Putin can't be trusted on Syria

LONDON • Syria is being destroyed. The civil war, now more than four years old, has left the country in ruins. The implacable Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group controls vast areas of the north and east, and the barbaric regime of President Bashar Al-Assad maintains its Damascus stronghold.

The Western powers - the United States and Europe - have no good options to combat the ISIS, but they can't do nothing. They must either work with Mr Assad's regime to combat the militants, or ignore its existence and undertake military action alone to push back the militants. Thus far, though, the US-led air campaign against the ISIS has done little to halt its advances.

This stark choice is a result of the failure of recent Western policy. One person who understands this better than most is Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin's image on a wall in the Crimean city of Simferopol. A rapprochement on Syria would risk undermining the West's Ukraine-related sanctions, and provide Mr Putin with tacit recognition of Russia's annexation of Crimea and
Russian leader Vladimir Putin's image on a wall in the Crimean city of Simferopol. A rapprochement on Syria would risk undermining the West's Ukraine-related sanctions, and provide Mr Putin with tacit recognition of Russia's annexation of Crimea and dominance of eastern Ukraine. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

On Sept 4, Mr Putin announced that Russia had been providing military aid to Damascus against the ISIS - support that has recently been ramped up. He also called for "some kind of an international coalition to fight terrorism and extremism".

This is in keeping with Moscow's Syria policy, which has been consistent since 2010: Block any US-backed move to remove Mr Assad from power and instead force the West to embrace him as a partner.

The West should consider all options on Syria - including an international coalition with Russia against the ISIS. But if that is the chosen course, the West must doubt that Mr Putin can be trusted and that intelligence shared by Russia will be credible.

Russia has been isolated by the West because of its actions in Ukraine, but now presents itself as an unlikely saviour - an indispensable partner in the West's efforts against Islamist extremism.

After the Sept 11, 2001, attacks, Mr Putin was the first world leader to speak with then US President George W. Bush. Days later, Mr Putin promised Russia's support for the US-led coalition against the Taleban in Afghanistan, urging others to join Russia in "fighting international terrorism". Islamist terrorism is an issue close to Mr Putin's heart; it helped him rise to power in the first place. Over several weeks in September 1999, a series of bombings destroyed four apartment buildings in Moscow and two other Russian cities. Almost 300 people were killed, with hundreds more injured.

Terrorists from the southern Russian republic of Chechnya were blamed for the attacks. Given that pretext, Russia's traumatised public readily acquiesced when Moscow began a second war in Chechnya. A few months after the invasion, Russia's then relatively unknown, recently appointed prime minister, Mr Putin, was swept into the presidency.

There are issues, however, with the official narrative. Critics point to evidence that the apartment bombings were carried out by Russia's Federal Security Bureau, or at least with FSB involvement.

Yet suspicions that Moscow manipulates terrorism for its own purposes have re-emerged. In July, Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia's few remaining independent newspapers, reported that the FSB had been controlling the flow of militants from the North Caucasus to Syria, where many joined the ISIS militants.

The newspaper's investigation found that the FSB had established a "green corridor" allowing Islamist radicals to travel via Turkey, because Moscow would rather have these militants fighting in Syria than in Russia.

So much for leading the international effort against terrorism. Yet, that same month, US President Barack Obama said he was "encouraged" by a call from Mr Putin to discuss Syria, and that this "offers us an opportunity to have a serious conversation". Mr Obama should not be fooled.

Mr Putin's masterplan for Syria is clear: that the Western and Arab countries, which form the present anti-ISIS coalition, should join forces with Mr Assad, together with Kurdish and Iraqi troops; Iran, Hizbollah and Russia may also join this alliance. The coalition would obtain a formal mandate from the United Nations Security Council and then defeat the militant insurgency.

Russia would then bring Mr Assad to the negotiating table and oversee a political transition that preserves his regime. Mr Putin plans to address the UN General Assembly later this month about this plan. In promoting a rapprochement between Russia and the West over the ISIS, Mr Putin hopes to rehabilitate himself, just as he did after Sept 11. Back then, he convinced the West that the threat it faced in Afghanistan and elsewhere was the same as the threat Russia faced in Chechnya. By doing so, Mr Putin was able to tamp down Western criticism of Russia's brutality in Chechnya.

If a new rapprochement on Syria goes ahead, Ukraine would be conveniently forgotten. This would risk undermining the West's Ukraine-related sanctions, and provide Mr Putin with tacit recognition of Russia's annexation of Crimea and Moscow's dominance of eastern Ukraine.

Russia would thus have triumphed over the world order imposed by the West after the end of the Cold War. America's enemies, from China to Iran, would see this as an invitation to redefine their relationships with Washington.

The West should consider all options on Syria - including an international coalition with Russia against the ISIS. But if that is the chosen course, the West must doubt that Mr Putin can be trusted, that intelligence shared by Russia will be credible, or that the Kremlin can help negotiate a diplomatic settlement in Syria that the West and its Arab allies can support.

NEW YORK TIMES

•The writer is director of the Russia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society, an international affairs think-tank.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2015, with the headline 'Putin can't be trusted on Syria'. Print Edition | Subscribe