There is a trick in the great labyrinthine bazaars of the Middle East: petty hucksters luring the vacationing franjis into the market maze and then getting paid to lead them out. As dusk looms, the unnerved outsider is always glad to be steered to familiar surroundings. In the matter of Syria, and America's staggeringly inept diplomacy, Vladimir Putin is the clever trickster who has seized upon an unsuspecting prey. The Russian strongman now proposes a way out for an American leader desperately searching for deliverance.
For the full length of this relentless Syrian rebellion, the Russian autocracy aided and abetted the Syrian dictatorship, a Mafia regime made in the Kremlin's own image. Moscow granted Bashar Assad diplomatic cover at the United Nations, and kept him supplied with the military hardware that enabled him to wage a cruel war against a determined rebellion.
The survival of the Syrian regime was a "red line" for the Russian ruler—a true red line. The dictatorship in Damascus had been forged four decades ago, when Soviet power was on the rise. Syrian armies and factories, the intelligence services and the architecture, were all in the Soviet mold. The sun may have set on the old Soviet empire, but on the shores of the Mediterranean, with a derelict naval base in Tartus waiting to be revived, Syria offered Russia the consolation that it could still play the game of the great powers. In the Syrian mirror, Mr. Putin sees a version of his own battle with Chechen insurgents.
Now it is dusk, and the hapless Barack Obama has lost his old swagger. He had feigned intimacy with "the East," he had thought that he was at ease with that big Islamic world. Instead, he was befuddled by what awaited him, and now he finds himself at the mercy of a Russian skilled in the ruses of the bazaar.
Grant the Russians the consistency of their position on Syria. From the outset of the civil war two years ago, Moscow insisted that it would not stand idly by and accept a repetition of what had happened in Libya. The deranged Moammar Gadhafi was a man the Russians knew and favored. By their lights, they had let him down when they let slip through the cracks of the U.N. machinery a proposal that called for the protection of Libyan civilians. The proposal gave NATO the warrant that led to the destruction of the Libyan dictatorship.
No such ambiguity this time around. Russia was determined to see its client regime in Damascus to victory. If Soviet decay and American resolve had all but banished Moscow's influence from Middle Eastern lands, Vladimir Putin was eager for a Russian return—all the more so if the restoration came on the cheap.
The Arab rebellions of 2011 had unnerved the Russians. The autocratic model itself was on the defensive, and those Arab regimes of plunder and tyranny were both physically close to Russia and bore a striking resemblance to the lawless Kremlin model of rule. It took no special genius on the part of Mr. Putin to see the irresolution of his American counterpart.
There, on display, was the spectacle of U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, where American primacy had been secured with much blood and treasure. And there was Iran, unchecked and on a determined drive that had granted it enormous sway all the way from its border with Iraq to the Mediterranean.
"The tide of war is receding" was the American leader's mantra. The Russian ruler fully understood that the Middle East was a Hobbesian region sensitive to shifts of power, always appraising the stamina of outsiders who venture into its midst.
Syria itself revealed the abdication of American power. For two long years, when so many good options were still possible, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was, in effect, a player on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's team. Time and again, American diplomacy hid behind the Russian veto at the U.N. Security Council. The Obama administration deferred to the Security Council, knowing that the White House's public wishes would be rebuffed. This was the pretext for ignoring the Syrian massacres, the terrible war in the Fertile Crescent.
At times, Secretary Clinton's brief echoed Russian pronouncements: These were not ordinary Syrians battling for freedom, we were told, they were zealots, affiliated with al Qaeda, and surely we did not want to find ourselves on the same side in Syria with Ayman al-Zawahiri. (Hillary Clinton's remarkable luck holds: The Syrian horrors don't stick to her—apparently "global icons" are not held accountable for political debacles.)
Mr. Putin has an eye for the fecklessness of the democracies. He knew that the Obama administration, seized with panic, would take the bait he offered: custody of Syria's chemical weapons in return for giving the Damascus regime a new lease on life.
We are war-weary, Mr. Obama intones repeatedly. He was elected to end wars, not to start them, the president reminds us. But none of our leaders—certainly not the ones who mattered, who answered the call of history—was elected to start wars.
We anoint our leaders to rid us of our weariness when resolve is called for, to draw for us the connection between our security and menaces at a seeming far remove. The leaders of the past two decades who sent American forces to Bosnia, to Kosovo, to Afghanistan, to Iraq, were not thirsting for foreign wars. These leaders located America, and its interests, in the world. Pity the Syrians, they rose up in the time of Barack Obama.
Mr. Ajami, a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, is the author, most recently, of "The Syrian Rebellion" (Hoover Press, 2012).