Syria deal returns Russia to global centre stage

Power shift: game, set and match to Putin says The Sunday Times © Getty Images

Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad has agreed to surrender his chemical arsenal, in a deal brokered by the US and Russia. But has America surrendered international supremacy in return?

Vladimir Putin has never found many admirers in the West. Nor has he sought them: the president of Russia is trenchantly anti-American and distinctly lukewarm in his commitment to democracy. He has been labelled a ‘diabolical strongman’, a ‘thug’ and an ‘accidental autocrat‘.

Yet today the former secret police officer is being hailed instead as a ‘statesman‘. In a dramatic week of diplomacy, Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have grabbed the limelight and claimed credit for a last-minute deal to avert US military action in Syria.

Since 2011, Syria has been racked by a brutal civil war as disparate rebel forces attempt to depose the ruthless dictator Bashar al Assad. With Russia and China supporting the government while Western governments call for his downfall, a coordinated response to the conflict has long seemed beyond reach of the international community.

When a video emerged appearing to show that Assad had used banned chemical weapons on his internal enemies, the US looked set for another intervention in the Middle East. But on Tuesday Russia suddenly declared that Syria may be willing to give up its weapons of mass destruction.

This weekend, after five days of frantic negotiation, Assad agreed to submit a full list of his chemical weapons and resign them to the United Nations by mid-2014. Putin has been hailed as the architect of a deal that seemed impossible just a few days ago.

US President Obama, on the other hand, is enduring a storm of scathing criticism. His hesitation over military action and his sudden return to the negotiating table have led to accusations of dithering. ‘Game, set and match to Putin,’ announced an editorial in the Sunday Times: Obama has abandoned US responsibilities in the Middle East, it claimed, and handed the role of global referee over to its old Cold War rival.

Could this be the moment when America retires as chief of the international police? And what are the consequences if so?

New world order?

Putin is a scheming, illiberal autocrat, say many pro-Western commentators, and a friend to vicious tyrants worldwide. Woe to the world if America relinquishes supremacy and gifts influence to rulers like him. A win for Russia is a defeat for liberal democracy.

This isn’t about winners and losers, counter Obama’s supporters: it’s about working together to protect ordinary people from the worst horrors of war. In pressuring Assad into giving up his WMD, negotiation has achieved more than air strikes were ever likely to do. It just goes to show, they say, that international cooperation and compromise is far more effective than one nation imposing its will on the world.

You Decide

  1. Would you support your government if it went to war in the name of human rights?
  2. Is the world safer with one dominant superpower than several competing ones?

Activities

  1. Research Vladimir Putin and write a short profile of him composed of five essential facts.
  2. ‘Cooperation always achieves more than war.’ Sketch out a plan for a short essay answering this question. You can choose to focus on a particular historical era.

Some People Say...

“The USA is the most benevolent superpower the world has ever had.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What difference does it make to me whether Russia or America is top dog?
On one level, these geopolitical games have almost no effect on ordinary people: your government’s economic policies will make far more difference to your everyday life than any high-powered meetings with foreign leaders.
So it’s all games then, just as I thought?
Not at all. For people in contested regions like Syria, the implications are obvious: an unrestrained intervention from a superpower could decide who wins the civil war and rules the country. And in a broader sense, the planet is shaped by its great powers. Today we live in a world dominated by America’s version of capitalist democracy, but it’s not inevitable that things will stay that way.

Word Watch

Accidental autocrat
The title of a major profile of Putin published in 2005 by Time. An autocrat is someone who concentrates all state power in their own hands. Russia is officially a democracy, but Putin stands accused of persecuting opposition figures, monopolising media control and manipulating election results. In Russia this system is often called ‘managed democracy’.
Secret police officer
Before the downfall of the USSR in 1991, Vladimir Putin worked for the KGB, the main Soviet security agency. The KGB was responsible for suppressing political opposition, but also gathered intelligence abroad and employed a wide network of spies.
Statesman
A master of international affairs. The term can be used to describe any politician whose power extends beyond their own borders, but it is often used as a term of admiration.
Chemical weapons
Specifically sarin, a gas that affects the central nervous system and causes agonising, often fatal seizures in those who come into contact with it. Like other such weapons, sarin is banned by the Geneva conventions.
Cold War rival
Between the end of World War Two and 1991, the USA and the USSR were bitter ideological rivals who competed for influence on a world stage. Since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the USA’s status as premier world power has gone largely unchallenged – although China is booming economically and could someday soon match America in might.

Subjects

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