders will test each other constantly before one of them blinks.

Mr. Obama, meanwhile, will leave office with one glaring scar on an otherwise honourable legacy. “Was there some move [in Syria] that is beyond what was being presented to me that maybe a Churchill could have seen, or an Eisenhower might have figured out?” he asked recently.

It will likely fall to Ms. Clinton to come up with the answer.

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Follow on Twitter: @konradyakabuski

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