Loner Magazine - Putin’s playbook – and why the West should listen

Putin’s playbook – and why the West should listen

As we speak, members of the UN security council are discussing strategies to solve the crisis in Syria. The US, along with France, Britain and Saudi Arabia, insists that Bashar al-Assad must cede power before any major solution can be carved. Russia and Iran insist that targeting groups opposed to Assad and having a stable central government should be the strategy. No clear strategies have been defined by either side, but what is clear is that the current strategies at work are the main source of displacement and emigration of Syrians to Europe.

A general view of the Ministerial Level Security Council meeting on the maintenance of international peace and security in the Middle East and North Africa and countering terrorist threats in the region. UN Photo/Loey Felipe
A general view of the Ministerial Level Security Council meeting on the maintenance of international peace and security in the Middle East and North Africa and countering terrorist threats in the region. UN Photo/Loey Felipe

Russian president Vladimir Putin was given airtime on CBS’s flagship show 60 Minutes, aired Sunday, to discuss a wide range of issues–such as the war in Ukraine, aspirations of the Russian people and, of course, the crisis in Syria. The interview was to coincide with his visit to the UN general assembly, along with other world leaders, and while Putin did talk on a host of other issues–Ukraine, whether he’s a dictator, Iran–it was his take on Syria that was arguably the most fascinating.

While Russia, according to Putin, sees its involvement in Syria as pre-emptive, as thousands of its owns citizens fight alongside ISIS and Syria is not far from the borders of Russia, Putin also confirmed an important conclusion that I had made in a previous piece regarding Syria.

“We support the legitimate government of Syria. And it’s my deep belief that any actions to the contrary, in order to destroy the legitimate government, will create a situation which you can witness now in the other countries of the region…for instance in Libya, where all the state institutions are disintegrated. We see a similar situation in Iraq. And there is no other solution to the Syrian crisis than strengthening the effective government structures and rendering them help in fighting terrorism,” said Putin in his 60 Minutes interview.

That is, the policy of the US, France, and Britain has amounted to failure by not supporting a stable central government.


One of my professors used to say that in news media today, only one story exists. From Ukraine to Syria to the United States, only one story has existed: the Russians are not to be trusted, Vladimir Putin is a dictator with evil aspirations, Russia is isolated. Another story is that Russia created the instability in the Ukraine, despite evidence that advancement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was partly to blame. Before the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the strategic relationship between the two nations was no different than what Canada and Mexico currently enjoy with the United States–although it’s safe to assume that if either country were to start a military and economic alliance with China or Russia, we would probably not jump to an invasion. My point is that, like the US, Russia is a regional and global power that wants to protect its influence within its hemisphere, and also wants to be recognized globally as another force for good.

History in Iraq, Libya and now Yemen suggests that Putin’s read in Syria seems to be accurate. Obama has continued the Bush playbook–that is, any avenue for instability should be used to topple governments that the US does not consider democratic, regardless of the consequence to long term stability in the region or to human lives. Still– it’s hard to understand Russia’s strategic relationship in the region. It continues military buildup in Syria and, quite frankly, everyone should be suspicious based on its involvement with the Ukraine. But a stable central government in Syria is critically important, even if it’s Assad. Allowing the people of Syria to determine their future is more stable than allowing a fragmented group of terrorists and so-called US rebels (four at last count) to determine Syria’s future. The US-supported rebels have proven to be weak against both Assad forces and ISIS. Imagine Iraq after Saddam toppled–anarchy, chaos, political instability, death, sectarianism. Syria shares this same fate if our policy is not carefully reconstructed.

Obama and Putin's awkward toast on Monday at the UN.
Obama and Putin’s awkward toast on Monday at the UN.

Senator John McCain of Arizona and other Republican hawks in congress insist that the US deploy ground troops in Syria. Republicans and President Obama both manage to agree on one principle–Assad must go–but differ on the strategy to take him out. The Obama administration has vehemently refused to deploy ground troops, rather relying on rebels that have yielded little to no fruits or results. The strategy proposed by Republicans is another reminder of the failed Iraq war, where countless American lives were lost. In the US, the forces of “isolationism” and “interventionism” are at play, and it seems like the current administration is confused on which theory to pursue. The longer the conflict, one has to assume that this administration might be kicking the can further, waiting patiently for the next administration to deal with the Syrian crisis.

It’s time for the US, France and Britain to chalk up their pride and support the cooperation between Iraq, Iran and Russia to fight ISIS and other terrorist groups before focusing on Assad. A framework of the nuclear deal that was reached with Iran–where sanctions and economic penalties are “snapped back” in the case of violation–could be used similarly here: Assad punished financially through sanctions if concrete reforms are not made to address the political situation in Syria. The fact of the matter is that defeating ISIS should be the first priority, as they pose the greater danger to the international community.