EDITOR’S NOTE: The original article misstated the number of Muslims in Russia. It is between 15 and 20 million, not 25 million.
The opening of the 70th session of the UN General Assembly on Monday featured major addresses by, among others, US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The speeches showcased the stark, seemingly unbridgeable divide between the two world leaders over the fate of the Assad regime in Syria.
Later in the day, to the surprise of absolutely no one, a much-anticipated meeting between Putin and Obama produced little in the way of agreement. The AP pool reporter covering the meeting called it “95 minutes of Nyet.”
This would come as no shock to those who tuned in to Sunday’s 60 Minutes interview with the Russian president.
Facing off against Charlie Rose, Putin was upfront about what he sees as a sacrosanct principle in the conduct of foreign affairs: respect for national sovereignty. In one of the only important exchanges during the mostly lackluster conversation, Putin stated, “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 or in other regions.”
With regard to Syria, it must be recognized that Putin’s plan to buttress Assad via airpower, if history is any guide, is doomed to fail. Insurgencies are rarely, if ever, beaten back by air power alone (and please spare me the Kosovo precedent, the settlement of which had far more to do with Russian diplomacy vis-à-vis the Serbs than with Wesley Clark’s inept and immoral aerial-bombing campaign).
If Putin is serious about saving Assad’s skin, and his call at the UN for a broad international coalition to combat ISIS indicates he is, then he will need to contemplate the use of Russian ground forces, which, if our own Middle Eastern experiences are anything to go by, would lead to disaster. And Putin seems to realize this, telling Rose that “Russia will not participate in any troop operations in the territory of Syria or in any other states. Well, at least we don’t plan on it right now.”
And yet circumstances (which Edmund Burke sagely noted “are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind”) are different for Russia than they are for the United States. It simply boils down to geography. Whether ISIS runs roughshod over large segments of the Levant is–in terms of overall US security posture–negligible.
Israel, Turkey, Egypt, and the vicious yet obscenely wealthy Gulf state tyrannies all have the wherewithal, should they decide to act, either alone or in concert, to quash ISIS’s Islamic fundamentalist hordes. At the UN on Monday, in a direct challenge to President Obama’s refusal to even consider supporting Assad, Putin was blunt: “We think it’s an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces who are valiantly fighting terrorism face to face.”