quinta-feira, 18 de fevereiro de 2016

Putin bombs and the west blinks

February 18, 2016 5:08 am
Putin bombs and the west blinks
Philip Stephens

Even as Europeans accuse Moscow of wanting the break-up of the EU, they flirt with easing sanctions

The contest at the Munich security conference pitted the ruthless cynicism of Vladimir Putin’s Russia against the indignant impotence of a divided Atlantic community. The outcome was never in doubt. Syria was always going to be the loser.
Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian prime minister, assured the assembled company that Moscow’s only goal was to promote peace and security by defeating Islamist terrorists. World leaders, he offered, should recover a commitment to “humanity”. All this said as Russian bombs fell on hospitals and schools in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo. You know where you are with Mr Putin’s narrow-eyed glower. The soft-spoken dissembling of the baby-faced Mr Medvedev is truly chilling.

The promised ceasefire is unlikely to end the killing of civilians in Aleppo. To the extent that a truce may eventually take hold, it will be when the Syrian regime and its Russian sponsor have achieved their territorial goals. As for the west’s demand for the removal of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, this would now require the US to confront Russia militarily.
Barack Obama is not willing to go to war. Those close to the US president say he remains unmoved by the rising chorus of demands for muscular intervention. From the Republican right he is accused of surrendering American leadership; from the liberal wing of his own Democratic party, of fiddling in the face of a humanitarian catastrophe.
Sure, Mr Obama responds, Syria has descended into hell but, even if it were possible, it is not the role of the US to put out the fires. How much this is simply a hard calculation of the facts on the ground and how much emotional attachment to his pre-election promise to end America’s wars in the Middle East, only Mr Obama knows.
Either way, Washington is left with precious little leverage. John Kerry, the indefatigable secretary of state, was everywhere and nowhere in Munich — ceaseless in his efforts to craft some sort of truce but lacking deterrence or incentives to budge Moscow. Last year the considered judgment in Washington was that Russian forces in Syria were heading into a quagmire. Everyone is paying for that miscalculation.
Reprising past mistakes — a “safe” zone might have been possible a year or two ago and the US could have done more than to support the now-vanishing “moderate” opposition — is not to offer a path out of the mess. The stakes have escalated. The confrontation between Mr Putin and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan may yet explode. The tsar at war again with the sultan is an unnerving thought.
In depth

Syria crisis

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Russia and Iran have a simple war aim — to entrench the Alawite-led regime in Damascus as the only alternative to the Islamist terrorists. The other side has a multitude of ambitions and priorities, some in conflict with one another. Washington sees its core interest as the defeat of Isis. Yet, while the US views the Syrian Kurds as an ally in the fight against terrorists, Mr Erdogan is shelling them for fear that, with Russian support, they will establish a putative Kurdish state on Turkey’s southern border.
Saudi Arabia will not contemplate the defeat of Isis until the Iranian-sponsored Mr Assad is removed and the Sunni tribes of northern Iraq secure self-rule from the Shia government in Baghdad. The US has signed a nuclear deal with Iran. Its ally in Riyadh sees Tehran as an existential threat. No one can say what a Syria without Mr Assad would look like.
Europe is in no better shape. Overwhelmed by the exodus of Syrian refugees, its governments complain about the absence of US leadership and charge Mr Putin with destabilising the EU. Moscow knows well that civilians driven out of Aleppo may well join the exodus heading west across the Aegean. Yet do not ask these Europeans for consistency. Even as they accuse Mr Putin of wanting the break-up of the EU, they flirt with an easing of sanctions.
European solidarity has always been over-rated. What is being lost now, though, is even a basic grasp of collective self-interest. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has been forced to abandon efforts to craft a common EU position to stem the flow of refugees. The formerly communist states of east Europe want their western neighbours to shield them against Mr Putin’s revanchism while they disavow any responsibility for the refugees.
European solidarity is over-rated. What is being lost though is even a basic grasp of collective self-interest

Italy has been settling old scores with Ms Merkel by blocking refugee funding promised for Turkey. David Cameron is gambling on a referendum that could see Britain depart the EU. Sotto voce, France backs Italy’s impatient call for relaxation of the sanctions imposed on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine. Thus the Europeans collude with Mr Putin as authors of their weakness.
If he judges the US powerless to end the war in Syria, the unravelling of Europe should worry Mr Obama. The EU, history should remind him, has always been held together with the glue of the US security guarantee. Maybe Europe is an infuriating ally but the partnership is pivotal to US interests.
This may be Mr Obama’s big mistake. His weighing of the case for and against intervention in Syria has turned on a narrow definition of national interest. The Atlantic community’s collective retreat from Munich carried a different message. There can be no such neat delineation between events in Syria and the strategic threat from Mr Putin.


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