Vladimir Putin Says A Thing

Russia and Syria are supposedly planning to stop annihilating Aleppo for all of 8 hours later today (it’s 3:30 AM in Damascus right now), to give people trapped there a chance to get out. And, hey, we’ll see. But Angela Merkel, Vladimir Putin, François Hollande, and Petro Poroshenko got together in Berlin today to talk about Ukraine and Syria. The Ukraine part of the talks looks like it made some limited progress–it was agreed that the OSCE should be deployed to oversee elections in eastern Ukraine, and the four countries agreed to work on a “road map” to some kind of settlement there–and on Syria it seems like Putin may have been in a conciliatory mood:

Vladimir Putin says Russia is willing to halt its airstrikes on the Syrian city of Aleppo indefinitely.

Russia had promised a pause of several hours in attacks on the city by Syrian forces under the cover of Russian air power in order to allow suffering civilians to leave and to give rebels safe passage.

But Putin said after a meeting with the leaders of France and Germany “We informed them of our intention to continue, as much as possible, considering the situation on Syrian territory, a pause in the air strikes. We are ready to do this for as long as there are no clashes with rebel formations entrenched in Aleppo.”

A little later today, Reuters reported this:

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad have discussed a “humanitarian pause” in the Syrian city of Aleppo, Russian news agencies quoted a Kremlin spokesman as saying on Wednesday.

There’s no reason to expect this to lead anywhere. There’s not even much reason to expect that Russia and Assad will adhere to the short ceasefire they’ve already scheduled today–it’s too easy to drum up an excuse as to why the bombings must continue. But Russia has made a lot of noise lately about “separating moderate rebels from extremists”–indeed, that’s pretty much the only thing Russia and the US are talking about nowadays. That’s a difficult task under favorable conditions–first you need to figure out who’s still “moderate” (“Question 1: has anybody in your group beheaded any 10 year olds in the last 12 months?”), then you need to see if they’re willing to abandon their extremist allies, AKA the only allies they’ve really had throughout the war–but it will be impossible to carry out while bombs are still dropping. And, you know, that’s probably the point–Russia and Assad make a nearly impossible demand, create conditions that make it completely impossible, and then claim their brutality is justified. But on the off chance that Moscow means what it says, or that it would like the rest of the world to think it means what it says, then a longer pause in the bombing campaign wouldn’t be a bad idea.

While I have you here to talk about Syria, I want to commend a piece by Bassam Haddad in The Nation yesterday for articulating a “pox on both their houses” position that I found very compelling. Haddad wants to attack both poles of the debate over Syria, the “Bashar is bravely resisting American colonialism” pole and the “this revolution is pure and good and the rebels have done no wrong” pole. And yes, those are both strawmen, but the longer the argument goes on the more people seem to be adopting maximalist views of the conflict. Haddad offers a much-needed corrective to both, in my opinion:

The first narrative asserts the purity and consistency of a revolution that started in 2011. This revolution, the narrative goes, seeks the removal of a brutal dictatorship in favor of a more accountable and just order. Many of its adherents recognize the problem of militarization and radicalization in the uprising, and even of problematic external interventions on that side. However, such dynamics are not allowed to impinge on the nature of the revolution. In this view, no degree of militarization, radicalization, or sectarianism of the uprising is enough to fundamentally change its potential in securing a more accountable and just order in Syria. This narrative thus acknowledges that various jihadists are practically spearheading the fight against the Assad regime on the battlefield. Yet it simultaneously either denounces their worldview or writes them off as a product of repression, in both cases distancing “the revolution” from jihadists. This narrative may also decry the subordination of the official representatives of the revolution to Arab Gulf states and Turkey, and by connection the United States, including their role in funding or facilitating the entry of jihadists into Syria. Yet it does not recognize the implications of doing so. The revolution is always said to be able to emerge unscathed, and rejection of this claim is dismissed as akin to betrayal.

The second narrative recognizes the repression of the regime and the need for change. Its adherents often even recognize the legitimacy of protest, at least in theory. Yet when it comes to the actual uprising, they only see external conspiracy and internal jihadists. In this narrative, the rest of the protesters either fade into an irrelevant background or are brought to the fore as stooges of problematic external actors. Accordingly, there are no secular, anti-imperialist Syrians who are still working, one way or another, to overthrow the regime. They either do not exist or are too few to be counted. Concomitantly, this narrative makes the regime’s destruction of Syria less visible by its descriptive privileging of the imperialist forces that benefit from such destruction. Some go so far as to put the regime’s scale of destruction on par with that of the much weaker rebels. In this view, Syria is not only a theater for regional and international conflict; it is also where external designs must be defeated, no matter the cost to Syrians themselves. Participating in the opposition thus becomes a form of betrayal against anti-imperialism (and the nation itself).

Both narratives fail to recognize the legitimate aspects of their counterpart. Adherents of both narratives refuse to allow facts and developments to alter their views. Both adopt hypocritical stances regarding intervention. According to the first narrative, US intervention is good only if it is against the regime. For the second narrative, external intervention is good if it supports the regime—Russia is not imperialist, but the United States is, the argument goes. For the first narrative, the potential dangers resulting from state collapse is a moot point. Yet for the second narrative, state collapse is unacceptable no matter how bad things get. On the question of state collapse (as distinguished from regime overthrow), neither position is based on weighted analysis or a consideration of consequences. Instead, both start with an assumption about which side must be defeated, and both reverse-engineer the argument that suits that end. Usually, the first narrative is associated with the West and the second narrative with the regime, with all sorts of “incriminating” implications. And finally, neither side seems open to compromise: Nothing less than complete defeat of either the regime or the opposition is acceptable, forfeiting thereby a number of potential exits from the mayhem.

Check out the whole thing.



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