As everyone knows, the only way to stop the slaughter in Syria is for the US and its allies to work with President Assad – and to stop worrying about what looks good.
Putin is right. Everyone knows Putin is right, that the only way forward in Syria, if not to eternal slaughter, is via the established government of Bashar al-Assad and his Lebanese and Iranian allies.
That is the realpolitik. That is what pragmatism dictates. In the secure west, foreign policy has long been a branch of domestic politics, with added sermonising. “What to do”, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, even Ukraine, has been dictated not by what might work but what looks good. The megaphone is mightier than the brain.
The result of American and British grandstanding at the UN this week – seeing who can be ruder about Assad – is that Vladimir Putin has gathered ever more cards to his pack. Putin has already performed the two primary duties of a Russian leader, bringing stability and pride. He now faces turbulent Russian minorities across his European frontier and a serious menace from Muslim states to his south. He is perforce becoming a player on a wider stage. He has read Iran, India and Syria correctly. He is no fool.
On a visit to London last June, the veteran diplomat Henry Kissinger pleaded with his audience to see Russia as an ally, not an enemy, against Muslim fundamentalism. Russia and the west shared a civilisation and long-term interests, he said. They had to work as one. It is easy for western democracies, centuries in the making, to sneer at Russia’s imperfections and at Putin’s cynical antics in Ukraine. But the idea that economic sanctions were going to change Moscow’s mind or weaken its kleptocracy was idiotic.
Syria is experiencing the most ghastly anarchy anywhere on earth. If ever there were a case for humanitarian “troops on the ground” it must be here. Those who seek this end cannot pick and choose their merchants of atrocity. All sides in war kill innocent people, including western addicts of air bombing (such as Hilary Benn at the Labour party conference yesterday). Russia has accepted that the forcible toppling of Assad – which Britain has predicted since 2011 – is not a realistic path to peace. If he is to go, it will be after his enemies have been driven back, not before.
The true nature of the west’s commitment in Syria was revealed in Barack Obama’s remark to the UN that “because alternatives are surely worse” is no reason to support tyrants. In other words, American feelgood is more important than Syrian lives. That cosy maxim has guided western policy in the region for over a decade. It has been a disaster. If we have nothing more intelligent to say on Syria, we should listen to Putin. He has.