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Putin’s op-ed on the Syrian conflict for the New York Times on Thursday shows that the Russian government is paying close attention to and is deeply concerned with the political debate over Syria in the US. It also shows that the Russian government, contrary to how it is often portrayed by the Western press and commentariat, is not harking back to the Cold War and being deliberately confrontational and obstructive to the US, but is instead desperately trying to reach out to and engage diplomatically and constructively on this and a whole range of global issues.
Russia wants peace in Syria and sees a diplomatic solution as the only possible solution. Indeed, Russia wants and has wanted a political compromise from the start, one that seeks to address the needs of all the Syrian people, not only of those of the sectarian rebels with legitimate grievances against the government, but also the at least half of the Syrian population that supports the government as well, particularly the minorities such as the beleaguered Syrian Christian community, that is at this moment facing ethnic cleansing at the hands of the extremist elements that dominate the Syrian armed insurgency. The Syrian conflict is still, despite all the international support for both sides, in essence a Civil War of the worst kind, a complex and sectarian ethno-religious conflict.There are no easy solutions in such cases. But Russia fears, as do many Western experts, that a total rebel victory, something only achievable with direct Western military intervention, would result in the establishment of a fundamentalist Islamist state, as the overwhelming majority of the armed insurgency, as distinct in some respects from the Sunni civilian opposition, can only be properly characterised as falling into one of three categories: Sunni sectarian islamists, Salafists, or outright foreign jihadists. This would be disastrous for the region. Such an extremist state, just 24 hours in a jeep away from the still-troubled North Caucasus, is also a threat to Russia’s national security that cannot be allowed. This is not an unreasonable position, but a legitimate and vital national interest that must be taken into account.
In any political solution, the Sunni Islamist opposition as well as the much less numerous more secular elements of the opposition must without a question be given a broader and more representative say in Syrian society and politics than they were previously given. But this should be done within the established framework of the multiethnic and multiconfessional Syrian state that currently exits, so that the existing ethnic and religious minorities are not ignored or worse persecuted and driven out. We have seen recently in Egypt the result of an Islamist government, however democratically elected and representative of the majority, when it does not take into account the reality of its own minorities and ethnic and religious divides.
Russia is not particularly tied to the person of Bashar al-Assad. Indeed, before this crisis began in 2011 he was seen as the neoliberal ‘modernising’ darling of the West. The Russian government itself in private understands and has no problem with the inevitable conclusion of a political solution in Syria, which would result in Bashar al-Assad stepping down. However, this cannot be a pre-condition of the political solution, but something achieved within the process, because the Syrian state, however badly it needs reform, must survive to ensure law and order, especially the safety and voice of Syria’s numerous ethnic and religious and minorities. All democracies take shape from the basis in which they take root. Those roots must be planted in the multi-ethnic and multi-confessional base of the existing Syrian state, perhaps its most redeemable quality, rather than the sectarian Islamism or fundamentalism that dominates the armed insurgency.
The disasters of the complete dismantling of multi-ethnic Middle Eastern states, however authoritarian, can clearly be seen with the continuing strife and bloodshed in Iraq and Libya today. To that effect, “Britain’s security and intelligence chiefs assess that al-Qaida elements and individual jihadists in Syria currently represent the most worrying emerging terrorist threat to the UK and the west.” This threat should be something that both Russia and the West can agree on, as it is vital not only for the stability of the region, but both of their own national securities as well.
Despite all the significant political and technical obstacles, Putin’s proposal for Syria to hand its chemical deterrent over to the international community for destruction and join the Chemical Weapon Convention as a good faith gesture is the best and perhaps the last chance to start the peace process. In order to implement these measures, the West and the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) must convince the armed insurgents they back to lay down their arms and agree to a cease fire. Thus the process of the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons by the international community could initiate and become the wider peace process and diplomatic settlement to end the Civil War and heal Syria.
If Russia is meeting a stonewall from the Obama regime and the American political establishment in addressing these concerns, with this appeal Putin is going over their heads and making an appeal directly to the American people, who as polls have clearly shown are vehemently and resolutely against any further military intervention. This is similar tactics to Obama’s speech at the neoliberal New School of Economics in Moscow in 2009 and his recent meetings with Western funded ‘civil society’ groups in Saint Petersburg on the sidelines of the G20, albeit in this Putin is motivated more by genuine concerns of international peace and security and less in ideological political interference in the purely domestic affairs of another country as Obama was.
Indeed this op-ed I think can be viewed as a direct international rebuttal to Obama’s speech and slew of television appearances beating the drums to war earlier in the week. The rebuttal that the American anti-war movement was denied by the American political establishment and the MSM.
As the whip counts of the prospective vote on Obama’s war on Syria in Congress, courageous outspoken leaders like Representative Alan Grayson, the vote against the war in the British Parliament, and growing voices of dissent in even the Western MSM show, the Russian point of view on Syria, far from being isolated and self-interested is shared by many all over the world. Increasingly it is looking like the US political establishment and hawkish foreign policy elite are the ones isolated both at home and abroad on Syria.But more importantly I think Putin in this article also makes an urgent appeal about the danger such Western aggression presents to the already wounded and fragile institutions of the United Nations and international law. In this Putin is echoing his famous Munich speech on international security in 2007, where he highlighted that a paranoid and unrealistic desire for absolute security and the interests of one state or group of states, can only come at the expense of the security and interests of the Rest of the world. Rather than being a revisionist state as it is often portrayed, Russia is actually the biggest and most steadfast supporter of actual existing international law and world order. Putin’s word of caution should be heeded. If the US and West insists on yet another illegal war of aggression for regime change against another sovereign state, justified in another poorly manufactured WMD pretext and cloaked in hypocritical and moralising ‘human rights’ rhetoric, but in reality about geopolitical machinations and Hegemony in the middle East and around the world – then Russia, China, the BRICS, and much of the Rest of the world can no longer ignore the threat the precedent of such aggression and denial of the UN Charter principle of the inviolability of sovereignty presents to their own security and societies.
A ‘red line’ against this militarist and triumphalist postmodern Western ‘humanitarian’ imperialism’, the Unipolar moment that has characterised international relations since 1992, is finally being drawn. If it is crossed it is hard to see how the whole edifice of international law, the UN Charter, and the world order in place since World War II cannot but come crashing down. The result would be a catastrophe – a return to true unmitigated Great Power military brinkmanship and the possibility of the kind of larger direct conflict between the world’s Great Powers that the United Nations was specifically designed to prevent. Americans and the West in general ignores this plea at their own, and all of our, peril. Obama’s war on Syria must be stopped and diplomacy, cooperation, and compromise must be restored as the medium of international relations.