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Was Putin’s Syria Advice Really Trenchant?

With ISIS’s consolidation of control across broad swaths of Syria and its rapid expansion into Iraq, a number of American pundits and even policymakers quietly suggest that perhaps Russian President Vladimir Putin was right all along in his embrace of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his warning to the United States not to take action against him which could benefit the Syrian opposition, much of which is more dominated by radicals than American proponents of supporting the Free Syrian Army would like to admit.

After forces aligned with Assad apparently used chemical weapons in a Damascus suburb, a humanitarian tragedy and a challenge to President Obama’s blunt red line, Putin scrambled to prevent any America military strikes. In a New York Times op-ed almost a year ago, Putin offered this advice:

A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance. Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country. There are few champions of democracy in Syria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government.

Sounds prescient, but was it? Assad is a terror sponsor who has worked closely not only with Hezbollah and, in the past, Hamas, but also with the al-Qaeda-linked extremists he now fights, whose passage through Syria and into Iraq he enabled. Russia likewise criticized and, at times, sought to undercut American action against al-Qaeda and its fellow travelers in Afghanistan. Over at The Hill, the European Foundation for Democracy’s Anna Borshchevskaya (full disclosure, my wife, who was a refugee from Russia and also spent much time in Syria and who, alas, sometimes also considers me her Medvedev), points out how curious it is that so many of those who point to this op-ed ignore Putin’s earlier New York Times op-ed which said quite the opposite when it came to battling extremism: “No government can stand idly by when terrorism strikes. It is the solemn duty of all governments to protect their citizens from danger. Americans obviously understand this concept… But when a society’s core interests are besieged by violent elements, responsible leaders must respond.”

When it comes to the use of military power—or reticence against its role in the fight against terror—Putin may seem inconsistent. Actually, though, he is not, so long as it is understood that his advice is not meant to actually illuminate the best way to counter terror in places like Syria. Rather, he is motivated by a singular desire to pursue Russia’s interests and check those of America. As Borshchevskaya rightly concludes, “Looking back to Putin’s two op-eds, it is clear that he is not guided by genuine principle. Ultimately Putin pushes his own agenda, often aimed at criticizing and undermining the United States.”



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