Putin's statesman-like move averts a war

Putin's statesman-like move averts a war

On Russian internal plane, Putin has gained respect and praise for standing up to the US.

It is highly significant that Time magazine put Russian president Vladimir Putin on the cover of its editions in Europe, West Asia, Asia and the South Pacific while the US edition had a leaping university sportsman leaping in a game of American football. 

Since the season is just about to begin, Time surmised that football would be of more interest to US readers than the conflict in Syria half a world away.

Time may also have been motivated by a desire not to humiliate US President Barack Obama by acknowledging that he has been bested by the man in the Kremlin who has emerged as a leader of reason and moderation. Following an alleged chemical attack on rebel-held areas near Damascus on August 21st, Obama called for military action but Putin proposed a plan to put Syria's chemical arsenal out of reach.

To make matters worse, Obama's threat was issued before UN experts, who had surveyed sites of the purported attacks, reported and without a UN Security Council mandate, rendering illegal any military operations against Syria. Furthermore, Obama was prepared to order strikes without the approval of Congress and in defiance of 61 per cent of US citizens who rejected such action.

His response to the suspected chemical attack has made a mockery of the Nobel peace prize he was awarded in 2009 while Putin's initiative - designed to avoid a war only a few politicians want - has shown him to be a statesman.

Wave of violence

In an opinion article published by The New York Times, Putin chided Obama for placing the UN at risk by proposing military action without Security Council sanction, threatening to kill more Syrians than are already dying in the country's civil conflict, and unleashing a wave of violence across West Asia.  Putin accused Obama - who seeks Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's ouster - of backing non-Syrian extremists who could return to their home countries, including Russia, and wreak havoc. Putin also warned Obama against undermining international law by conducting unsanctioned strikes because countries could turn to chemical and nuclear weapons for deterrence if there is no law.

For the moment, Russia's 1990s wars in Chechnya and its 2008 invasion of Georgia have been forgotten. By calling for dialogue and compromise rather than  sanctions and strikes, Moscow has gained the moral high ground. Meanwhile, Russia continues to arm the Syrian military with the aim of preventing the fall of Assad, the potential dismemberment of Syria, and destabilisation of the entire region.

By contrast, the US and its allies have supported a divided political opposition and armed rebel and jihadi groups, creating stalemate on the nation-wide battlefield, risking the disintegration of Syria, and the rise in Syria of jihadis aligned with al-Qaeda who are already rooted in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

On Russian internal plane, Putin has gained respect and praise for standing up to the US and is seen as defending his country's interests. On the international plane, Putin's policy has been prudent and, due to his initiative on the chemical weapons issue, is gaining adherents in the Western camp.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel, once a close US ally, is now closer to Moscow on Syria than to Washington and more in tune with popular opposition to the war in Germany.

Putin’s stand also reflects public opinion in Britain and France where a 60 per cent majority of citizens reject military action and intervention. He can claim he is a democrat taking his cue from the people in many countries in spite of his record of suppression of liberty at home.

The rise of Putin's star could encourage members of the BRICS group - India, Brazil, China, South Africa as well as Russia - to assume a larger role on the international plane and to seek negotiated solutions for conflicts that threaten to embroil the US and its Western allies in conflicts thousands of kilometres from their shores. The disastrous examples of Afghanistan and Iraq are fixed in the mind of the world public which does not want to see another destructive involvement in Syria.

Statesman Putin must now try to exploit the success of his chemical weapons intiative by pressing the US to, at long last, agree to convene the repeatedly postponed Geneva II conference which was meant to bring together the government and opposition to hammer out political transition arrangements for Syria and end the conflict.

The US has, so far, dragged its feet over Geneva II because the expatriate opposition National Coalition is weak and divided and under the command of a hawkish Saudi Arabia while competing rebel and jihadi groups are at odds over the the objective and conduct of the war. Having come close to waging war in West Asia, Obama may finally understand that Syria's troubles cannot be resolved by civil conflict and put pressure on the regime's opponents to come to terms with Assad.