Clueless West

Putin holds the key to Syrian peace

This poster in Aleppo makes it pretty clear. Source: AP

Hopes of a ceasefire in the Syrian dictator’s seven-year war against his people are being suffocated by chemical weapons. Even though the United Nations Security Council finally passed a resolution after days of debate calling for a respite from fighting, the bombing of the rebel stronghold of East Ghuta continued on Monday. The area is surrounded by President Bashar al-Assad’s troops.

Human rights activists are now accusing Mr. Assad of once again using chemical weapons. And Turkey is continuing its war against Kurdish groups in northern Syria. The world watches as Syrians die.

The country’s fate, as well as the fate of Mr. Assad, now lie in the hands of one man: Vladimir Putin. Mr. Assad would have been forced to resign long ago without Russian air support and the Shia militias controlled by Iran. Anyone who wants peace for Syria today must convince Moscow first.

If Russia is unwilling to intervene – as was the case during the slaughter in the city of Aleppo – there will be no break in the fighting. Meanwhile, Assad will be able to gradually recapture territory, UN resolutions be damned.

Luftangriffe auf syrisches Rebellengebiet Ost-Ghuta
East Ghuta, February 21. Source: DPA

The West, with its resounding silence over Assad’s crimes and indecisiveness, is to blame for this dismal situation. President Barack Obama, in particular, increasingly withdrew his country from the Middle East. He and his NATO allies refused to stop Mr. Assad’s air force from dropping barrel bombs with a militarily enforced no-fly zone. When Mr. Assad was on the verge of defeat nonetheless, Mr. Putin rushed to his aid.

Almost a month before Putin’s re-election to a fourth term of office as president, congratulations are already in order for the head of the Kremlin. Compared to a decade ago, when his country was largely out of the picture in the Middle East, Mr. Putin is now the most important decision-maker in the region – thanks to a political war on several fronts.

His first priority was military involvement in Syria, which allowed Mr. Putin to keep the Syrian president in power and secure the future of Russia’s only Mediterranean air and naval bases. It also anchored Russia’s influence in the resource-rich Middle East. Second, he took advantage of an alliance with Iran. The two countries stand side-by-side both politically and militarily. And, third, he created a dark alliance with Iran’s arch-enemies: The Arab states on the Persian Gulf.

Not only did Russia exploit its power as, together with Saudi Arabia, the largest oil exporter. The OPEC oil cartel now also wants to forge a broad petro-alliance with it and other important non-cartel members to stabilize oil prices at a high level and thwart the advance of American shale oil and gas. Moscow and Riyadh working side by side was unthinkable just a few years ago.

Neither trivializing nor over-dramatizing the situation are effective strategies.

Just as unthinkable were Russian sales of S-400 missile defense systems, MiG fighters and other weapons for billions to Algeria, Egypt, Turkey, and even to the Saudis and the Emiratis. Those were Washington’s allies. Moscow’s arms deals are more than just a needed financial injection for Russia’s ailing industry. They’re also tactical foreign policy weapons, illustrating how the Kremlin is cleverly using the divide among the Gulf States, most recently supported by President Donald Trump.

At the Munich Security Conference earlier this month, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel had some unthinkable words of his own: Europe and the West finally need a response to China’s expansion plans along the new Silk Road. China shouldn’t be chastised for defending its interests, Mr. Gabriel said, the West should be criticized for not having a strategy of its own. But it also has no strategy in its dealings with Russia. President Obama’s downgrading of Russia as a “regional power,” reminiscent of former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s defamation of Russia as an “Upper Volta with nukes” is of no use to anyone. Now that Mr. Putin has been flexing his muscles again, neither trivializing nor over-dramatizing the situation are effective strategies.

Russia is not an enemy, but sometimes a partner. It is also increasingly a rival – especially in combination with China. We urgently need a response to this: A strategy that relies on cooperation based on common interests wherever possible. But it should also draw lines in the sand on cornerstone issues, such as Europe’s post-war order and in the Middle East. And clarify how to maintain the integrity of the lines.

Former Chancellor Willy Brandt’s eastern policy was firmly based on two pillars: Detente and the mutual protection of interests, but also Germany’s solid position in the western alliance. A ceasefire and negotiations for peace are only possible if western and eastern interests can commit to order and coexistence.

Mathias Brüggman is the head of Handelsblatt’s foreign news desk. To contact the author:

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