Thinking clearly about Putin and Syria

Barack Obama, John Kerry and other Western leaders should always bear in mind wiho Vladimir Putin is, and what he has done in the last four years with respect to Syria, the Crimea, the eastern Ukraine, and in challenging NATO at every turn. Nor should they forget his probable role in the assassination in Moscow of his leading opponent, Boris Nemtsov, on February 27, 2015.

They should never forget that Putin and Russia pose a direct challenge and continuing assault on the post-World War II international legal and security order, anchored by the United Nations Charter and its prohibition in Article 2 (4) of the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.

The United Nations Charter is the cornerstone of the framework of international law and institutions which govern relations between states.  They protect not only the territorial integrity of states but also guarantee the observance of fundamental human rights such as the right to life, the physical integrity of the human person, due process of law, free speech, and the right to participate in government.

Putin by his “annexation” of the Crimea and ongoing invasion and occupation of the eastern Ukraine stands in opposition to all of that.

Since Russia’s and China’s veto of a mild U.N. Security Council resolution on February 4, 2012, Russia has played a dirty game in Syria.

Russia has done everything it could to support Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime, which has committed war crimes and crimes against humanity on a massive scale. These crimes, which are ongoing, have resulted in the deaths of 250,000 to 300,000 Syrians, displaced millions of refugees, and helped to create the space in which ISIS has been allowed to grow and thrive.

The massive war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by al-Assad, with Russia’s complicity and support, have constituted an important element in the appeal of ISIS which has drawn tens of thousands of suporters from around the world to join its cause.

The U.N. peace process in Syria, which followed the Arab League’s 2011 peace process, was first headed by Kofi Annan in 2012, and subsequently led to two Geneva peace conferences.  It has served principally to provide Western countries with a pretext for not using force to bring al-Assad’s atrocities to an end, and Russia with a diplomatic vehicle to maintain him in power.

The idea of a negotiated solution to the multi-sided civil war in Syria is a pure illusion, under current circumstances.  This is the case even more so now than when Kofi Annan offered his “castles in the sky”, which  succeeded only in forestalling any significant use of force by the West to halt al-Assad’s atrocities.

“There can be no military solution in Syria, only a negotiated outcome” has been the mantra of those unwillng to take effective action against al-Assad. It worked for the Russians up until recently, when the growing threat of ISIS became manifest with the seizure of Ramadi and Mosul in Iraq, and most recently with deadly attacks on foreign soil and against a Russian airliner in Paris, Beirut, and on the Sinai peninsula.

Francois Hollande now seeks to build an international military coalition against ISIS with the Russians, following the November 13 bombings in Paris.

This is the same Hollande who was ready to sell NATO down the river with his insistence on the sale of two Mistral-class warships to Russia even after Russian “annexation” of the Crimea and in the face of its ongoing invasion of the eastern Ukraine.

It is the same Francois Hollande who with Angela Merkel negotiated a deal with Putin in October, in the so-called “Normandy format”, which removed the December 31, 2015 deadline for the withdrawal of all foreign fighters from the eastern Ukraine which had been established under the terms of the Minsk II Agreement of February 12, 2015.

There is of course already a coalition against ISIS, but one which Barack Obama has not led effectively in carrying out urgent military actions.

Hollande, at least, is trying to lead a coalition of states willing to take forceful military action. The extent to which he is playing the Russian game and/or is a dupe of Putin must be carefully and constantly analyzed, however, given his obvious interest in the lifting of EU sanctions against Russia.  In any event, Hollande will have to coordinate with the Americans.

Washington and NATO, for their part, should be extremely wary of any close cooperation with the Russians. Putin’s goal is to maintain Bashar al-Assad in power and to block any military actions against his regime by holding out illusions of “a political solution”.  At the same time, he seeks to undermine Western solidarity for upholding the economic sanctions imposed against Russia in response to its seizure of the Crimea and its ongoing invasion of the eastern Ukraine.

The West does not need Russia to take down ISIS. They don’t need Russia to secure “a political solution” in Syria, because such a solution is a pure illusion, and will remain one until facts on the ground have changed, including an end to Russia’s support of al-Assad and its attacks on non-ISIS insurgents seeking to overthrow him.

Above all, the West must resolutely resist any temptation to enter into an agreement with Putin that would lead toward a lifting of sanctions against Russia in exchange for Russian “cooperation” in resolving the Syrian conflict.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.