Wednesday, 3 February 2016

The West’s tango with Putin is misguided

The Daily Star
Friday, January 29 يناير 2016
By Michael Glackin

Fact really is stranger than fiction. What novelist could have penned the tale of the 10-year-old Muslim boy in the north of England who was quizzed by police after mistakenly writing in a school essay that he lived in a “terrorist house” rather than a “terraced house”? Following a tipoff from teachers, police were dispatched to the boy’s home to interview him and his family the following day. Not even the Jesuits were that strict about spelling. Police even took away the family laptop computer for examination.

Following criticism of heavy-handedness, the police insisted other “worrying issues,” beyond the boy’s inability to spell “terraced,” had been raised by teachers. Apparently he had also written that his uncle beat him – which the boy’s parents insisted was untrue.

Following their investigation police admitted “no concerns were identified, and no further action was required by any agency.” As Mark Twain remarked: “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”

There was even less sense on display during Prime Minister David Cameron’s laughable performance in front of a parliamentary committee earlier this month. Cameron was asked to explain precisely who were the 70,000 moderate Syrian fighters whom he mentioned when seeking Parliament’s approval to launch British air strikes in Syria last year. He refused to answer. The prime minister explained to the committee that if he told them who the moderates were, Syrian President Bashar Assad and Daesh (ISIS) would also “know who they were and could target them.”

You could be forgiven for thinking that Assad and Daesh already had a good idea of who they are fighting, bombing and torturing to death on a daily basis, without relying on Cameron to tell them.

And yet another stranger-than-fiction event occurred last week with the publication of a high-level inquiry into the 2006 killing of KGB defector Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned in London with polonium from a Russian state nuclear facility. The inquiry found that Litvinenko was “probably” murdered on the personal order of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The 328-page report is extraordinary. It links Russia’s head of state not only to the Litvinenko murder but to a catalogue of assassinations inside and outside Russia. On the eve of the latest round of the so-called Vienna peace process to end the Syrian war, the inquiry’s damning indictment of Putin – accusing the West’s “partner in peace” of a raft of state-sponsored murders – was the last thing Cameron needed.

In fact, the British government spent years blocking any inquiry into Litvinenko’s murder, until Putin, carried away with his own hubris, annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014. Despite allowing the inquiry to go ahead, Cameron is keen to minimize any damage its findings will cause Moscow at a time when diplomatic efforts to resolve the 5-year-old Syria conflict have reached a pivotal moment. Europe’s governments are under intense pressure from the worst refugee crisis the continent has faced since the end of World War II.

Consequently, while Cameron acknowledged the inquiry’s findings and Putin’s guilt, he added: “Do we, at some level, have to go on having some sort of relationship with them because we need a solution to the Syria crisis? Yes we do. But we do it with clear eyes and a very cold heart.” In fairness, Cameron has little choice.

It is interesting that after the Paris attacks last November world leaders were tripping over themselves to present a united front against terrorism. Yet when an act of state-sponsored nuclear terrorism took place in London, which in addition to killing Litvinenko required 700 people to be tested for radioactive poisoning, there was silence from the United Kingdom’s allies.

Indeed, on the day the inquiry published its findings, French President Francois Hollande called for closer cooperation with Russia in the fight against Daesh. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble said Monday that the European Union must forge closer ties with Russia to resolve the Syrian crisis. The desire to court Russia over Syria is also leading to calls in Washington and Europe to abandon the sanctions imposed on Putin’s regime in the aftermath of his military adventure in Ukraine.

The West’s desperate need for Putin’s cooperation in Syria is misguided. Like Assad, Putin is a thug. In recent months Putin’s military intervention has not only successfully strengthened Assad, it has severely weakened the moderate opposition to the regime by focusing as much, if not more, Russian firepower on them as on Daesh. The West has watched while Russia drops cluster bombs on civilian areas, an act Amnesty International has called a war crime.

Putin may well bring pressure on Assad to compromise, or even leave power, but only if it suits his overall strategy of increasing Russian influence. It’s likely that a large slice of the bill for his cooperation will be paid in Ukraine, which the West is poised to abandon to facilitate a deal, any deal, that ends the Syrian conflict and Europe’s panic caused by the refugee crisis.

One hopes the West does not come to rue the day it allowed Putin and Assad’s brutality to take precedent over the principles of international law and justice. Yet the message that looks most likely to come out of the Vienna process is simply that crime does pay. The facts speak for themselves.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR. A version of this article was published in the newspaper edition on page 7, January 29 2016.

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