Will ‘Grown-up’ Tillerson Force Putin into a Syrian Climbdown?

“Pokazukha” is a wonderful Russian word. It means an empty spectacle, designed for show or to deceive. Russians have ample use for such a term, given their long tradition of political fakery from Catherine the Great’s Potemkin villages to Vladimir Putin plucking Greek urns from the ocean.

Such has been the through the looking glass feel of Donald Trump’s presidency and his murky connections to Moscow, that it has been suggested that the US bombing of Syria’s Shayrat airbase was another exercise in pokazukha. But let’s assume that coordinating a Middle Eastern bombing raid with the Russians is too far-fetched even for Trump. It was probably a routine bout of impulsivity. Or @realDonaldTrump expanding his distraction techniques to divert attention from his failures. Perhaps it was even, as NBC News reported, to please his distressed daughter, Ivanka. After all, what else can you do for the woman who has everything?

Whatever the explanation (pokazukha excepted), the American air raid will have caused consternation in the Kremlin. The Russians would already have been furious with Assad for using chemical weapons yet again. Not for humanitarian reasons. Putin’s regime has little regard for those. Rather, in the way that a mafia godfather gets angry with a hot-headed foot-soldier for shooting a policeman: because of the heat it brings on the boss and the lengths to which he must go to cover it up or bluster his way out of trouble.

The Russians have had to do this once already, when Assad used sarin to kill several hundred civilians in the opposition-held Ghouta district near Damascus in 2013. The attack crossed President Obama’s now-infamous “red line”. Then, the Russians scrambled together a deal in which they were supposed to supervise the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons, in order to head off an American military intervention.

the Russians have humiliated themselves by brazenly lying on Assad’s behalf

Assad has continued to use chlorine bombs ever since. But it is his reversion to the more potent sarin that appears to have crossed Trump’s previously invisible “red line”. As US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, said sarin’s reappearance in Syria’s arsenal does not necessarily confirm the Russians colluded in the attack but it does show “clearly, they’ve been incompetent (in ensuring the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons) or perhaps just simply outmanoeuvred by the Syrians”. Which rather undermines Russia’s all powerful and in control pose.

In an attempt to cover-up impotence, the Russians have humiliated themselves by brazenly lying on Assad’s behalf. This has involved spinning increasingly ludicrous stories about munitions just happening to fall on some sarin the opposition forces had left lying around. Digging himself in deeper, Putin now claims that someone is planting substances around Syria which will be used to make conventional atrocities look like chemical attacks to justify further American raids.

While looking ridiculous is not Putin’s preference, it is not his primary concern either. In true Orwellian fashion, years of propaganda have conditioned Russians to believe that lies are truth and war is peace. Or, rather, in a more sophisticatedly cynical way, they believe that all politicians lie constantly, so there is nothing wrong with Putin doing so, ostensibly on their behalf. And it is the domestic audience to which Putin is appealing.

Russia’s military involvement in Syria recreates the impression of being a global power, and therefore boosts Putin’s popularity at home. This is of existential importance because he cannot afford to lose power, and risk him and his cronies being brought to account for the rampant theft and murder they have indulged in during his presidency.

The secondary aim for their intervention is to discourage all attempts to overthrow brutal dictators. This too has a mainly domestic motivation. Ever since the wave of pro-democracy “colour revolutions” across the countries of the former Soviet Union in the early 2000s, Putin has been paranoid about regime change.

The only face-saving way out for Putin is to be seen as playing a prominent role in negotiating a peace deal

Both objectives have led Putin into a situation from which it is difficult to extract himself. Apart from not knowing what the Americans might do next, he is now faced with the ungrateful and unpredictable Assad not being as closely under his control as he had thought. After this latest episode, Putin would probably quite like to ditch him. But he is in something of a bind.

Ditching Assad would mean a humiliating failure to achieve his objective of preventing regime change and being seen to cave in to Western pressure. Not ditching him would leave Russia stuck in Syria indefinitely. Assad clearly cannot win the war completely without Russian military support. But, thanks to his latest war crime, he will not be allowed to stay in place by anyone else, bar the Iranians. Either way, the end result would not be a happy one.

Getting stuck after initially appearing to have succeeded, at least on his own brutal terms, is actually rather typical of the tactically cunning but strategically limited Putin. He is often able to act quickly and appear decisive because of the absence of democratic and media accountability in Russia. But this carries the downside of never having his thinking tested and improved, which tends to catch up with him in the end.

The only face-saving way out for Putin is to be seen as playing a prominent role in negotiating a peace deal, in which Assad “agrees” to depart as his and Russia’s statesmanlike concession to end the conflict. Is this the ladder that is being prepared for Putin to climb down?

Perhaps the only pokazukha here is the American’s appearing to be making policy up as they go along. Secretary Tillerson has surely travelled to Moscow this week to do more than merely continue the war of words. Who knows, maybe the grown-ups on Trump’s national security team are taking charge and have developed a strategy to catch Putin in a trap of his own making?

More about the author

About the author

Paul Knott began his working life in a hut on Hull's King George Dock before globetrotting for two decades as an unlikely British envoy. His "instructive and funny" (Alan Johnson MP) book about his experiences, "The Accidental Diplomat", is out now.

He is also the Chief Foreign Correspondent for the Sabotage Times and contributes to publications such as The Telegraph, Forty-20 and When Saturday Comes.

All that travel has failed to shift Paul's inherited old Labour instincts.

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