Syria diplomacy: Slouching towards Putin

After rescuing Bashar al-Assad from the brink of battlefield defeat, Vladimir Putin is now suggesting that Russia and the US agree on a general approach to ending the bloodshed in Syria. Only problem is, they don’t. Not by a long shot.


If something sounds too good to be true, chances are it is, goes the axiom.

Vladimir Putin seemed to acknowledge as much when he told reporters at his annual news conference this week that Russia’s approach to settling the Syrian crisis, “strange as it may seem, coincides with the US vision.”

This approach, he went on to explain, involves “joint work on a constitution, creation of instruments of control over future early elections, holding the vote and recognising its results on the basis of that political process.”

Yet Putin was bang on target in characterising the supposed meeting of East-West minds as something seemingly “strange”.

That’s because whatever the emerging consensus between Moscow and Washington on Syria, it has come about largely as the result of a now-familiar pattern (previously seen in Crimea, and then in eastern Ukraine) of the Kremlin unilaterally creating a reality on the ground -- and then foisting that reality on the rest of an unsuspecting world as a diplomatic ‘done deal’.

If you blink, you’ve missed Moscow's military legerdemain.

In fact, much of the Western media had been reporting, in an eyes-wide-open way, on Russia’s military build-up in Syria weeks before Moscow formally announced its go-it-alone airstrikes over Syria on September 30. They saw it coming.

Night-and-day perspectives

It was a slow-motion segue to a dramatically altered reality. One that has left two competing “international” coalitions striving towards the same goal: to end a war that’s killed some 300,000 and displaced millions more, while fighting terrorism at its incubation point.

Yet each side, until now, has pursued those objectives from night-and-day perspectives, unable to agree on fundamental things such as Assad's role in a transitional period (and beyond), or who is a terrorist.

Now, for a disclaimer: We all know that the US-led coalition’s campaign has been anything but a seamless affair. Some think it has been a total bungle. It’s been fraught with miscalculations and setbacks in the quagmire of a complex war that has drawn in more factions than most people can count.

Barack Obama’s caution has been blasted by opponents at home and abroad (but mostly at home) as weakness and waffling – even if it has been dictated by the imperative of avoiding another catastrophic Middle Eastern war fueled by America's "good" intentions.

Putin, in stark contrast, has shown no similar reticence. His sudden military foray into the Syrian conflict is less about fighting the common enemy of terrorism, as he insists, and more about burnishing his – and Russia’s – credibility as an influential leader on the world stage.

Another layer of complication

It’s yet another iteration of the age-old theme of Russia flexing its muscles in the face of a West that it perceives as arrogant, morally righteous and spiritually decadent.

The immediate upshot of Moscow’s intervention has been to add another thick layer of complication to a conflict that was already looking intractable.

On the eve of Russia’s airstrikes, Assad had been suffering a string of defeats on the battlefield amid a steady rebel advance on key strategic points. He had even admitted at one point to having redeployed some troops from the North to other flashpoints, where they were more urgently needed.

Today, despite a persisting stalemate on the battlefield, observers say the momentum is back on Assad’s side, thanks mostly to the Russian air cover.

Assad himself perpetuates his rule in a state of absolute denial about the depths to which he has plunged his decimated and polarised citizenry.

Far from striking a conciliatory note as the diplomatic vise tightens, he’s indicated in a recent interview with Chinese television that he might even run again for president.

Nor has he shown any inclination to enter talks with an armed opposition that he regards as terrorists – all of them.

Then again, neither has Russia accepted the legitimacy of an opposition delegation that emerged from recent talks in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. So long as Russia contests the make-up of this body, it is hard to see how a key provision of the diplomatic roadmap towards resolution -- a meeting in early January between the moderate opposition and Assad regime representatives -- can take place.

Not seeking ‘regime change’

If the US and Russia stand on more common ground now than in the past, it is largely due to John Kerry's semantic shuffling closer to a position that’s palatable to Moscow.

Not too long ago, the US and its allies were more or less adamant that Assad must go. These days Kerry appears to have soften his position.

The US secretary of state now insists the US is not after “regime change” in Syria, and has suggested Assad could even stay on for a transitional period. Syrians (or the ones that are left), he says, will be making the decisions about their future.

This eerily echoes Moscow’s well-trod line about Syria’s future being up to “the Syrian people” - which some analysts interpret as giving Assad a free pass to dictate the terms of his own fate with Moscow’s blessing.

Of course Putin is well-versed in the well-timed diplomatic feint, able to nimbly switch positions (while making it look like he isn’t doing so) in line with the exigencies of the geopolitical moment.

“We will help settle this process in every possible way,” Putin said this week.

What he really meant is anybody’s guess. But I fear it augurs ill for Syria’s immediate future.

This article was originally published on December 18, 2015.

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