Could one of the indirect results of the horrific attacks in Paris be a Nobel Peace Prize for Russian President Vladimir Putin? The idea may not be as outrageous—even obscene–as it sounds. Here’s why.
France’s profoundly unpopular President Francois Holland has ordered a drastic crackdown on suspected backers of ISIS and related jihadi groups across France. He’s dispatched fighter jets to deliver France’s most punishing raids yet against ISIS targets in Syria. If ISIS wants war, that’s what they’ll get, Hollande declared, not unlike George W. Bush after 9/11.
The problem is that those domestic actions, and further Draconian measures certain to follow, while understandable, will also exacerbate tensions between French’s Muslim and non-Muslim populations. Just what the jihadis want.
Secondly, though French air raids in Syria may make Hollande look uncharacteristically decisive and presidential, there is no way that the faltering French economy nor France’s military—already spread thin across North Africa and the Middle East—can sustain such attacks.
In any case, there’s a consensus that attacks from the air by themselves are not going to destroy the Islamic State. Boots on the ground are what count. And neither France nor its allies have any appetite to deploy large numbers of troops to Syria and/or Iraq. Been there. Done that.
The first major step in defeating ISIS, and at least diminish the terrorist threat, is to end the war in Syria, not by force of arms, but by talk. That’s also the only way to reduce the flood of refugees inundating Europe.
What if the actions of Vladimir Putin were crucial to ending that conflict?
The key issue blocking negotiations has been the insistence of Assad’s enemies that the Syrian dictator had to leave before there could be any meaningful talks. He alone was the enemy.
“It’s time for Assad to get out of the way,” proclaimed U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in August 18, 2011.
“The time has come for President Assad to step aside.” announced Barrack Obama.”
But the American president was unwilling to put real muscle behind his rhetoric.
The Saudis and other Gulf states have provided most of the money and arms to radical Sunni groups battling Assad. But, as they see it, the conflict has nothing to do with democracy. It’s just one front in the bloody on-going struggle between Sunnis and Shiites roiling the Greater Middle East, a battle that was reignited by America’s disastrous actions following George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. The result has been a Syria ripped apart in an incredibly sanguinary proxy war.
Over the past year, it seemed Assad was weakening. He’d lost large parts of the country; his domestic backers were demoralized; desertions in the army were soaring. Yet the slaughter continued.
Then, in September Vladimir Putin upped the ante: Russia was determined to continue supporting Assad as the legitimate ruler of Syria. He was Russia’s long-time ally–in fact, Russia’s only real ally in the Arab world. And, unlike Obama, Putin actually backed up his rhetoric with action–major shipments of arms, artillery and tanks, as well as the deployment of 50 Russian jets with pilots and ground crews and the troops to protect them. It was soon clear they were targeting not mainly ISIS positions, but the strongholds of any rebel groups most threatening Assad.
The Iranians also increased their aid. The Syrian army launched new new offensives. Suddenly Assad was no longer on the ropes.
Caught flatfooted, the U.S. and its allies were let spluttering. This was blatant interference by the Russians. It would only prolong the conflict. As he’d done in the Ukraine, Putin had dangerously rekindled the Cold war. He was determined to project Russian power even at the risk of armed conflict with the West.
Assorted American politicians and pundits demanded the U.S. immediately dispatch more forces to the region, flex its military muscle. NATO had to step up. Knock the upstart Putin back into place.
Then came Assad’s surprise one-day visit to meet with Putin in Moscow in October. “We assume” said Putin “that a long-term solution may be reached on the basis of the latest military developments and political process with participation from all political, ethnic and religious groups,”
“This decision can be made only by the Syrian people. Syria is a friendly country. And we are ready to support it not only militarily but politically as well.”
Again, the west was caught out. Putin had now taken centre stage. It was almost like a schoolmaster finally stepping in to call a raucous playground to order. He would dictate the terms for negotiations. He would be the peacemaker.
Though it’s still very early days, it looks as if Putin’s gambit may work.
The major sticking point, as we’ve said, was the determination by the U.S. and Assad’s other enemies that the Syrian dictator had to go before there could be any negotiations. Putin’s refusal to accept that pre-condition was dismissed by Washington and Paris as the Russian leader’s bloody-minded determination to thwart the U.S. and its allies, no matter what the consequences.
But Putin’s argument makes eminent sense: If Assad were to suddenly depart, Putin warned, the result would be a dangerous political vacuum. There would be a bloody scramble for power among the rebel groups. The strongest, best organized and disciplined would win out. That means ISIL and its jihadist allies.
There is no organized center. The naive attempt by the U.S. and its allies to arm so-called “moderates” in Syria has been a disastrous failure, a sorry substitute for serious policy, as Putin himself made it scathingly clear.
Putin also excoriated the way Washington–leading its allies from behind—had brought down Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, with no thought to the resulting chaos that continues to this day.
There was no way, Putin was going to stand by while the U.S. and the French and their allies blindly repeated the same disaster in Syria—creating yet another haven for jihadis linked to Islamic radicals in Russia itself.
On the other hand, though Putin insists that Assad has to be part of any negotiations, he has also signaled that Russia is not wedded to the Syrian dictator forever. No reason that Assad couldn’t step down—or be stepped down—along the way. Though he might not be able to bring that trick off, Putin would certainly have much more leverage than the U.S.
Indeed, Putin’s views sound remarkably clearheaded compared to the fuzzy, half-hearted statements emanating from Washington, the U.S. often working at cross-purposes to its own purported allies. The Saudis and Gulf States, for instance, have been backing the very Islamic radicals the U.S. supposedly wants to contain. Then there are the Turks, attacking the Kurdish forces in Syria, who have been by far the most effective in battling ISIS.
Preliminary negotiations aimed at ending Syria’s civil war began cautiously. Then came the horrific attacks in Paris last Friday. The very next day, delegates from 17 countries who had been bickering about terms and procedures, overcame enough of their differences to act.
They adopted a timeline that would let opposition groups help draft a constitution, and elect a new government by May 2017. A cease-fire between the government in Damascus and recognized opposition groups is to be in place within six months.
America and its allies have acceded to Putin’s demand that Assad be part of the talks. Almost overnight, the slogan of Putin and his newfound allies in Washington, Paris, London, and other Western capitals is that it’s not Assad, but ISIS that’s the enemy.
Obviously, there are huge problems to be overcome. For instance, other than ISIL, which of the many Syrian jihadist groups are to be labeled as “terrorist”, and thus subject to military attack even after a ceasefire is declared? They would also be cut out of any direct role in negotiations.
It is also far from clear how truly democratic elections can be organized in the shattered remains a country that has known only dictatorship. Nor is it clear whether or not Assad—or a stand-in for him–would be allowed to be a candidate.
There is also still the very real danger that if Assad and his Alawite supporters were evicted from office, the country would plunge into bloody sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing, as Iraq has done.
Finally, ending the war in Syria would be just the first step in destroying ISIS.
Their jihadists still hold huge swathes of Iraq and have metastasized across the Greater Middle East and Africa. Particularly dangerous is the foothold they’ve already gained in a totally lawless Libya, where there is no real government at all.
Ironically, it’s not just the Paris attack that spurred the Vienna negotiations, but also ISIS’ destruction of the Russian charter flight from Egypt, killing all 224 passengers. It took the Russians two weeks before they finally announced there’d been a bomb on board. Putin it seemed was doing his best to avoid acknowledging that the disaster was payback for Russia’s attacks against ISIS in Syria. Patriotic Russians might have cheered their leader’s move into Syria, but their support would quickly evaporate if they realized they’d pay a terrible price in their own country for Putin’s distant bravado abroad.
Nothing would help Putin more politically than to emerge from what could be a disastrous military adventure–a repeat of Russia’s catastrophic experiences in Afghanistan—then to emerge from this Syrian carnage as the leading peacemaker.
Which brings us back to the idea of a Nobel Peace Prize for Vladimir Putin
Putin may be a most unsavory character—an arrogant, corrupt, bullying dictator—but it was his decisive move into Syria this past Fall that forced the issue. It was his brutal determination that cut through the vague, flailing actions of the U.S. and its allies. Abetted by ISIS’ terrorist attacks in Paris and their bombing of a Russian jet, Putin may have at least launched a process of peace.
That’s the hope at least. It may never be realized. But if, somehow, the carnage does end along the rough lines laid out in Vienna, would awarding a Peace Prize to Putin be any more outrageous than the Stockholm Committee’s decision to award the prize to a newly-elected Barack Obama on the strength of a few soaring speeches—a decision that even Obama felt was absurd?