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Gordon Campbell on Putin’s diplomatic coup over Syria

Gordon Campbell on Putin’s diplomatic coup over Syria

There’s a simple historical precedent for what is occurring in Syria. During WWII, the Allies joined forces with a known butcher and tyrant – Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union – in order to defeat a greater evil, Nazi Germany. Choosing the lesser evil is sometimes the only choice you have. Ironically, it took Russia’s current leader Vladimir Putin to remind the US of the WWII precedent, in the speech he gave a few days ago to the United Nations.

Russia may not be offering a very palatable plan on Syria, but at least it is a plan. Putin pointed out at the UN that the only forces currently fighting Islamic State on the ground are the Assad regime, and the Kurdish militia. As Bloomberg News concluded:

Putin's recipe is simple: Back Assad and prop up the current government in Iraq to defeat Islamic State. Apart from its simplicity, the other good thing about this proposal is that it doesn't directly contradict Obama's call for a "managed transition." Once Islamic State is beaten -- not an impossible task for Assad, the Iraqis and the Kurds if they have broad international backing -- the allies would be in a position to negotiate a handover of power from Assad that would guarantee safety and representation to Syria's Alawite and Christian minorities which Assad now protects as best he can. Even if the transition takes some time, it won't have to be traumatic. Despite having committed atrocities in the past, Assad is unlikely to get another chance if he has to deal with a UN-mandated coalition that would include Russia and Iran as well as the U.S. and its allies.

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Not surprisingly, some European countries – such as Italy - think Putin is on the right track. The US alternative outlined at the UN by President Obama was far, far woollier. The US offered to work with Russia and Iran – Assad’s allies – but only on the condition that this would result in "a managed transition away from Assad and to a new leader, and an inclusive government that recognizes there must be an end to this chaos."

As Bloomberg also pointed out, this doesn’t amount to much of a plan:

Even if he tried, Obama couldn't now name the persons or forces to whom power in Syria might transition from Assad. The U.S.-backed "constructive opposition" has proved too weak to hold its own against Assad or Islamic State, and empowering it now would hardly end the conflict for long. So, Obama said, "this work will take time. There are no easy answers in Syria." That's hardly something Syrian refugees packed into camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt, sailing the Mediterranean in leaky boats or being tear-gassed by Hungarian police want to hear. It's a similarly useless message for the governments of countries forced to deal with wave upon wave of Syrian asylum-seekers. The U.S., which hasn't played a meaningful part in that effort, doesn't look good saying it may take a long time yet.

Repeatedly, the White House has been captive to the fairly infantile level of US domestic debate. In Iraq, the US has long been a de facto ally with Iran and Hizbollah – and New Zealand - in trying to shore up what is essentially an Iranian puppet regime in Baghdad. But the US can’t afford to be seen to be admitting to this policy and these allies, for fear of what the Republicans and Fox News would make of it. Supporting Assad in Syria would be the other wing of the same policy, but again, this reality cannot be admitted for the same domestic political reasons. Meanwhile and amusingly, Donald Trump is taunting Obama by cheering Putin on, and saying that the US should gladly accept his helping hand.

For the US to do so openly would be politically damaging at home, and diplomatically difficult abroad. Any overt alliance with Shi’ite Iran and with Assad (who is from the Alawite minority) would be totally opposed by both Israel and Saudi Arabia - which created Islamic State in the first place to undermine the Assad regime, and then saw its little monster grow beyond its control. Due to this self-imposed immobility by the Americans, all of the diplomatic momentum over Syria is now with Putin. In reality, Russia’s military effort in Syria won’t probably do very much to defeat Islamic State – but in a matter of weeks, he has moved Russia right back to the centre of the US/European stage, after the isolation caused by Russia’s actions in the Ukraine.

After all, can the West really continue to justify its economic sanctions against Russia, when Moscow is helping to fight the same terrorists of Islamic State that the West seems unable to defeat on its own? Why, if it wanted to further validate its actions in Syria, Russia can even point to the presence of large numbers of rebel Chechens within the ranks of Islamic State, and argue that its involvement in Syria is really a form of self defence. Once again, the West is learning that it under-estimates Vladimir Putin at its own risk.

Brown, Redux

A few final thoughts on Chris Brown…..As I said in yesterday’s column, Brown has been no saint – before, during and after the felony assault on his then girlfriend Rihanna. He has no automatic right of entry here. Understood. But let’s get real here. Chris Brown is not moving to New Zealand, or taking up a job here as a social worker. He will be here for a couple of days max, spent almost entirely within the bubble of his hotel, his limousine service and the concert venue.

Obviously, the Immigration Minister can say well, he‘s sort of a violent guy and we don’t like him much, and that’s reason enough not to let him in him in for 48 hours. There’s always that option. Instead, my column yesterday was suggesting there are also more positive options. Why not take the opportunity – as Dame Tariana Turia suggests – to use Chris Brown’s presence here to do some good, rather than continue to punish him to no discernible benefit to anyone?

Some commentators have been saying that because of Brown’s track record of violent behaviour, he can’t be a credible advocate against violence. I totally disagree. I’ve always felt that sinners make the best role models. Maybe that’s a result of being hectored as a teenager about sexual ethics by a bunch of celibate priests. Unless you’ve known it, its hard to speak credibly about it. That’s why I’d rather listen to Sean Penn or Terrence Howard or Chris Brown talk about anger management, rather than some nice guy from the Lions Club.

Especially so in this case. Many of the kids who might benefit from listening to a few words from Chris Brown on what anger can lead you to do to people you love, will know about this at first hand. On one level they don’t need to be told about fighting and family violence and re-conciling and promising to do better and failing again. Maybe Brown could credibly tell them that they will struggle with these tendencies all of their lives.

That’s kind of what a role model is: someone who can do some things better than you can – in this case, be a dude who can sing and dance – and yet who can still know and understand some of the same problems you have. At 26, Chris Brown is still grappling with very real personal problems. But that doesn’t mean that he can’t credibly talk about them. Ideally, it would be great if the Immigration Minister would meet Brown, talk with him, go to the concert and talk afterwards with the fans. Hate to be pessimistic, but I don’t think I live in that kind of country.

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