What does President Putin has to offer in Syria? In the political track he can facilitate negotiations, and in the military track he has his military ties to Assad. But he has already been trying to facilitate negotiations and he always has his military ties to Assad. The answer therefore should be that Mr. Putin has nothing qualitative to offer in Syria. Was it then a mistake to engage him? The answer is not simple, because the question omits the fact that Putin is present because the US is absent. So long as President Obama wants to remain disengaged, accepting a Russia role seems to be a default path. Rejecting this role becomes unnecessary only because of the US disastrous policy in the Middle East.
When we disengage our minds from all the details and noise coming from the Middle East or New York, we find a very telling general picture. In the world of business, you should make yourself relevant in order to impose yourself as a partner. Mr. Putin moved substantial forces to Syria just before coming to New York in an act from the classical “How To?” in the political and business worlds. He moved into Baghdad as well. Then he came to New York. He made himself relevant, and very much so, to the extent that he might emerge as the main player, the one who decides how things should go. And all that without doing anything except coordinating with his allies in Tehran and Damascus.
But the real weight of Mr. Putin is not decided in vacuum. It depends on the real weight of the other players, and on what he can actually provide. The truth is that Mr. Putin cannot be a game changer inasmuch as Syria is concerned. It is just that the relative weight of the others gave him a golden opportunity to get what is actually much more than what he really deserves. It all looks as a master move from Putin facilitated only by the weakness of others. Yet, you might be very skillful in reaching something to find out at the end that what you actually reached is a hand grenade. You will be very clever tactically, but not so strategically. Therefore, Mr. Putin is indeed gambling. And he has a much bigger stake, more than many believe, in the game he just hooked himself into.
He invested very little but chose the proper moment. Can he obtain a payback before he even pays? This is precisely the name of the game. He bets on getting some gains before it is found out that he actually has very little to invest. And all this because of the very naïve heads behind the US strategy in the region. It was all obvious in New York.
Listening to President Obama giving his eloquent-as usual-speech in the UN, one can’t help but thinking about how could his foreign policy lead to such tragic failures as we see now? We do not contribute to the common categorization of idealism versus realism. In our view. But ultimately both perspectives, idealism and realism, have to search and find practical policies and strategies if they hope to see the light of the day in reality. The link between any ideas or “ways of thinking” on the one hand and reality on the other should in any way be “real”.
The great ideals the President talked about may be unquestionable, at least for us. There are indeed universal values as such, and there is a need for global cooperation to preserve peace. Dictators and tyrants could never build a strong country and even the notion of sovereignty is never totally complete if the people of the “sovereign” country are in chains.
But what should be understood is that we are long centuries past the debate about the validity of all these principles. The debate now is how to devise strategies and policies that turn these great notions into concrete reality. And in this area, the President offered nothing.
In Afghanistan, and after a war and tens of thousands killed and some billions spent, Taliban and Al Qaeda are still there, girls still do not go to school in most areas, and opium is grown and exported side by side with terrorists.
In Iraq, hundreds of thousands of lives were lost, hundreds of billions spent, yet Iraq is not better off today. The surge of the last decade achieved some short term gains. Yet, the long term mission of making such gains sustainable was abandoned under the name of idealism, non-interventionism, pulling the forces out even prematurely, ending wars and the rest of the popular lexicon. Nuri Al Maliki, who put Baghdad on the lap of the Iranians and pushed the country back to further sectarian polarization (which brought ISIL) was hailed in Washington as a friend. All was done to “get it over with” and pull out as fast as possible.
In Syria the administration refused to back the moderate opposition early on because they were “doctors and teachers” as the President described them. Yet, he had to green light a costly (yet ineffective) air campaign just to contain the consequences of his earlier mistakes. Then he had to request 500 million dollars to train five, yes five, fighters. Now, he has the Russians in Syria marketing their role as the true knights of the war against the very terrorism the President refused to help fighting early on.
But how can you criticize the speech of the President in the UN? There is almost nothing in what he said that you can oppose. The problem lies in what he did not say. It is the “How” that is missing? Everyone knows that the lack of strategy in this administration is appalling.
Leadership does not mean interventionism. It simply means injecting the principles that the President eloquently explained with what has been missing all along: A coherent approach to bring these great notions to a hard and rigid terrain like that of the Middle East. Beautifully coined catch phrases do not do what should be done.
The tragic failure of the previous administration in Iraq is not an argument for zero leadership now in the Middle East. You can’t use a war waged in an absurd context, done badly, followed by a premature withdrawal and hence created chaos to say that any intervention or any role whatsoever is wrong. It is known, even to primitives, that using military force should be the last resort. But for the other resorts to be available, you got to be ready militarily, convince all parties that you are ready to use force then start twisting arms, diplomatically, in order to get a political and peaceful solution. Force and diplomacy are not two opposed poles. They are both mere faces of one single process. But this is basic.
But we know that the approaches tried by the Obama administration made Putin the “momentum maker” in the Middle East. All regional leaders look at him as a man who acts upon his beliefs, even if they do not agree with these beliefs. They see him as a man who stands by his allies, even if they hate these allies. As we predicted a couple of weeks ago, he found his way to Iraq (to fight terrorism of course!). He is filling the vacuum voluntarily left by Obama, and he does not waste a minute in doing that. The Obama administration has already managed to position itself on the current slide towards a total loss of the US regional influence built in long decades.
On the other hand, President Putin’s speech in the UN was in part a response to President Obama’s speech. Yet, he was as deceptive. If Obama tried to cover up for his foreign policy failures through repeating generalities that nobody can dispute, Putin disputed these principles in his blunt business-like familiar fashion.
Freedom is indeed a human-universal principle. No matter how loud President Putin asserts the contrary. This supreme organizing principle is indeed an intrinsic essence of human spirit, people in all societies and cultures will always struggle to reach this ideal. This will create convulsions, revolutions and tragedies, but that is our history as humans.
When it came to the Middle East, President Putin repeated the vulgar version of the story that is very popular already in the region: That the US fabricated all these revolutions somehow. If the US could make Tunisians, Libyan, Egyptians, Syrians, Yemenis and even recently Iraqis and Lebanese revolt against their regimes, it must be indeed a supernatural force.
There might have been an external push to achieve the ideas of freedom and accountability. But this push did not cause the revolutions in that region. You can’t push the idea of a revolution in Sweden or Norway for example. In other words, you cannot set fire in wet wood. This deceptive logic absolves the regimes of any responsibilities and puts it on the shoulders of this supernatural US, while the truth is that at least half the population in the most countries in the region are dreaming to immigrate away from their own countries.
So long as Mr. Putin sees the governments as “legitimate”, and the US conspiring to topple them, he would not be able to appreciate the magnitude of the problems we have in the Middle East.
And that is what the Russian President sees in Syria. He totally drops the fact that Bashar Al Assad is a criminal of war and instead sees him as a “legitimate” President. But above all, he emphatically repeated that he will support Assad but did not say a single word about a “solution” to the Syrian crisis. This betrays that what Mr. Putin thinks of is the military solution, the annihilation of Syrians opposing their dictator. Fine, try Mr. President. You did in Afghanistan to end up running like a terrified raccoon.
When one follows the debate inside the opposition groups after the Russian decision one would be able to predict the outcome of this tragic mistake Russia is making. No one will win, but the raccoon will run again, potentially faster this time as his weight is lighter now than the 80’s.
Mr. Putin describes the moderate opposition as terrorists “like ISIL”. Some of this opposition lost hundreds of men fighting ISIL, while the “legitimate” President of Syria was dealing with the terrorist organization and bombing those who fight it.
But of course President Putin knows that. It is only convenient to repeat lies in order to justify his intervention in Syria. Yet, the Russian President is paving the road towards his own quagmire. For the Russian forces have to confront now the Syrian people. And we know of no case where the people did not ultimately win.