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Putin – the ringmaster of death

A child walking among the rubble in Eastern Ghouta. Picture: Samer Bouidani/dpa - Credit: DPA/PA Images

The bloodbath in Eastern Ghouta is a characteristically brutal chapter in the annals of Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy. This time, though, he might not get away with it.

The blink-and-you-miss-it ‘humanitarian pause’, brokered by Moscow to briefly halt the bloodshed in Eastern Ghouta, underlines an essential truth of the Syrian slaughterhouse.

In this conflict, there is one man, above all others, who is able to pull the strings. And he is to be found, not in the war zone, but the Kremlin.

From the moment Vladimir Putin launched his military intervention in Syria, he has been the dominant figure in the carnage which has followed, and, by stymying attempts to end it, must bear ultimate responsibility.

Up to that point, in autumn 2015, the vicious Assad dictatorship was at risk of defeat by the Syrian opposition. Moscow’s air power backed by Iranian-led ground forces have since changed the course of the conflict.

In grimly typical fashion, Putin’s forces have shown little regard for the laws of war and civilian lives in pursuit of their objective. Shelters, homes and hospitals have been repeatedly bombed to help the Assad regime regain control.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) says 13 of their medical facilities have been hit during the current attack on Eastern Ghouta, a rebel enclave near Damascus. Other hospitals have been destroyed completely, leaving hundreds of wounded people stranded with no medical services at all. Half of the several thousand casualties from the recent bombardment have been women and children.

Such brutality has been a characteristic of Putin’s rule from the beginning. He first came to power in 2000 by ordering the scorched-earth bombardment of Chechnya, before appointing Ramzan Kadyrov to repress the rebellious region on his behalf. After years of human rights abuses within Russia and interference in neighbouring states such as Georgia, Putin was emboldened to invade Ukraine in 2014.

The conflict Russia instigated and perpetuates there has cost 10,000 lives (according to UN figures). This tally includes the 298 civilians from ten nations, killed when a Russian-supplied missile was used to shoot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, as it overflew Russian-occupied territory on route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

Despite this atrocity, the invasion of Ukraine reinforced Putin’s belief that military interventions overseas could shore up his popularity at home. Such actions enable him to stir up nationalist sentiments and distract attention from Russia’s declining economy, at least when they are filtered through the lens of Russia’s state-controlled media.

The intervention in Syria has followed a similar pattern – until now. When Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city (although, such has been the volume of death and exodus, it may no longer merit that description), fell in late 2016, it seemed Putin’s tactics had paid off, at least on his own narrow and deeply cynical terms. Assad was on course to survive and Putin could claim to have restored Russia to global power status.

But more than a year on, Russia is still stuck in Syria and the butchery grinds relentlessly on. A wider perception of Putin is shifting towards the view many close observers of Russia have long held. The president is a cleverly opportunistic short-term tactician (helped by a lack of moral constraints and an absence of democratic political scrutiny) but a poor long-term strategist.

Back in 2015, then US President Barack Obama – a man whose own position on Syria was much criticised – warned: ‘An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work.’

Obama’s words are now looking increasingly prophetic. The Syrian war is ever more dangerously drawing in outside combatants. Turkey is fighting US-backed Kurdish forces in the north of the country. Israel has no intention of allowing the Iranians to threaten its borders. It has attacked some Iranian positions and recently destroyed half of Syria’s air defences after one of its jets was shot down. More than 100 Russian ‘mercenaries’ (to use the term loosely – the nature of the Russian regime means it is highly unlikely that any such forces are operating in Syria beyond the Kremlin’s knowledge or control) are believed to have been killed in these various battles.

Putin’s Russia now seems trapped holding the ring in Syria and may be becoming desperate to find a way out. This desperation could explain the latest horrific assault on Eastern Ghouta and Russia’s use of its United Nations Security Council seat to block international efforts to stop it. One more pitiless onslaught, to return as many remaining pockets of opposition back to Assad as possible, could enable Putin to say ‘job done, all yours now’ and step back from Syria.

The Russian president certainly has motives for doing so. For as long as his country’s casualties in Ukraine and Syria were relatively few, it has been possible to hide them from the public back home. This becomes more difficult when the bodies start to be counted by the score. It also risks reawakening the trauma still felt by many Russians about the conflicts it fought in Afghanistan and Chechnya in the late 20th century.

The threat this poses to Putin’s popularity in Russia could not come at a worse time for him. Russia has an election on March 18. This has, of course, already been engineered to ensure Putin’s ‘victory’. But he still, somewhat oddly, prizes the legitimacy he believes he obtains from these electoral charades. He has apparently set his team a ’70/70′ target – to obtain at least 70% of the vote for him from a 70% turnout. If too much blatant rigging is required to meet those twin targets, then it will be perceived as a major blow to his authority.

The resumption of the slaughter in Eastern Ghouta, and steady rise in the bodycount, suggests Putin has no strategy beyond blind support for Assad’s bloody and futile quest for absolute conquest. The temptation for Western leaders is to leave the Russian president to sink deeper into the mess he has made. After all, most of their citizens are unlikely to be any more enthusiastic now about their countries becoming more involved in Syria than they were at the start of the war, when it might have been more possible to have a positive impact.

The obvious problem with such an approach is that it will prolong the immense suffering of the Syrian people and the instability emanating from the country that has already caused so many difficulties for Europe. As countries such as Israel and Turkey get pulled further into Syria, the risk of a major region-wide conflagration also grows by the day.

For those reasons, the least bad option may be to make one last attempt to offer Putin a ladder to climb down. The West could let him visibly play a leading role in renewed peace negotiations under UN auspices. It could even agree to respect Russia’s military and economic interests in a post-conflict Syria, in return for Russia stopping its bombing campaign immediately and indefinitely.

If such talks take place, the West should exert whatever influence it has over the Syrian opposition and its regional allies to make the negotiations a success. The Russians must, of course, do the same with Damascus and the Iranians. But previous attempts at dialogue suggest that the latter pair might not cooperate, which would leave Putin with the unpalatable options of abandoning Assad or remaining unable to extricate his country from the Syrian quagmire.

Whatever overtures might be made by Western leaders, what happens next in Syria will ultimately be determined in the Kremlin. In this regard, Putin has accrued for his country the global power status he so desperately sought. But at what cost? It has been achieved through death, destruction and human misery on a immense scale. And as the consequences of his strategic blunder in Syria become ever more apparent in the erosion of domestic support, it will be seen as the mirage it is.

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