Just a few days ago strange echoes could be heard coming from public debates. It was like standing in the nave of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. The pro Russian sovereignists choir was singing loud praises to Vladimir Putin. A man, a real man.. The same man we sometimes see in the Russian press saving dolphins barehanded is going to save us from ISIS. But it isn’t only those fascinated or bought by him who are singing the refrain. No, it is now being taken up in the name of pragmatism and realpolitik. Vladimir Putin, unjustly despised by the West, would appear to have understood before everyone else that we have to engage with Bashar al Assad against Islamic State. It’s time we understood that as well. After all, as we’ve been told, the free world joined forces with Stalin against Hitler didn’t they?
Talk, yes, but with our eyes wide open
There is of course an element of truth in this pragmatism. Ignoring Putin is not the solution. In fact, and contrary to what Kremlin supporters keep repeating, no one ignores him. Everyone talks to him, and must continue to do so, at the very least to avoid an air crash between the two coalitions in the Syrian sky. Talk to him, yes, but not join forces, not close our eyes, not lie about the real objectives of the war, as it is to support of Syrian regime that Vladimir Putin has intervened in this conflict, and not to destroy ISIS. Unlike Stalin fighting against Hitler, he is fighting to save a dictator who is responsible for the deaths of more that 250 000 people.
We feared it last week, and we now have confirmation. While the Iraqi army is targeting the convoys transporting Al Baghdadi and his men, while France is trying to destroy ISIS training camps, Russian military strikes are targeting rebels threatening the regime’s strongholds, i.e. the rivals of Islamic State, thereby allowing ISIS to advance. Russian strikes have even killed civilians, like the American strikes in Afghanistan. Except that the Americans apologize for their errors and are strongly criticized by the anti-imperialists…. who remain quasi silent over the deaths caused by the Russian strikes.
Sovereignty and the duty to protect
And the argument invoked by the Russian president’s supporters? He is intervening at the request of the Syrian authorities, and therefore respecting their sovereignty. It is almost funny. The same supporters approve when Vladimir Putin shamelessly and brutally violates Ukraine’s borders, iike a colonial power. Their double standards, an expression they love to employ, reveals them for what they are. They are not anti-imperialist, they are anti-American.
Past actions of the greatest world power, its catastrophic intervention in Iraq have left their marks. If the Russian president is amassing so much support it is also because – and rightly so – many are demanding more multipolarity. Hence the importance of being extremely cautious when dealing with the right to intervene.
Any country, especially a powerful one, puts itself in the wrong when taking action against the sovereignty of another country without a mandate from the UN. Yet the UN was created precisely because of the failure of the Society of Nations to confront Nazism. And it was in the name of relativism, of being master in one’s own home, that Hitler was able for so long to exterminate with impunity, before launching his occupation of other countries. And it was in the name of the duty to protect that the intervention of an American-Resistance coalition saved us, the French, from being massacred or forced into exile.
Since the end of WWII the balance of international relations has swung between two pillars: respect of sovereignty on one side and, on the other, the duty to protect civilian populations when a State becomes crazy enough to massacre its own population. Concerning Syria, what sovereignty are we talking about? Bashar al Assad is a butcher. He is bleeding, bombing and gassing his population to death, forcing them to flee, to cross the Mediterranean to our shores.
Vladimir Putin is not intervening in Syria to defend a people’s right to self- determination, but to defend the right of tyrants to dispose of their populations.
The fear of “colour revolutions”
Putin’s Russia has neither the means nor any interest in eliminating ISIS. His real obsession lies elsewhere, namely the so-called “colour revolutions”. But the Ukrainian, Iranian or Arab springs are not only an obsession of the Russian president, but also the obsession of the websites and media close to him. For them, of course, all these “colour revolutions” are CIA-led manipulations and conspiracies, when in fact the CIA hadn’t seen them coming and was really lagging behind.
The reality is that the world is changing and it is this reality that took both the FSB and the CIA by surprise. States carry less weight, they are fragile, and civil societies have acquired more power, thanks in particular to new technologies.
Autocrats like Putin live in terror of the world which lies ahead, the world which is already here.
The objective of his actions in Syria is to put an end to the isolation imposed on him because of his annexation of Crimea and destabilization of Ukraine, but even more importantly to protect himself from his own population.
The Russian population, whom (unreliable) opinion polls would have us believe is 100% behind their leader, in fact were having doubts about him even before the war in Ukraine.
If it weren’t for Putin’s war propaganda, his constant appeals to patriotic fervour which he resorts to in times of crisis, and his powerful comeback on the international scene, the people of Russia could well start doubting again, could reject restraints on their democratic rights, and above all could reject the economic dead end they find themselves in, an economy dependent on the price of hydrocarbons and gangrened by corruption.
And this is the reason for Putin’s interference in Ukraine and intervention in Syria. A dangerous gamble.
The Russian press is also expressing concern about a possible quagmire in Syria. In fact there seems to be just one way out of Putin’s headlong intervention: after proving himself to be Bashar al Assad’s closest ally, Putin must twist his arm to persuade him and his clan to relinquish their power in exchange for a safe haven.
Without a diplomatic success, Putin’s military operation (a rescue operation) will be short-lived, after skidding out of control. It could even become a trap, in the same way that the intervention in Iraq became a trap for George Bush.