speech on Monday at the United Nations – his first in a decade – Russian President Vladimir Putin spent nearly twenty minutes attacking the United States for its efforts to export a governing model that, according to Moscow, does not fit the Middle East: Inclusive, authentic democracy, in which the legitimacy of government is derived from the consent of the governed.
Striking a similar tone as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who in his speech also blamed the spread of terrorism worldwide on the US and its support for Israel, Putin said Washington had failed to learn the lessons of the late 20th Century, when both the US and the USSR tried to export rival ideologies to disastrous consequences.
“Do you realize what you have done?” Putin charged in the address, shortly before meeting with US President Barack Obama for the first time in two years. Their meeting, which lasted nearly two hours, preceded an uncomfortable photo opportunity for press and an unfriendly toast over a lunch with world leaders.
In his own speech, Obama repeated a consistent line from American presidents – that democracy makes for stronger nations and that its spread has brought security and wealth to all within its reach. Yet he also said that realism dictated compromise with authoritarian regimes uninterested in the freedom of peoples: Russia, Iran, and perhaps even one day the government in Syria he has long called illegitimate.
Syria’s nominal president, Bashar Assad, is the greatest impediment to peace in Syria, according to the United States.
It is he who authorized the murder of innocent protesters, sparking an uprising that remained largely peaceful for a year before turning catastrophic.
Yet Assad has maintained that these protesters were always terrorists agitating for instability in Syria, and Putin has supported this rationale since the very outbreak of the crisis.
Putin’s foreign policy is one of obstructionism. He is against a unipolar world, where one power forges the path of all nations. And yet what he stands for – as opposed what he stands against – is a more challenging policy to articulate.
Moscow says it is interested in fighting terrorism worldwide, from the Northern Caucasus to eastern Syria, where Islamic State (IS) has concentrated its power. For that reason, he will continue to support Assad, the only figure he says is “truly fighting” the group.
And yet Assad has, for the past two years, failed to target IS and has in fact largely avoided the fight. Military experts believe his strategy has been to allow the group, based in Raqqa, to defeat moderate rebel militias that had been under assault from both IS and Assad. IS’s success would then provide Assad with justification for a simpler, binary war against the internationally-reviled group.
Moscow began supporting Assad long before IS took root with a name, a banner and a capital, and began blocking United Nations Security Council resolutions at the very beginning of the conflict in 2011. At that time, rebel groups were only first beginning to splinter, and the majority were considered by Western intelligence agencies to be comprised of moderate forces.
That picture has changed, and now largely fits Moscow’s cast of the conflict as one between a leader and a formidable terrorist organization.
Putin’s formal entry into Syria – with the construction of new military bases stocked with heavy weaponry and aircraft – has forced the US and neighboring Israel to readjust.
Government officials in Washington and Jerusalem now acknowledge that Russia’s role in the Syrian conflict is unavoidable and must be accommodated.
Israeli and American officials say they seek to avoid direct conflict with Russian forces, which are now operating on behalf of the Assad government.
US forces continue to operate against IS targets in Syria and have refused to strike Assad’s military assets. But parallel operations between US and Russian forces, both against IS, now must work to “deconflict” with one another.
That is the current focus of discussion: Fashioning deconflict mechanisms that ensure Russian military units do not come into conflict with US-led coalition units fighting IS.
Similar deconflict mechanisms are a priority of the Israeli government, and were the primary point of conversation in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow this month. He and Putin agreed on a deconflict communications channel, according to Israeli officials.
Israel has struck targets within Syria several times over the past year, destroying arms transfers facilitated by Iran and destined for Lebanese Hezbollah. While the strikes will continue on a case-bycase basis, Moscow’s sudden presence on the ground – in alliance with Assad and Iran – heightens the risk of unintended conflict between Israeli and Russian forces.
“We respect Israel’s interests related to the Syrian civil war,” Putin told journalists at the UN on Monday, “but we are concerned about its attacks on Syria.”
Russia now hopes to form an anti-IS coalition, separate and apart from the coalition formed by the United States, which centers on the legitimacy of Assad and his government.
To that end, an information- sharing center has been set up in Baghdad for Iran, Iraq, Russia and Syria to share intelligence, a Russian official said on Tuesday. One senior American official downplayed the news, noting that Russia had been sharing intelligence with Iran and Syria for years.
“It is no secret that American specialists and American military have been invited to work in the Baghdad center,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists. “Unfortunately, they have not participated in the first meetings and discussions.”