Putin in Syria

Jonathan Steele

Flanked by his ministers of defence and foreign affairs, Vladimir Putin looked characteristically stern as he went on television on 14 March to announce a significant reduction in Russia’s military presence in Syria. Putin rarely smiles in public but on this occasion he could have been forgiven some inner gloating. In less than six months he had reinvigorated the forces of his ally Bashar al-Assad and helped them to make strategic advances, thereby preventing a repetition of Western-backed regime change on the pattern of Iraq and Libya. He had dealt severe blows to Assad’s jihadi opponents in Islamic State and the al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as to US clients in the so-called moderate anti-Assad opposition. He had effectively put an end to Turkish hopes of setting up a no-fly zone in northern Syria. He had persuaded the Americans to support a cessation of hostilities and a new attempt to negotiate an end to the five-year-old civil war. He had recast Russia as a decisive player in the region, leading to a string of visits to Moscow by monarchs and ministers from the Gulf states. He had revived Russia’s image as a major rival to the United States in the management of global affairs. He had even succeeded in sidelining two years of tension over Ukraine and raised the possibility of an end to sanctions against Russia.

Such is the demonisation of Putin by Western governments and much of the mainstream media that what he actually says and does tends to be brushed over unless it fits the received narrative of Kremlin aggression and expansionism. So Putin's decision came as a shock to the outside world (as well as to Assad, who was informed of the withdrawal just a few hours before the announcement). Yet on 12 October last year, two weeks after Putin’s aircraft started bombing Syrian targets, Russia’s Channel One broadcast an interview with him in which he clearly stated that Russia’s military intervention would be short-lived. ‘Our task is to stabilise the legitimate government,’ he said, ‘and establish conditions that will make it possible to look for political compromise.’ He described Assad’s regime as being close to collapse and badly in need of help. ‘When you have IS and other such groups of international terrorists right next to the capital,’ he said, ‘who is going to want to look for a settlement with the Syrian authorities, sitting practically under siege right in their own capital? However, if the Syrian army demonstrates its viability and, most important, its readiness to fight terrorism, and if it shows that the authorities can achieve this, this opens up much greater possibilities for reaching political compromises.’ It was ‘out of the question’ that Russia would send combat troops to Syria. Russian airpower could help the Syrian army to regain lost ground, though Russia didn’t expect it to win a total military victory. ‘We cannot commit ourselves to more than is reasonable,’ he went on. ‘I said from the start that our active operations on Syrian soil will be limited in time to the Syrian army’s offensive.’

Despite Putin’s statement of caution, Russia’s bombing campaign had elicited a storm of hostile Western comment from the moment it began. Obama said that Russia was entering a ‘quagmire’, a word designed to invoke the Soviet Union’s entrapment in Afghanistan as well as the US’s own defeat in Vietnam. ‘An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire,’ he said, ‘and it won’t work.’ Ashton Carter, the US defence secretary, warned that the air strikes would ‘have consequences for Russia itself, which is rightfully fearful of attacks. In coming days the Russians will begin to suffer casualties.’ Western officials and analysts told the media that in aligning itself with the Shia forces of Hizbullah and Iran as well as Assad’s Alawite regime, Russia was bound to inflame its own largely Sunni Muslim population. It was almost as though the Pentagon chief and other Putin critics were actively hoping for revenge killings against Russians. They weren’t to know that within days, a Russian airliner flying from Sharm el Sheikh with 224 civilians on board would be brought down over Sinai by an IS bomb hidden on board.

The European reaction to Russia’s intervention was equally portentous. On 12 October, the day Putin’s interview went out on Channel One, EU foreign ministers issued a collective statement declaring that ‘the recent Russian military attacks in Syria … are of deep concern and must cease immediately.’ Not one of the 28 ministers saw fit to consider the hypocrisy of their position. Their ally in Washington had been bombing targets in Syria for more than a year without UN Security Council authorisation. France had started doing the same two months earlier. The Cameron government in Britain was impatient to follow suit. No one seemed to notice the double standard. Why were Russia’s actions illegitimate when those of Western air forces were not? Russia, after all, had been invited to intervene by Assad’s government, which still holds the country’s seat at the United Nations. The US and French governments had no such invitation and their actions had no basis in international law.

Before launching his intervention Putin had tried to persuade the Americans to work with him. The problem with the US-led coalition’s air strikes was that they were highly selective. They helped the Syrian Kurdish ground forces, the YPG, to liberate the border towns of Kobani and Tal Abyad from IS last year, but did nothing to protect the Syrian army when it came under threat from IS. When IS forces laid siege to Palmyra last May and drove Assad’s army out after a week-long battle, not a single American plane was seen. Similar selectiveness was exercised in Hasakah a month later, as I was told by a local YPG commander. The city is divided between a largely Arab district, where the Syrian government has a base, and a largely Kurdish part where the YPG is strong. When IS attacked the Arab district the US took no action. But as soon as IS moved to attack the Kurdish districts, US air raids were launched.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[*] Seymour Hersh wrote about the White House's treatment of intelligence about the Syrian war in the LRB of 7 January.