Putin’s Blitz


Mahir Ali

George Soros was in no mood to take prisoners last week when, in a comment reproduced in The Guardian, the European business magnate described Vladimir Putin as a bigger threat to Europe than the militant Islamic State group.

He conceded that the European Union wasn’t particularly on the Russian president’s mind when he decided to intervene in Syria. But soon enough the realization dawned that barely discriminate bombardment was an ideal means of creating refugees, many of whom would end up making the hazardous journey to Europe.

And why would Putin wish to do this? According to Soros, it’s based on the assumption that the EU needs to be wrecked for the Russian economy, poised on disaster, to recover. He concedes that the Russian leader is a tactician rather than a strategist, while attributing to him a fairly complex strategy.

The EU does not, of course, require much assistance from Moscow in cruelling its chances of survival. It staved off a so-called Grexit by persuading the Greeks of its precipitous consequences. But now it faces a Brexit, which could prove harder to pre-empt, despite the vague concessions Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron has obtained from his neighbors across the Channel

Refugees from the Syrian conflict (and other disaster zones) were crowding on to Europe’s shores, mainly via the coasts of Greece and Italy, long before Putin got his fangs into the Near East. It is not inconceivable, of course that the idea of exacerbating the EU’s discomfiture helps to soothe his ragged nerves. It is unlikely, though, that causing jitters in Brussels is particularly high on his list of priorities. Economic or political feelers from the EU would likely elicit a rapid response from Moscow.

The Russian role in Ukraine tends to be cited as something of a dress rehearsal for the intervention in Syria. The comparison is not terribly valid on most levels. Ukraine is not only Russia’s neighbor it was a part of the Russian empire long before the Bolshevik Revolution 99 years ago.

That’s no excuse for disrespecting its independence, obviously, but it’s also easy to see why the prospect of its entry into a rival economic or adversarial military bloc would alarm Moscow, which was assured on the cusp of the Soviet Union’s disintegration that NATO at least would maintain a respectable distance from its borders. Besides, although the fighting in eastern Ukraine has died down, Kiev has fallen well short of getting its act together in the wake of what looked a lot like a Western-sponsored coup.

Its role in Syria, while clearly intended in part to reassert Russian clout at the global level, is widely seen as filling a vacuum created by Western reluctance to intervene on the Iraqi or even the Libyan scale. That may be so, but one can hardly ignore the still unfolding consequences of the wars in Iraq and Libya. Would Syria really have been better off had the US and its cohorts barged in back in 2011? Would that have prevented the emergence of IS, which was actually nurtured in US-run prisons in Iraq?

That Bashar al-Assad presides over a murderous dictatorship whose actions account for the bulk of Syrian casualties is beyond question. And assistance from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah has undoubtedly strengthened his regime. But the idea that it could reassert control across all Syrian territory is a dangerous fantasy.

Much the same could be said, however, about the idea that Assad’s ouster would by itself begin to heal Syria’s deep wounds and fractures. Britain’s foreign secretary Philip Hammond claimed at the weekend that Putin, if he so desired, could end the Syrian civil war with a single phone call, the implication being that withdrawal of Russian backing for Assad is all it would take. That’s an absurdly simplistic view.

Monday’s mass casualties in missile attacks on medical facilities, for which the suspicion inevitably falls on Russia, serve as a painful reminder of why the prospect of a meaningful ceasefire within a week or two, as agreed in Munich last week, is viewed with a great deal of cynicism.

Russia has been accused of focusing its fire on the supposedly moderate opposition to Assad and excoriated for bombing civilians, but it’s not the only guilty party. The recent extension into Syria of Turkey’s military campaign against Kurds is just one additional complication. The notion of Turkish, Saudi and other Gulf troops or mercenaries entering the morass can only be viewed with the direst misgivings.

At the weekend, Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev lamented the recrudescence of a cold war mentality in relations between Russia and the West. There is a far more urgent need, one would have thought, to tackle the blazing conflict in Syria. Halting the killing, however, does not appear to be a priority for any of the parties with a ladle in that horrifying cauldron.


Published in Dawn, February 17th, 2016

Courtesy: DAWN News

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