Thursday's New York Times op-ed page contained a message from Russian President Vladimir Putin to the American people, regarding the conflict in Syria, and Russian and American efforts to defuse it. Putin argues against President Obama’s plans for a military strike against the forces of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and praises the U.S. president for treating Russia’s plan for Syria to give up its arsenal of chemical weapons “as an alternative to military action.” All in all, he tries to give the supposedly unsuspecting readers of the New York Times the impression that he is a man who desires peace.
A decent person’s intelligent reaction to Putin’s argument can be expressed in the style of another tyrant (albeit a fictional one):
Putin’s plea for peace would be comical (coming as it does from a man who helped bring about Russia’s war with Georgia over South Ossetia in 2008) if it did not include a dangerous lie. Halfway through the op-ed, he says that “there is every reason to believe [poison gas] was not used by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons.” Putin does not say what “every reason” is, because no such reason exists. The prominent advocacy group Human Rights Watch (not known for being either a hawkish organization or a pawn of Washington) agrees with the assessments of multiple governments: that in all likelihood the chemical weapons that killed more than 1,400 people in the suburbs of Damascus on August 21 were launched by Syrian government forces.
The true reasons for Russian opposition to U.S. intervention in Syria are twofold. First, the Kremlin does not want a precedent set whereby the international community can legitimately intervene in a conflict going on within a country’s borders. In 1999 (when Putin had just become prime minister of Russia and was on his way to the presidency), such a precedent would have made it legitimate for outside powers to intervene to stop Russian forces from pummeling Chechnya to crush separatist rebels there. Leaving aside the sheer implausibility of such an intervention taking place on Russian soil (no one was or is willing to risk nuclear war for Chechnya’s sake), the very notion that one country has the right to invade another country for humanitarian reasons runs counter to Putin’s interests.
Likewise, Putin has no interest in seeing Assad’s regime, a prolific purchaser of Russian weapons, overthrown by an armed rebellion. Taking a black-and-white view of the Syrian conflict similar to that of some American opponents of intervention, Putin in his op-ed states that there are “few champions of democracy in Syria” (not that Putin himself is one of them), but “there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government.” This appeal to American fears about Islamist terrorism emanating from Syria grossly exaggerates the size of the violent Islamist presence in the ranks of the opposition. Al-Nusra and other extremist groups do not speak for the entire anti-Assad movement. Far from it: the extremist minority has already attacked members of the non-extremist majority in the rebel forces. Al-Nusra’s presence in Syria is certainly troubling, but the solution is for the U.S. and its allies to arm groups like the Free Syrian Army to help them fight not just Assad’s troops, but Al-Nusra and their ilk as well.
The U.S. has strong strategic and moral interests in Syria, not least of which are stemming the destabilizing flow of refugees (now numbering more than two million) into Syria’s neighbors, and helping to bring about a government in Damascus that rejects both Assad-style tyranny and violent Islamic fundamentalism. President Obama does not need Vladimir Putin to lecture him on international security and morality, and neither he nor anyone in Congress should let a 21st century czar stand in the way of doing the right thing in Syria.