In the past few weeks, Russian leader Vladimir Putin strode into the Middle East. Within days it was clear "there's a new sheriff in town." He announced to the townsfolk he came in to get rid of the town bully, ISIS. He asked others to join him, especially the former sheriff, U.S. President Barack Obama. He'd been sheriff a while, but for more than a year, folks knew he just did enough to get by when dealing with the town bully.
It got so bad the bad guys didn't even look up when the sheriff strode into the town's saloon. They just mumbled something about "red lines," stayed saddled up to the bar and kept drinking.
What the new sheriff didn’t say is he also came to save another town bully, Syrian President Bashar Assad. That became obvious the first time he fired a shot. He didn’t fire at ISIS. He aimed at the guys attacking his friend Assad. This new sheriff took care of his friends, even if they were bullies.
The old sheriff insisted he wouldn’t take on the new gunslinger.
"We’re not going to make Syria into a proxy war between the United States and Russia," he said. "This is not some superpower chessboard contest, and anybody who frames it in that way isn't paying very close attention to what’s been happening on the chessboard."
Except this new sheriff – like many Russians – was paying attention and he plays a mean game of chess. In fact, he plays with some of the most sophisticated chess pieces the world has to offer, like advanced T-90 tanks; Sukhoi Su-24 and Su-25 jets; Smerch multiple-launch rocket systems and even Kalibr ship-launched cruise missiles.
Some said why not let Putin come in and take over. After all, let Russian "conscripts" or "volunteers" do the dirty work. When it's all over, the U.S. can come and pick up the pieces.
Well, it turns out there won't be any pieces to pick up. Those pieces – the country formerly known as Syria – may well be under the control of the new sheriff. From the way he "cleaned up' Crimea and parts of that town up north called Ukraine, everybody knew he didn't take kindly to giving up parts of towns he's already given to his deputies.
Back south in Syria, Putin's posse included some mean desperadoes. Nasty hoodlums like Hezbollah. They just happen to have more than 100,000 rockets and missiles aimed at Israel, one of the good guys in the neighborhood.
he Israelis have spent years keeping advanced weapons out of their nemesis' hands. Any advanced weapons sent by Iran via Syria found themselves the brunt of Israel's punishing air assaults. Now, they might have to think twice if the new sheriff sends any of his advanced weapons to Hezbollah.
Israel doesn't want a war, but this puts them in a very difficult situation, especially when bad deputies like Ayatollah Khamenei keep bad mouthing Israel and saying the Jewish state should be wiped off the map. Kind of makes them immune to retaliation when the new sheriff is standing alongside those ayatollahs.
Suddenly, the skies have become a dangerous place to fly.
The townsfolk know this new sheriff plays by different rules than the former sheriff. After all, one time he came into a town called Grozny in a place called Chechnya and leveled it. The U.N. called it "the most destroyed city on earth."
They warn he may say he wears a white hat, but he's mischievous and cunning. In Syria, he took a weak poker hand and played it incredibly powerfully. Some people call the new sheriff "muscular," the former sheriff "feckless."
But even if the former sheriff says it's not some geo-political chess game, it doesn't make it so. Some folks say his inaction puts America's main ally, Israel, in peril and our traditional allies in jeopardy. Right now, it looks like a Shiite crescent is forming in town.
Putin is putting much more on the line than the former sheriff, who won't come out of his office much these days. He prefers to keep saying the new sheriff won't succeed while his posse is getting fidgety. He hasn't turned in his badge yet, but everybody in town knows who's in charge. He keeps talking like it matters, but he doesn't seem to understand he's getting run out of town.
Too bad. It's one of the most strategic towns in the world.
Rumor has it that once this new sheriff comes in, it's hard to get him out. Just ask the folks in Crimea. Nobody knows when he'll stop, but around town, folks say people up north in Estonia are getting nervous.