Putin steps into a power vacuum in Syria

In a speech to the United Nations on Monday, his first for ten years, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, called on America to join him in a coalition – “similar to the anti-Hitler alliance” of World War II – that backed the Syrian government in the fight against Islamic State, or Isis. In recent weeks, Putin has deployed troops and aircraft in Syria to support his ally, Bashar al-Assad, and on Wednesday Russian lawmakers approved a request by Putin to use military force abroad.

President Barack Obama gave Putin a terse handshake at the UN, but “rightly rejected his offer”, says the Financial Times, arguing that the killing in Syria began four years ago when Assad crushed a peaceful pro-democracy uprising, and that he must go, ideally in a “managed transition”.

The “horrible, unsettling thing” about Putin’s position is that he is “merely repeating the diplomatic common sense of the West as it was tacitly understood before the Arab spring”, says Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. Dictators were supported and befriended because the alternative was worse. Putin’s logic may be “vile”, but it is logical. The West is “keen to support the liberal ideals the Arab spring sought to universalise”, but is also “paralysed by the bad conscience of the Iraq war”, leaving Syria the victim of our “pathetically incoherent” response.

It would serve our interests to accept Putin’s invitation to collaborate, says Evgeny Lebedev in The Independent. “Of course we would prefer Syria to be run by a democrat,” and it’s understandable that Obama – under attack by Republicans over his “alleged weakness on the world stage” – might be reluctant to work with Putin now. But like it or not, the “most urgent threat to our security and interests” is the “savagery” of Isis.  If we decline this opportunity to “re-set Russia’s relationship with the West”, then historians will “scorn the present generation of decision-makers for ever.”

It’s not that simple, says Garry Kasparov in The Wall Street Journal. The war and chaos won’t end because of Putin’s intervention (it’s important to remember that those refugees are fleeing Assad, not Isis), and nor does he much care. Putin’s agenda has little to do with peace and everything to do with “looking like a big man on the international stage”, the “only ploy he has left to justify his rule in Russia”. The minute the photos of him shaking hands with Obama were taken, the meeting was a success for him.

True, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, tells the FT. Putin wants to distract world attention away from the conflict in Ukraine, which has turned him into an international pariah, and turn domestic attention away from a “shrinking economy damaged by Western sanctions”. But the real difficulty for the Obama administration is that while Putin has a plan, “the White House does not”.

After American failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama has avoided foreign intervention when possible. “For more than four years, Western voices have called for regime change in Syria and done little to bring it about.” Obama even failed to act on his own “red lines” over Assad’s use of chemical weapons, while subsequent efforts to “identify, train and arm a moderate opposition to Mr Asad proved… a fiasco… Putin is therefore in a position to exploit the vacuum left by Western policy”.

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