Putin’s audacious move check-mates Washington

Conflicts Forum's Weekly Comment, 18 - 25 Sept 2015

A change in tone does not come more powerfully than this: six months ago, the UK Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond described President Putin as potentially the "single greatest threat" to Britain's security, denouncing his behaviour as "outrageous and outdated"; of acting like a “mid-20th century tyrant”, and warning that Putin would “pay the price for what he is doing in Ukraine”. But just last Saturday, Mr Hammond stood beside John Kerry in London, as the latter said: “ISIS is increasingly being understood by every entity, every country in the world, to be a threat to everybody. And ISIS is … So to the degree that Russia wants to focus its efforts against ISIS, we welcome that” [emphasis added].

Strikingly, as Kerry outlined Washington’s positive response to President Putin’s ‘surge' in Syria, both Hammond and Kerry notably avoided making any critical remarks about Russia. One astute commentator noted: “Neither touched on the allegations regarding Russian presence on the ground in Donbass or brought up Crimea and the western sanctions. On the other hand, Kerry made it clear to Kiev that the Minsk agreement is the only game in town and urged everyone to get cracking on the full implementation of the accord. He even commended Russia’s moderating influence on the separatists in the Donbass”. Equally significant, Mr Kerry said:

“With respect to Assad and longevity, what I said is consistent with what I’ve always said … that Assad has to go. But how long, what the modality is, that’s a decision that has to be made in the context of the Geneva process and negotiations. We’ve said for some period of time that it doesn’t have to be on day one, or month one, or whatever [emphasis added] ...

“And I don’t have the answer as to some specific timeframe. I just know that the people of Syria have already spoken with their feet. They’re leaving Syria … Everybody in the world knows that. So what is the legitimacy [of President Assad] with respect to the future? Obviously, in the end, it is up to the people of Syria to decide. And we have made our position very clear.

“But we need to get to the negotiation. That’s what we’re looking for, and we hope Russia and any – Iran - other countries with influence, will help to bring about that, because that’s what’s preventing this crisis from ending. We’re prepared to negotiate.”

In answer to a question about Russian aircraft flying in Syrian airspace, Mr Kerry added:

“Clearly, the presence of aircraft with air-to-air combat capacity as well as air-to-surface – surface-to-air missiles raise serious questions, which is precisely why Secretary Carter talked with the Minister of Defense of Russia, [Sergey] Shoygu, yesterday, and that is precisely why we are engaged in further conversation about answering those questions and about de-conflicting the Russian activities from ours. We have more than 60 nations involved in a coalition against ISIL. Does it need to be able to do more? The answer is yes. Would we welcome Russian help in going against ISIS? Obviously. We’ve talked about it for some period of time.”

This certainly seems to ‘talk and walk’ like a policy-shift – and it may precisely be that. And quite a sudden one too: until only last week, the ‘regime change’ agenda still was in full play, as the BBC’s Mark Urban notes, only “last week [Britain’s] Security Council was considering ambitious proposals to commit forces to help protect civilians in northern Syria. [But] this week they are facing up to the possibility that the aircraft pounding rebel held areas might soon be Russian instead of Syrian”.  For the British government, Mark Urban continued, "canvassing for a parliamentary vote on military action, and on the verge of pledging support to a no-fly zone to stop Syrian bombing in the north of the country, Russia's action is profoundly troubling”.

Russia’s intervention has pulled the rug from those plans.  Even President Erdogan has felt the shift in the wind. On Thursday, after performing Eid al-Fitr prayer Suleymaniye Mosque, the largest Ottoman imperial mosque in Istanbul, Erdogan said:

“It is possible that this [transition] process [in Syria] may be without Assad or the transition process may continue with Assad.  However, nobody sees a future with Assad in Syria. It is impossible for them [Syrians] to accept a dictator who led to the death of up to 350,000 people”.

As the former Indian Ambassador to Turkey, M.K. Bhadrakumar notes, “The remarks were polemical in part, characteristically ‘Erdoganesque’, and he almost managed to gently glide over what can only be seen as a dramatic softening of Turkey’s stance on the Syrian transition.  Significantly, Erdogan had flown into Istanbul Thursday afternoon straight from Moscow after a meeting in the Kremlin with President Vladimir Putin.

Mr Lavrov apparently, seems to think Washington’s change of tone is a serious shift too:

"I think that now the Americans are much more perceptive to the arguments we have been offering for the past several years. US Secretary of State John Kerry made known Washington’s willingness to cooperate with Russia on the problems of Syrian settlement”, Lavrov said on Tuesday.

"After the conversation between Defense Minister [Sergey] Shoigu and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter both sides voiced encouraging assessments. I think they’ve become more perceptive to the objective situation," he added.

So far, so good. But the inevitable push-back is underway. As Foreign Policy notes, US Diplomats (under arch ‘liberal interventionist’ Samantha Power) “have squelched” the [Russian] proposal for a Security Council Resolution urging U.N. members to combat terrorists, including the Islamic State, al-Qaida and a variety of other splinter groups by all means - thus “sinking Russia’s hopes”, Foreign Policy asserts “of [Putin] sailing into New York next week under a saintly halo”.  Bloomberg however, quotes two sources “familiar with the matter” to say that this snub will not matter much: Putin intends to proceed, whether or not the US agrees to join forces with Russia.  “Russia is hoping common sense will prevail and Obama takes Putin’s outstretched hand,” noted Elena Suponina, senior Middle East analyst at the Institute of Strategic Studies, a think-tank that advises the Kremlin, “but Putin will act anyway if this doesn’t happen.”

And if it was not clear already, the Russian President gave this rationale for his policy during an interview with CBS News on Thursday in Moscow: he said there is no other solution to the Syrian crisis than to strengthen the effective government structures in Damascus and provide them with assistance in fighting terrorism. In Putin’s words:

“It’s my deep belief that any actions to the contrary in order to destroy the legitimate government will create a situation which you can witness now in the other countries of the region or in other regions, for instance in Libya, where all the state institutions are disintegrated. We see a similar situation in Iraq. And there is no other solution to the Syrian crisis than strengthening the effective government structures and rendering them help in fighting terrorism”.

Putin added that there is a need to urge the Syrian government to “engage in positive dialogue with the rational opposition and conduct reform … it’s only the Syrian people who are entitled to decide who should govern their country and how”.

And this is the rub: What is the alternative for America? The policy of inserting ‘moderate’ insurgents who would replace President Assad and his military leadership has spectacularly failed. Mr Obama himself now says he never really believed in the notion of  ‘moderates’ somehow seizing Syria, (but avers that others in the Administration were so keen, he went along with it - against his better judgement).  Most of Europe (barring a reluctant Britain), are desperate for a political solution in Syria, in wake of the refugee exodus that has engulfed Europe in internecine war.  On Sunday, standing beside John Kerry, the German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeir said, “I strongly welcome the fact … about the growing Russian military engagement of Russia in the region”.

Mr Putin’s audacious unilateral move has effectively checkmated Washington. On a Syria, Obama has become painted into a binary choice -- allow ISIS to weaken the Syrian state to some imagined ‘tipping point of imminent collapse’ (as favoured by some in the Administration, such as General Allen); or, of working with Russia to stabilise Syria, and prevent the region’s descent into anarchy. This should never really have been much of a choice.

The now discredited ‘regime change’ policy was heading towards an end in which Obama would have to account to the American people how his Administration "wilfully determined", in General Flyn’s words, the jihadification of not just Syria, but maybe much of the Middle East. Obama, faced with this, not surprisingly, has decided to go with Putin – even if that requires coming to terms with President Assad remaining in office. In this context, Kerry’s comments that, in the final analysis, Syria’s leadership is a matter for the Syrian people, suggests that the Administration finally has internalised this reality.

In gliding through this policy about-turn, western and Turkish rhetoric remains steadfast about the need for a new ‘political dispensation’, reform and governmental transition. But the reality is that Russia is about to change the ‘facts on the ground’ militarily.  Yes, there will be reform (that is already factored in); and yes, there will be a political settlement, but this is more likely to come about now, by force of these ‘facts’: Moscow will bang a few heads together — of those who fail to see the new realities.

Overt coordination with Russia and its allies in this project (Iran, Syria, Iraq and, indirectly Hizbullah) undoubtedly will prove to be highly problematic for the US Administration.  But Russia has lined up its own formidable anti-ISIS (and anti other jihadi groups) coalition in parallel to America’s 60-nation coalition. Orchestrated by Russia and Iran, it has been termed, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the ‘C4+1’ Coalition.  It must be fairly obvious that the C4+1 are not about to allow the US to install in Damascus a pro-western puppet government, and nor is Moscow about to allow a pro-western government in a future Syria, sitting upon a fair portion of the giant Levant oil basin, and potentially a key energy corridor, to be used to lever Russia out of the European energy market.

Of course, the prospect of the US working – even indirectly with such a coalition – will have some US politicians screaming.  And the thought of the US ultimately having to make concessions to Russia on Assad staying, will not  go down easily in the US pre-Presidential climate of political posturing. There will be fierce push-back, but America’s allies (the Europeans) desperately want some solution in Syria that does not lead to the tsunami of refugees that an ISIS takeover would threaten.  The Europeans will back Obama,  (and most Europeans will not be too affronted if a political settlement in Syria comes about through a little Russian arm-twisting.)

The bigger point behind America’s putative shift would seem to be President Obama’s understanding that America no longer has the stamina or the capacity to take on Russia and China (especially when these two are working in alliance together), and that there will be moments when it will be necessary for the US to “de-conflict” with Russia and China.

And what of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan? “There are strange churnings going on there, too. It is hugely important that none of these three countries resorted to shrill, Arab-style condemnation of Russia’s build-up in Syria. Arguably, they look rather sheepish, looking away, lost in thoughts”, the former Indian diplomat, Bhadrakumar notes.  Too soon to tell.  We must wait and see.