Sunday, October 04, 2015

Putin's masterstroke- for now

I happened to watch CNN and BBC the other day and was transfixed by the press conference on Syria given by Sergey Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister to the press corps at the United Nations. It was a brilliant performance. Lavrov was polite, firm, combative and, above all, came across as principled and honest. It was the performance of a man who is a diplomat to his fingertips. 

Lavrov left behind a memorable quote on why the  Russians were not confining their bombing to ISIS and instead targeting some other groups:
If it looks like a terrorist, if it acts like a terrorist, if it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist, it’s a terrorist, right?
Yes, right, indeed. The US-led coalition's strategy of bombing ISIS while at the same time undermining the one force in Syria that can put up a fight against it, namely, the Assad government, has produced nothing but chaos and unimaginable suffering to the people of Syria. As Lavrov put it, the idea that if Assad were made to disappear, the fight against ISIS would be successful was not "serious". Lavrov's plea for "some honest journalism" was also appropriate- the western media's demonisation of Assad has simple not helped the cause of fighting ISIS. Nor its willingness to turn a blind eye to the western coalition's decision to undertake bombing in Syria without a mandate from the UN.

Russian president Vladimir Putin's spirited address to the UN helped place the Syrian problem in perspective:
We must look at the situation in the Middle East and Northern Africa already mentioned by the previous speaker. Of course, political and social problems have been piling up for a long time in this region, and people there wanted change. But what was the actual outcome? Instead of bringing about reforms, aggressive intervention rashly destroyed government institutions and the local way of life. Instead of democracy and progress, there is now violence, poverty, social disasters and total disregard for human rights, including even the right to life.
I’m urged to ask those who created this situation: do you at least realize now what you’ve done? But I’m afraid that this question will remain unanswered, because they have never abandoned their policy, which is based on arrogance, exceptionalism and impunity. 
Putin's decision to intervene in Syria- with aircraft, tanks and other arms to the Syrian government plus 2000 Russian military advisors- is, perhaps, the first decisive action we have seen in the bloody war. The intention is to help shore up the legitimate government in Syria, reduce opposition from terrorist groups other than ISIS and get the world to focus single-mindedly on the threat posed by ISIS. There are, of course, other objectives. Russia would like to maintain its foothold in the Middle East. It would like to project itself as a global power. And it would like to move western attention away from sanctions imposed in the wake of its intervention in Ukraine.  However, the primary objective undoubtedly is stem the chaos and suffering in Syria. To quote from Putin's address again:
We should finally admit that President Assad’s government forces and the Kurdish militia are the only forces really fighting terrorists in Syria. Yes, we are aware of all the problems and conflicts in the region, but we definitely have to consider the actual situation on the ground.
Dear colleagues, I must note that such an honest and frank approach on Russia’s part has been recently used as a pretext for accusing it of its growing ambitions — as if those who say that have no ambitions at all. However, it is not about Russia’s ambitions, dear colleagues, but about the recognition of the fact that we can no longer tolerate the current state of affairs in the world.
The US is mightily upset- President Obama has warned that Russia will get trapped in a 'quagmire'- but much of Europe has maintained an eloquent silence (with the exception of Britain's PM). Europe is being swamped by refugees from Syria. It has every interest in any action that carries the promise of stemming the inflows into Europe.

There are, of course, imponderables in the situation. If the US and its allies in the Gulf were to attempt to shore up the non-ISIS opposition to Assad at all costs, the fighting would drag on interminably. Any extended intervention would pile up costs for Russia and any loss of Russian lives would erode domestic support for Putin. For now, however, Putin's decision to intervene is a masterstroke that holds out the possibility that Syria will not disintegrate as Iraq and Libya did.

1 comment:

drmaglve said...

Excellent piece