Update on Putin and Syria

Update: Cut-off of provision of electricity to the Crimea, and the downing of a Russian plane by Turkey on November 24, 2015

Two events have now pushed relations with Putin to a dangerous edge.

The first is sabotage by Ukrainian activists of the high tension electrical network in the Ukraine which supplies rhe Crimea with some 75-80% of its electrical power. The Crimea is cut off from electricity and has largely gone dark, a dramatic fact widely reported on Russian television and in the Russian media.


“Crimeans Putting On Brave Faces, But Frustration Mounting Over Blackout,” RFE/RL, November 25, 2015.

The second is the shooting down by a Turkish aircraft of a Russian military aircraft attacking the positions of “moderate” anti-Assad insurgents close to the border with Turkey, after the Russian aircraft entered Turkish airspace, according to Turkey.

Any attack by Russian forces on Turkish territory in response could potentially trigger the collective self-defense obligations contained in Article 5 of the NATO treay. Turkey is a member.

The moment is extremely perilous, because based on his past actions Putin can be expected to react to these events in a sharp and potentially dangerous manner. NATO and the West need to prepare, now, a forceful but calibrated response to any action Putin might take in response to these two events

All leaders should now focus on de-escalating the military tensions between Turkey and NATO forces, on the one hand, and Russian forces on the other.

Otherwise, the world could easily stumble into an escalating military confrontation between Russia and NATO, which would have the potential of leading to nuclear war.

This would be wildly irrational, of course.

As was the onset of the First World War in 1914.

Mistakes, unintended consequences of organizational routines, and pure accidents can have a decisive impact on world events.

It is folly to have the air forces of Russia, the United States, and other countries conducting bombing operations in Syria under a non-unified command. The mere idea of successfully “deconflicting” air missions conducted by Russia and other countries is based on an illusion of precision that does not exist in the real world.

Instead of continuing this dangerous pattern over Syria, the United States, the West, Turkey and the Arab states need to stop trying to paper over the hard conflicts which exist between Russia, al-Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran, on the one hand, and the United States, France, Arab forces, and Turkey, on the other.

The goal of Western policy should be to halt Russian attacks on “moderate” insurgents who are challenging al-Assad. This involves a direct clash between Russian and Western interests. The West has enormous economic powers at its command to use in dealing with Putin. It should use them, to secure a change on the ground, while avoiding endless negotiations with al-Assad and Russia aimed at achieving the wholly illusory goal of a “negotiated solution” to the Syrian conflict.

Negotiations without a change in Russian policy on the ground in Syria–not in verbal formulations, but in actions–will only help Russia as it seeks to destroy the “moderate” insurgents who threaten al-Assad, while helping him to consolidate his hold on power in the area he controls.

Russia is complicit in the commission by al-Assad of crimes against humanity and war crimes on a massive scale, and is responsible itself under international law for the commission of these crimes. The U.S., the E.U. and other countries should impose strong economic sanctions against Russia until it ceases its complicity in the commission of these crimes. Such actions would be permissible as lawful countermeasures under international law.

In Syria, as in the Ukraine, the time has finally come for the United States and its allies to stand up to and to push back against Russia and Vladimir Putin.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and 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. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , 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, Dr. Rowles 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. Dr. Rowles 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.=LL.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, Dr. Rowles 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 some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.