As expected, the American and Russian Presidents, Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, respectively, traded blunt criticisms at the United Nations on Monday. They accused each other of failures in Syria, pretending to have Syrian interests at heart, even if neither could care less. Obama castigated Russia for taking the defence of the Syrian dictatorship and, as anticipated from a superpower, added the forceful takeover of Crimea in his ongoing anti-Moscow litany.
Putin responded in kind, and while the Russian leader ignored his blemished record in the ongoing war for Ukraine, he praised Syrian President Bashar Al Assad as a source of stability against Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), which was truly unconvincing.
Since Putin’s recent actions were about Russia, not Syria, his sharp criticisms of Washington and his calls on the United States and other western powers to help create “a genuinely broad international coalition” against Daesh, even “coordinate” military action in Syria, were troubling. What is Moscow up to?
Few dispute Obama’s naivete as his nonchalant preferences towards everything that touched the Middle East since 2008 led to the current stalemate. Deriding his own country’s failures in Iraq, which was certainly partially correct, he re-emphasised the diplomatic courses that Washington allegedly preferred (that is, the negotiated nuclear agreement with Iran), though he was oblivious to opportunities that other powers saw when the US stood back. China proposed to place 8,000 of its troops for UN peacekeeping operations, while Moscow surprised Washington once again after Baghdad announced that it had entered into an intelligence-sharing agreement with Russia, Iran and Syria in the fight against Daesh. Both of these astonished the inexperienced.
It behoves us to remember that Russia carefully planned the deployment of dozens of fighter planes, attack helicopters and troops to an airbase near the port city of Tartus that was used by its navy. In fact, these war assets are intended to destabilise whatever western countries are pretending to be doing, allegedly in support of the Syrian people in their struggle against the Baath regime.
Of course, such activities filled the opportunity gaps created by Washington’s policies, and though Obama imagined that he was actually helping, in reality, training a few token revolutionaries amounted to sending a fishing boat against an aircraft carrier. Amazingly, American officials were taken aback and were trying to understand what Putin and his able Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov intended to do in Syria, in Iraq and elsewhere, which were not all that mysterious to begin with.
Indeed, Moscow seemed to work along three specific lines: 1. Russia does not abandon its allies (although it has done so repeatedly, most recently in Afghanistan); 2. It signals to Iran, Al Assad’s chief backer, that Moscow matters in Syria and will not concede an inch to Tehran (though it is unclear whether Moscow would deny Iran a future role in Damascus); and 3. It warns western powers and Arab Gulf states that everyone must deal with Putin to reach a permanent solution to a war with no end in sight.
Only the gullible are thus surprised when one sees the rug pulled from underneath one’s feet. No one asks why a handful of Syrian rebels were trained and sent back into northern Syria to fight Daesh. Why is anyone surprised when they were quickly captured or killed? Even worse, why continue along the same lines by sending a new batch of US-trained and equipped fighters and act surprised again after the latter handed their weapons over to the Al Nusra Front assailants? Worse, what role has Turkey played as these rebels crossed into Syria? And did Ankara, which supports Al Nusra, knowingly burn them? Why is there so little discussion on the crucial relationships between the Turkish government and various rebel groups, and did Ankara coordinate with Moscow on this critical question?
For now, the ball is in Putin’s court and as he told CBS News on Sunday, Russia supports “the legitimate government of Syria... and that there is no other solution to the Syrian crisis than strengthening the effective government structures and [offering] them help in fighting terrorism”.
The wily Putin added that he expects Al Assad “to engage in positive dialogue with the rational opposition and conduct reforms”, which was akin to saying the fox must guard the chicken coop. Even the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, hinted that London changed its position on the need for Al Assad to step down from power. Still, Cameron declared on Sunday that he believed the Syrian president should be tried by an international court for war crimes, including the gassing of his own people with chemical weapons — words that were spoken as French warplanes carried out their first air strikes at a Daesh training camp in Deir Al Zor. Amid the sea of confusion, no wonder Putin manoeuvres at will, with little to stop him anytime soon.
Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is the author of Iffat Al Thunayan: An Arabian Queen, London: Sussex Academic Press, 2015.