Allan Massie: Time for West to work with Putin

CHURCHILL talked of making a pact with the devil and Russia, for all its faults, is nowhere near as bad, writes Allan Massie

Vladimir Putin is the best hope for the West to defeat the so-called Islamic State. Picture: AP
Vladimir Putin is the best hope for the West to defeat the so-called Islamic State. Picture: AP

We have got the Syrian war wrong from the start. It was understandable that we should have welcomed the prospect of seeing the Assad regime overthrown. Its human rights record was poor, though no worse than that of our favoured Middle East ally, Saudi Arabia, indeed arguably somewhat better. But the real reason for our animus against Assad had nothing to do with this. It was that Assad was close to Iran and Russia – indeed backed by them – and that it was the chief sponsor of Hezbollah, Israel’s most dangerous immediate enemy.

Moreover, in the mindless optimism generated by the Arab Spring, western governments were ready to believe, or at least to persuade themselves, that Assad would be overthrown and replaced by a democratic and more liberal regime. This was unlikely, as I argued at the time. Now it is clear that it was a delusion.

Indeed, even if we believed this, in an example of hope triumphing over our experience in Iraq, we did nothing to bring it about. We did nothing, or nothing effective, because after Iraq people in the USA and Europe had had more than enough of Middle East adventures. No government in the West could have gone to war with the support of its electorate. Yet without military intervention it was never likely that Assad would be defeated. Talk of training the troops of the so-called democratic rebels was only hot air. Meanwhile Russia and Iran gave Assad sufficient support and supplies to enable him to hold on.

We learned nothing from our experience in Iraq. There we overthrew a brutal dictator and destroyed his Ba’athist regime. Chaos followed and in the chaos Islamist fundamentalists were granted an opportunity, seized it, and flourished. Then they moved in on Syria. For all their faults and brutality the Ba’athist regimes of Saddam and Assad were secular states in which religious minorities were protected – partly of course because the Ba’athist regimes themselves represented a minority; states also in which women were granted education and opportunities. For all their faults – and the faults were very real and found nasty expression – Saddam’s Iraq and Assad’s Syria were states which belonged to the modern world. In destroying Saddam and seeking to destroy Assad, we opened the way to a fanatical Islamism which loathes modernity. Quite an achievement.

Now the flood of refugees from the war in Syria has spilled over into Europe, and we are reluctantly recognising that it is in our interest to check the Islamists. Only the end of the war and the defeat of so-called Islamic State and al-Qa’eda can enable the millions of displaced Syrians now in refugee camps to return home. Nobody can deny this, but among world leaders only Vladimir Putin, who has much greater reason than any western leader to fear Islamism, draws the logical conclusion.

Barack Obama, David Cameron and Francois Hollande will all lose face if they yield to Putin’s logic. They have persisted in the delusion that Assad can be dislodged and replaced by a democratic regime. Only a vote of the House of Commons two years ago prevented Cameron from engaging in a bombing campaign against Assad and the army of what is still the legitimate government of Syria. That would have been an act of prime folly. It has been easy of course to inveigh against Assad and to condemn him for “making war on his own people”. Of course he has done that. It’s what governments do when faced with an armed rebellion. Abraham Lincoln “made war on his own people” when the southern states tried to secede from the Union. He did so ruthlessly and brutally, just like Assad.

There’s a Sicilian expression: sometimes you have to swallow a toad. That’s to say, you have to accept a disagreeable fact, an unpleasant reality. Co-operating with Putin after his intervention in Ukraine will compel Obama, Cameron and other western leaders to swallow a very unpleasant toad. But what’s the alternative? More fine words and futile inaction, that’s the alternative, one which will do nothing to end the horror and misery of Syria and Syrians.

Who is our enemy? So-called Islamic State or Bashar al-Assad? The question answers itself. Talk of compelling Assad to go is pointless now. It was always stupid, but now it is worse than stupid; it is self-indulgent grandstanding. He isn’t going, and we know he isn’t going. So why persist with the pretence? No doubt some day there may be a transition from the Assad regime, but that day is a long way off, or, if it isn’t, it will be only because we have done nothing and he has been defeated and replaced by the Islamists. Big deal.

Putin is looking reality in the face. The West’s leaders are still averting their eyes and making fine speeches. Barack Obama told the UN this week that we shouldn’t support tyrants only because alternatives were worse. Really? When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, we allied ourselves with Stalin, a worse tyrant than Bashar al-Assad. It made sense to do so. Nazi Germany was our enemy, as Islamist fundamentalism is today.

In a speech in London three months ago, Henry Kissinger told us that the West should see Putin as an ally, not an enemy, in the fight against the Islamists. Kissinger’s commitment to Realpolitik has rarely been welcome to liberal spirits, but this time he is surely speaking sense. The first step in ending the horror of Syria and making it possible for refugees to return home must be the defeat of the Islamists. Working together, Russia and the USA, with a little help from Britain and France, can do this. The alternative is the prolongation of the war in Syria, a recipe for further misery.

The Guardian, in characteristic pontifical vein, tells us that Assad is the chief cause of deaths in Syria. Perhaps he is, just as you might say that Abraham Lincoln was the chief cause of deaths in the American Civil War because he fought to hold the Union together. But this is irrelevant now, The immediate question is how to defeat the Islamists. Alliance with Russia offers the best chance of doing so – and of ending the war. In 1941 Churchill said that he would make a pact with the devil if Hitler invaded Hell. Quite so.