Was Putin right about Syria?

Obama and Putin, at the G8 Summit in Ireland, June 17, 2013. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Obama and Putin at the G8 Summit in Ireland on June 17, 2013. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

What a difference a year makes. Around this time last year, the West was gearing up for military action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who was accused of carrying out chemical weapons attacks on his own people. That intervention never came to pass, not least because domestic public opinion in countries such as Britain and the United States was opposed to further entanglements in the Middle East.

Now, the U.S. is contemplating extending airstrikes on Islamic State militants operating in Iraq in Syria — fighters belonging to a terrorist organization that is leading the war against Assad. The Islamic State's territorial gains in Iraq and continued repression and slaughter of religious minorities there and in Syria have rightly triggered global condemnation. "I am no apologist for the Assad regime," Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, told NPR. "But in terms of our security, [the Islamic State] is by far the greatest threat."

The irony of the moment is tragic. But to some, it doesn't come as much of a surprise. Many cautioned against the earlier insistence of the Obama administration (as well as other governments) that Assad must go, fearing what would take hold in the vacuum.

One of those critics happened to be Russian President Vladimir Putin, who warned against U.S. intervention in Syria in a New York Times op-ed last September. He wrote:

A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.

Some of the crises Putin catalogs have worsened anyway, no matter American action or inaction. But Putin's insistence was couched in a reading of the conflict in Syria that's more cold-blooded than the view initially held by some in Washington. "Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country," Putin wrote, suggesting that the nominally secular Assad regime, despite its misdeeds, was a stabilizing force preferable to what could possibly replace it.

Putin decried the growing Islamist cadres in the Syrian rebels' ranks:

Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria?

That's a concern very publicly shared now by U.S. and European officials, who are alarmed by the considerable presence of European nationals among the Islamic State's forces. A British jihadist who spoke with a London accent is believed to have carried out the shocking execution of American journalist James Foley this week.

That Western attention has shifted so dramatically from the murders carried out by the Assad regime to those carried out by the militants fighting it is a sign of the overwhelming complexity of the war, which is collapsing borders and shaking up politics in countries across the Middle East.

Nor is it necessarily vindication for Putin, who in the past year has turned into the hobgoblin of the liberal world order. As my colleague Adam Taylor wrote this year, the Russian president's op-ed makes awkward reading for Moscow when held up against its own aggressive meddling in Ukraine. Putin's solemnizing over the integrity of international systems is hard to take seriously considering his government's controversial annexation of sovereign Ukrainian territory in March and continued obstruction of a diplomatic resolution to the Ukraine crisis in the U.N. Security Council.

Others skeptical of Putin's stance on Syria point to Moscow's vested interests in the Assad regime, which furnishes Russia access to a naval base on the Mediterranean and is a frequent buyer of Russian military hardware.

In March 2011, in the shadow of pro-democracy uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Syrian protesters took to the streets. Their largely peaceful demonstrations were met by heavy-handed, violent crackdowns by state security forces. Eventually, the upheaval turned into conflict and now a full-blown sectarian civil war that has claimed the lives of at least 191,000 people, according to the U.N. this week.

Some in Washington argue that if only the Obama administration had started arming and empowering the "moderate" Syrian opposition sooner, the extremist forces now in the news would not wield such influence and power. But that, as Middle East scholar Marc Lynch explains over at Monkey Cage, is a hopeful and naive assumption. It's hard to imagine any scenario where more direct U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict, aimed at toppling Assad, would not somehow also play into the hands of the Islamist factions committed to the struggle.

More than three and a half years later, there is a lot of water — and blood — under the bridge. But it's worth considering what Putin's government insisted not long after the violence began. In his New York Times op-ed, Putin reminded readers that from "the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future." That "plan for the future," the Russians insisted, had to involve negotiation and talks between the government and the opposition, something which the opposition rejected totally at the time.

In November 2011, Putin's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov criticized other foreign powers, including the United States, for not helping pressure opposition forces to come to the table with the Assad regime. "We feel the responsibility to make everything possible to initiate an internal dialogue in Syria," Lavrov said at a meeting of APEC foreign ministers in Hawaii.

The Arab Spring was in full bloom and U.S. officials thought regime change in Syria was an "inevitable" fait accompli. That calculus appears to have been woefully wrong. Now, the conflict is too entrenched, too polarized, too steeped in the suffering and trauma of millions of Syrians, for peaceful reconciliation to be an option. Russia could very well have been window-dressing the Assad regime's crimes by parroting Damascus's calls for dialogue, which the opposition has long considered insincere. But the chance for that sort of earlier rapprochement, in hindsight, seems a thin ray of light in the darkness that has since engulfed Syria.

A new report from the United Nations says that after three years of fighting, the death toll in Syria stands at more than 191,000. Damascus was the city with the most killings nearby. (Reuters)

 

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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