In Vladimir Putin’s version of the Middle East, the current civil war and attendant humanitarian catastrophe in Syria is a mess of the United States’ making, and one that the Russian military – out of the Kremlin’s commitment to stability in the region – is being forced to clean up.
Appearing at the United Nations General Assembly on Monday not long after U.S. President Barack Obama, Putin described the crisis in Syria as the result of foreign governments fomenting revolts in various countries during the Arab Spring, and creating a vacuum into which ISIS was able to step.
In Putin’s worldview, the shadowy power behind popular uprisings against tyrannical leaders – from Ukraine in Europe to Syria in the Middle East, and to Libya in North Africa, is always the United States. And though he didn’t specifically say it, it was clear that when he described what he sees as the result of these alleged U.S. policies, he was speaking directly to Obama.
“Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we got violence, poverty and social disaster — and nobody cares a bit about human rights, including the right to life.”
“Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we got violence, poverty and social disaster — and nobody cares a bit about human rights, including the right to life,” Putin said. “I cannot help asking those who have forced that situation: Do you realize what you have done?”
In his earlier remarks, Obama had said that the U.S. is willing to work with other countries to battle ISIS, including Russia and Iran, which signed a joint intelligence-sharing agreement with Russia over the weekend. However, he made it clear that allying with the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president whose troops have indiscriminately bombed civilians, was unacceptable.
Obama indicated that ending the Syrian crisis while keeping Assad in office is not acceptable to the U.S.
Putin, however, had other ideas, calling it an “enormous mistake” to fail to support the Assad regime and its forces, which in addition to battling Syrian rebels, are engaged in fighting ISIS.
“No one but President Assad's armed forces and Kurdish militias are truly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria,” he said.
This was an unconcealed dig at the United States in general, and at President Obama in particular. Since withdrawing combat troops from Iraq, the president had been highly reluctant to recommit U.S. forces to the Middle East on any significant scale. The result has been that the main international effort to halt ISIS has been a U.S.-led bombing campaign of limited effectiveness that is not backed up by a significant U.S. ground presence.
Putin also pushed back against critics who have accused the Kremlin of exploiting the situation in Syria to expand its influence in the region.
“I must note that such an honest and frank approach from Russia has been recently used as a pretext to accuse it of its growing ambitions — as if those who say it has no ambitions at all,” he said. “However, it's not about Russia's ambitions, dear colleagues, but about the recognition of the fact that we can no longer tolerate the current state of affairs in the world.”
Casting himself as a potential leader of a global effort to counter terrorism, Putin repeatedly invoked the alliance that stopped Hitler in the 1940s, and later came together to found the United Nations – the very body he was addressing – in an effort to promote peace through dialogue and compromise.
And in a comment surely not lost on many in the audience, Putin invoked the seminal meeting at Yalta in 1945, in which Allied leaders planned out the future of the U.S. as a bulwark against future armed conflict.
Yalta, of course, is a seaside resort town on the southeast coast of the Crimean peninsula, which Putin’s troops invaded and forcibly took from Ukraine just last year.