Conflict & Justice

Putin op-ed: Russia's case against striking Syria


US President Barack Obama (R) listens to Russian President Vladimir Putin after their bilateral meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico on June 18, 2012 on the sidelines of the G20 summit. Obama and President Vladimir Putin met Monday, for the first time since the Russian leader's return to the presidency, for talks overshadowed by a row over Syria.



Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly told the United States why he's opposed to the use of force in Syria. Yet until now, it's always been behind closed doors: in private meetings with President Barack Obama, through diplomatic channels, or via spokespeople.

Now, however, Russia's leader has addressed the American people directly, via an op-ed in The New York Times. Published late Wednesday, hours before the US and Russia's top diplomats were due to meet to discuss Syria, the piece makes Putin's case for resisting American air strikes in greater depth than we've ever seen before. 

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And while it may not be the whole story — for that, he'd need to go into Russia's vested interests in protecting its ally and faithful arms customer, the government of Bashar al-Assad — Putin's op-ed puts a skillful rhetorical argument that the 64 percent of Americans unconvinced by Obama's pitch for intervention might just find persuasive.

Here's Putin's case, in eight main points.

1. A strike is illegal. "We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law," Putin writes. Under current rules, "force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council." By that he means the US needs unanimous approval from all of the Council's permanent members, who each have the power of veto — which Russia has repeatedly used to block sanctions on the Syrian government. But the "law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not," says Putin. "Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression."

2. A strike is dangerous for the region. The US could hardly expect an intervention in Syria not to have a knock-on effect on its neighbors, Putin says — neighbors who, he points out, pose enough problems already. A strike "could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa," he writes.

3. A strike is dangerous for the US. Putin appeals to American self-interest by warning that military action would "unleash a new wave of terrorism," with the US as its prime target. "Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting [in Syria], and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern," he writes. "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."

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4. There's no proof the Syrian government used chemical weapons. Instead, Putin claims there's "every reason to believe [poison gas] 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." If that were the case, striking the Syrian government's forces would not only fail to solve the problem, it would embolden dangerous rebels — who, Putin warns, are reportedly already planning their next attack, this time on Israel.

5. Previous US interventions didn't work. Putin echoes an argument made by many war-weary Americans: it didn't work in Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya, so why would it in Syria? The use of force has proved "ineffective and pointless," Putin says.

6. A strike would endanger Syrian civilians. It takes Putin a while to get round to this point, but he eventually mentions the human cost to Syria: "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."

7. Cooperate with us on this and we'll cooperate with you on other matters. The carrot in Putin's case is the prospect of better US-Russian relations, which have been noticeably frosty in recent months. "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," Putin promises. It's worth remembering here that there are rumors Putin will renew a controversial offer to supply missiles and a second nuclear reactor to Iran this week, and that Russian lawmakers have explicitly called for "defensive weapons" to be sent to Iran if the US goes ahead with a strike on Syria.

8. America is not the world's policeman. Here's where Putin gets personal. He calls it "alarming" that the US keeps intervening in other countries' internal conflicts, and essentially accuses it of bullying. "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,'" Putin writes. But not just that: he questions the myth of US exceptionalism so fundamental to many Americans' sense of their nation's identity.

"It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. [...] We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord's blessings, we must not forget" — and here Putin's borrowing from Thomas Jefferson — "that God created us equal." With that evocative final phrase, Putin commandeers the same rhetoric the US has so often used to set itself up as a moral authority in world affairs. Will his American audience find it impertinent, or the clincher?

Read Putin's opinion piece in full on The New York Times.