Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Posts tagged ‘Putin’

Syria: Russia opens a window of opportunity?

In the fog of claim and counter claim over the real target of Russian air strikes in Syria one thing is clear: Russia’s direct intervention is intensifying the war and that means even more civilian deaths and more refugees fleeing to neighbouring states and Europe.

It’s estimated 250,000 Syrians have been killed and 12 million forced to flee in more than four years of fighting.

So you’d think another foreign power intervening is the last thing Syria needs.

But, depending how others respond, President Putin may have opened a window of opportunity to move towards a political settlement of this confused and confusing conflict.

Russia has joined a growing list of foreign players backing different sides in what is now a four-sided battle between the Syrian government, so called moderate rebels, the Kurds and Islamist insurgents.

Fighting alongside President Assad are Iran, its Shia Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, and now Russia, who’ve sent forces to help prop up a Syrian army short of troops.

Then there are the air forces from the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, Turkey, Canada, Australia and now France, which joined the fight the same week as the Russians. They are attacking Islamic State, which controls a fair chunk of Syria as well as neighbouring Iraq.

These US-led air strikes are supposed to help the moderate rebels and Kurds, who are fighting IS as well as Assad’s forces.

IS itself originated over the border in Iraq and is estimated to have recruited up to 30,000 foreign fighters from all over the world.

As well as all these international players stoking the flames, the war has dragged on into its fifth year because there’s no international consensus on how to end it.

What began as civil war also quickly became a proxy war between Iran, which is Assad’s key backer, and its Sunni Arab rival Saudi Arabia, which saw an opportunity to remove Tehran’s long-standing ally from power.

Along the way, the varied anti-Assad rebel groups picked up different sponsors with different agendas. In addition to those backed by the Saudis, some were supported by Qatar, some by Turkey, others by the US.

UN efforts to broker a peace deal have been undermined from the start by the failure of the US and Russia to agree on President Assad’s future.

Washington and its western allies made the mistake of assuming Assad wouldn’t last long, so very early on they insisted he could have no role in a settlement.

When he didn’t fall, it left the western powers with little room to manoeuvre between an embarrassing climb-down over Assad or continued, if half-hearted, backing for the rebels.

Despite some signs he may now be prepared to agree a transitional role for the Syrian leader, President Obama can’t yet bring himself to eat the necessary humble pie.

So how could Russia’s intervention open the way to talks?

Moscow says it has entered the war to support the Syrian government’s fight against Islamist terrorists and says its objective is the same as Washington’s.

Except as things stand it isn’t – unless Putin and Obama can break the deadlock over the future of Assad.

Clear strategic thinking is required in Washington and other western capitals.

They need to decide whether their priority is the defeat of Islamic State or getting rid of Assad. Given they decided not to intervene militarily against the Syrian leader but did so against IS, it is safe to assume the defeat of the latter is more important to them. So it’s time policy matched priorities.

In his speech to the UN, Putin offered a grand coalition against IS and this was followed by the first Russian air strikes.

It seems those strikes were aimed at other rebel groups fighting Assad as well as IS. But despite this, the US-led coalition should test Moscow’s proposal and try to forge that grand coalition.

If the war is to be ended and Syria put back together, the international supporters of both Assad and the rebels, especially the Iranians and the Saudis, need to come together and put real pressure on them to stop fighting and start talking.

The UN has its mediation team led by Steffan de Mistura in place to broker negotiations. The legal basis for international involvement is sound too given the Responsibility to Protect can be invoked following the Syrian state’s failure to protect its own citizens and indeed its indiscriminate attacks on many of them.

Alongside the diplomacy, this international coalition would need to agree to isolate IS and the al Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra front and focus their military efforts on reducing the areas under their control.

Of course all this is easier said than done.

It means Washington and Moscow engaging constructively rather than scoring points off each other in the court of international public opinion. Crucially it also means the US needs to agree to sit down at the same table as Iran, as well as Russia, and bring a reluctant Saudi Arabia along too.

It may not work. International pressure may not be enough to stop the fighting, but it can’t make matters any worse than they are now.

The Americans clearly don’t trust the Russians, but Washington needs to agree to Assad’s long-term fate going on the back burner, overcome its reluctance to give Putin a boost and put the interests of the Syrian people and regional stability first.

Advertisements

Pope Francis: the nearest we have to a world statesman?

Pope Francis is pulling in the crowds on his tour of Latin America.

At his first stop in Ecuador, 800,000 people are estimated to have turned out for mass in the city of Guayaquil. Not bad for a country of only 16 million people.

Francis’s conservative predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II, were also capable of attracting large numbers of the faithful on their international trips, but the messages they delivered to their followers were somewhat different.

Where they were conservatives who took a hard-line on issues such as divorce and homosexuality, Francis seems intent on reaching out to Catholics who have become disillusioned with the Church’s rejection of contemporary social mores.

But the current Pope goes one step further, appealing to non-Catholics as well with his calls for action on issues of global importance, like climate change and what – on his recent visit to Bosnia – he called an atmosphere of war across the world which is shattering countless lives.

Francis lives modestly – in an overt kind of way – and has also identified himself with opponents of what he calls unbridled capitalism and inequality and had himself photographed for the International Labour Organisation’s campaign against child labour.

While continuing to oppose gay marriage, he also attracted attention when he indicated a more tolerant attitude to homosexuality when he told journalists: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”

The Argentine pontiff has shown a gift for communication and memorable quotes, and with more than 12 million followers on Twitter he reaches the parts previous Popes couldn’t reach.

His sense of humour and penchant for self-deprecation was immediately apparent the night of his election when he toasted his fellow cardinals with “May God forgive you for what you’ve done”.

But he uses all this to serious ends and is provoking global discussion on things that matter, something that is attracting serious admiration from people, particularly progressives, who may well have run a mile the Catholic Church in the past.

Clearly, the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio has a sharp mind and is talking about issues close to many hearts. He also has charisma.

But I think Pope Francis also stands out because other world leaders have been found wanting.

Think of the alternatives.

President Obama was elected 7 years ago promising change and the audacity of hope, but has singularly failed to meet the expectations he raised. From the absurdly premature Nobel Peace Prize he got – seemingly for simply not being George W Bush – and the famous Cairo speech where he called for a new start with the world’s Muslims, it has been pretty much downhill. His appeal especially eroded by his preference for using drones to kill people in other countries he identifies as America’s enemies – as well as uncounted others who just happen to be nearby – and the world-wide, industrial-scale spying by US intelligence agency, the NSA, revealed by Edward Snowden.

Focussed as he seems to be on Russia’s narrow interests and lacking much in the way of soft power skills, President Putin attracts little admiration, if some grudging respect.

China’s President, Xi Jinping, has emerged as his country’s most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping, but given his focus on national economic development and the re-assertion of Chinese influence, he is yet to show he has a message with global appeal.

Europe’s most powerful leader, Chancellor Merkel, may have a reassuring effect on German voters who have dubbed her Mutti (Mummy), but the Greek crisis has cruelly exposed her limitations as more than a national leader – and none of her European counterparts shows any more knack for statesmanship.

Then there’s the UN Secretary General who’s meant partly to embody the world’s conscience. Ban Ki-moon has been game for a bit of self-deprecation of his own – performing Gangnam style with his compatriot Psy and making a spoof film on the NSA revelations for the UN correspondents dinner – but his civil servant’s demeanour fails to inspire. How many remember Ban made climate change his signature issue in his first term?

If Pope Francis continues to sound relevant to Catholic and non-Catholic alike, and is able to see off the still powerful conservative forces in the Church before he steps down or dies – a big if as he is 78 after all – then he could act as a catalyst for social change and help the World find a way to deal with the challenges it faces from global warming to growing inequality.

Tag Cloud