Analysis of Putin's plea to Americans over Syria
- 12 September 2013
- From the section Middle East
Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a direct appeal to the American people for the US to resist military strikes against Syria.
The BBC's diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus gives his detailed assessment of the article Mr Putin has written in the New York Times.
A Plea for Caution From Russia
By VLADIMIR V. PUTIN
MOSCOW - RECENT events surrounding Syria have prompted me to speak directly to the American people and their political leaders. It is important to do so at a time of insufficient communication between our societies.
JM: An indication of the tensions at the highest levels between the US and Russia - the fall-out over Edward Snowden, Syria, human rights in Russia itself and so on. All good reasons for Mr Putin to seek to bypass the White House and talk directly to the American people and the world.
Relations between us have passed through different stages. We stood against each other during the cold war. But we were also allies once, and defeated the Nazis together. The universal international organization - the United Nations - was then established to prevent such devastation from ever happening again.
The United Nations' founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus, and with America's consent the veto by Security Council permanent members was enshrined in the United Nations Charter. The profound wisdom of this has underpinned the stability of international relations for decades.
No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage. This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization.
JM: Mr Putin presents himself as a defender of the UN system, where of course Russia has a veto in the Security Council and has consistently blocked any concerted action on Syria. Western leaders have blamed Moscow for preventing any UN response to the Syrian crisis.
The potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria's borders. 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.
JM: A clear statement of Moscow's position that US military action might precipitate a wider regional crisis with significant consequences well beyond the Middle East. Of course the US and its allies fear that the continuation of the Syrian crisis and the eventual collapse of the country into anarchy could have a similar outcome.
Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multi-religious 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. The United States State Department has designated Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations. This internal conflict, fuelled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world.
JM: A re-statement of Russia's much more sceptical approach to the whole phenomenon of the Arab Spring. Moscow has always regarded the West's response to the wave of often violent change as simplistic and naive.
Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria? After all, after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali. This threatens us all.
JM: The Syria crisis risks exporting al-Qaeda type extremism. Russia has always argued that it has a more pragmatic view of the complexities of the Syrian situation. The divided opposition does indeed present the West with problems since some of its most effective military elements are groups with strong links to al-Qaeda.
From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future. We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law. We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today's complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.
JM: A restrictive - but many would say an accurate - view of the current state of play in international law. Russia has long held that national sovereignty is sacrosanct and that only the UN Security Council can sanction military intervention in very specific circumstances.
No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists. Reports that militants are preparing another attack — this time against Israel — cannot be ignored.
JM: Russia is still adhering to the view that it may have been opposition forces who used chemical weapons in an effort to force a US intervention. Here there is no common ground with Washington. Russia clearly discounts the US intelligence material pointing to the government's role.
It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America's long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan "you're either with us or against us".
But force has proved ineffective and pointless. Afghanistan is reeling, and no one can say what will happen after international forces withdraw. Libya is divided into tribes and clans. In Iraq the civil war continues, with dozens killed each day. In the United States, many draw an analogy between Iraq and Syria, and ask why their government would want to repeat recent mistakes.
JM: An easy shot. Putin is pointing to the war-weariness in the US and amongst many Western publics. Iraq and Afghanistan have not turned out well and, according to the Russian president, they have discredited a generation of US policy-making.
No matter how targeted the strikes or how sophisticated the weapons, civilian casualties are inevitable, including the elderly and children, whom the strikes are meant to protect.
The world reacts by asking: if you cannot count on international law, then you must find other ways to ensure your security. Thus a growing number of countries seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction. This is logical: if you have the bomb, no one will touch you. We are left with talk of the need to strengthen nonproliferation, when in reality this is being eroded.
JM: US action, he believes, is actually promoting proliferation. Is this the message the Iranians and the North Koreans have received?
We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.
A new opportunity to avoid military action has emerged in the past few days. The United States, Russia and all members of the international community must take advantage of the Syrian government's willingness to place its chemical arsenal under international control for subsequent destruction. Judging by the statements of President Obama, the United States sees this as an alternative to military action.
I welcome the president's interest in continuing the dialogue with Russia on Syria. We must work together to keep this hope alive, as we agreed to at the Group of 8 meeting in Lough Erne in Northern Ireland in June, and steer the discussion back toward negotiations.
If we can avoid force against Syria, this will improve the atmosphere in international affairs and strengthen mutual trust. It will be our shared success and open the door to cooperation on other critical issues.
JM: Mr Putin shifts to a much more positive tone, seeing cooperation on Syria as a path to a better relationship all round. This is bolstered by his warm remarks that follow about his developing personal ties with President Obama.
My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States' policy is "what makes America different. It's what makes us exceptional." It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.
JM: The sting in the tail. Mr Putin condemns the whole concept of "American exceptionalism", the idea shared by many Americans that their country has a special place in the world and a special duty to promote its values. We are all equal in the eyes of God, says Mr Putin. The implication? There are no more superpowers now.
There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord's blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.
Vladimir V. Putin is the president of Russia.