My latest article for Souciantfocuses on Putin's foreign policy in West Asia. Here's an excerpt:
Last year, many commentators in the West were aghast at the Russian stance on the Syrian civil war. It was in early 2013 when Russia and China presented a united opposition at the UN Security Council to intervention in Syria. Then it was flabberghasted at the Russian opposition, in the summer of 2013, to Obama’s proposed ‘punitive measures’ (e.g. indiscriminate bombing). This was after Assad’s use of chemical warfare, which led to Putin pledging more military hardware as a gesture of support. The proponents of ‘humanitarian interventions’ will pretend that Vladimir Putin succeeded in deterring the Americans.
In reality, the US government would have gone ahead whatever the UN Security Council concluded if it had really wanted to intervene. It certainly didn’t stop when the UN opposed the occupation of Iraq. The sudden capitulation may have been more symptomatic of any clear strategy in Washington than anything else. The Sino-Russian veto was a convenient pretext not to directly intervene and watch the conflict play out.
The US non-strategic proposal of ‘punitive measures’ was a lot like Israeli airstrikes against Syria in early 2013. Nothing constructive could’ve come of it, and probably nothing good was intended. Once again, there was no great loss in waiting it out in the absence of any willing military collusion. In the United Kingdom, parliamentary debate on Syria opposed the government’s stance and – for the first time since 1782 when the British conceded American independence – the country had to rule out getting involved.
In the end, Obama decided not to pursue punitive measures and hold back until Assad had rid his regime of chemical weapons. The US government may well have concluded that it would be best to draw out the conflict for as long as possible, due to the various forces tied up in the country, thereby ensuring long-term instability. Everyone is playing the Syrian game right now: militants, Iranians, and so on. As long as there is no unanimous victor, there is no impetus to bomb.
Putin backed the move to clean Syria of chemical weapons for the very opposite reason: if the secular nationalist regime can survive, then there is the possibility of a stability beneficial to Russian interests. This is the crux of the matter. The US has a vested interest in regional instability, which keeps its opponents busy, whereas the Russians have an opposing interest in stability which may allow them to assert their influence. On Syria, these interests ultimately converged, and settled on chemical weapons.