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THE G8, OBAMA, AND SYRIA: WHY PUTIN CAME OUT ON TOP
From the damp, sleepy shores of Lough Erne, where Barack Obama and his fellow Western leaders have just finished up the annual G8 summit, it’s a long way to the bloodstained streets of Aleppo and Homs. But the civil war in Syria dominated the meeting to such an extent that it ended in failure. After two days of talks, the Russian leader Vladimir Putin refused to sign onto a communiqué explicitly calling for the ouster of Bashar al-Assad, which is what the other nations wanted.
With Moscow blocking a consensus, the G8 was reduced to releasing a bland communiqué that called for the establishment of “a transitional governing body with full executive powers, formed by mutual consent.” Does that include the consent of Assad and his cronies? After the meeting ended, David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, said it was “unthinkable” that the Syrian leader would stay in power. But Putin gave up precious little ground. In a closing press conference, he repeated that he was against arming the Syrian opposition, asserted that there was no proof Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons, and compared the rebels to the Islamist extremists who killed a British soldier on the streets of London last month.
Give the Russian strongman credit for chutzpah. From the moment he landed in London, en route to Northern Ireland, and embarrassed Cameron by asking why anybody would want to arm people “who kill their enemies and eat their organs”—a reference to the notorious video that shows a Syrian rebel leader eating what appears to be the heart (more likely the lung) of a dead soldier—Putin has got the better of his fellow leaders, and it’s no mystery why. Unlike them, he knows precisely what he wants, and what he’s willing to do to achieve it.
In lining up with Assad, Putin is pursuing the long-established Russian policy of seeking to limit U.S. and British influence in the Middle East, defend Moscow’s longtime allies, and make life difficult for their adversaries. Given Russia’s reduced role in the world, it might be thought that there is no chance of this strategy succeeding. So far, though, it is winning out. Boosted by the support of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, Assad’s regime is slowly driving back the opposition fighters.
It remains to be seen how much Obama’s decision to send small arms to the rebels, announced on the eve of the G8 meeting, will change the course of the conflict. What is clear is that he and Cameron remain extremely ambivalent about getting more involved—an ambivalence that Putin and Assad are exploiting. In an interview with Charlie Rose before he left for Europe, Obama made the argument for stepping up U.S. engagement, saying, “We’ve got serious interests there, and not only humanitarian interests. We can’t have the situation of ongoing chaos in a major country that borders a country like Jordan, which in turn borders Israel.” A few minutes later, though, Obama came close to undercutting his own policy: “One of the challenges that we have is that some of the most effective fighters within the opposition have been those who frankly are not particularly [friendly] towards the United States of America, and arming them willy-nilly is not a good recipe for meeting American interests over the long term.”
Cameron is in a similar position. At his press conference today, he was asked when Britain would follow the American lead and provide arms to the rebels. He refused to answer, saying that nobody wanted to see more arms circulating in Syria but that it was important to keep options open. Take that, Bashar!
I’m not claiming I have the right answer, or that I don’t have some sympathy for Obama and Cameron, who are understandably reluctant to be dragged into another military quagmire, and who have few attractive options to pursue. While the American President was sitting stone-faced with Putin, and the British P.M. was braving the local pike to take a dip the lake, I was reading Patrick Seale’s monumental biography of Hafez al-Assad,father of Bashar, who largely created modern Syria. What comes through in Seale’s doorstop of a book, which was originally published in 1988, is the sheer complexity of the country, with its deep geographic, social, and, of course, religious fault lines. Like his neighbor Saddam Hussein, Assad kept his nation intact using a combination of cunning, Baathist ideology, economic incentives, nationalism, and terror. Once the popular uprising against his son began, in 2011, and the regime reacted with brute force, the historical and sectarian furies, never deeply submerged, reëmerged in full force.
Putting Humpty Dumpty together again may be beyond anybody. Certainly, there is little prospect of the half-hearted approach being pursued by the United States, Britain, and France achieving such an end. The G8 communiqué calls for an international conference in Geneva to further the objective of stopping the fighting and setting up a transitional government. When and if such a gathering will take place is still very much up in the air. As Cameron noted in his remarks, there isn’t much point having negotiations just for negotiations’ sake. And even if the conference does get organized, who, pray, will attend? According to a BBC report today, the Russians are insisting that the Syrian government—i.e., Assad—be represented. But Obama and Cameron have already called for Assad’s exit as a precondition for any settlement, a stance that, increasingly, appears to have put the cart before the horse.
Beyond a promise of more funding to alleviate the plight of Syrian civilians caught up in the war, the G8 summit achieved very little. Certainly, there was nothing much to concern Assad. From Putin’s perspective, that means mission accomplished. For Obama and Cameron, it means they may well have to rethink their strategy. If the mere announcement of moving toward supplying arms to the rebels was meant to make Damascus and Moscow blink, it hasn’t worked.