Iain Duncan Smith is a former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, founded the Centre for Social Justice, and is MP for Chingford and Woodford Green.
On the news, hardly a day goes by but that the bombing of Aleppo features with more and more stories about the suffering of the Syrian civilians trapped in the city. The scenes are of course quite terrible and it would take a very hard heart not to be moved by it. It is at present an unbalanced conflict, for knowing that the rebels lack any air defence capability, the Russians, supported by the Syrian Air Force, are able to roam the skies at will. Nothing brings this home to us all more than the harrowing scenes of what passes for medical treatment in the makeshift hospitals, not only having to deal with the wounded from the attacks but also the aftermath of bombs landing on or near the hospitals themselves.
Despite all the public condemnation and International initiatives, despite the endless attempts by John Kerry to broker new ceasefires, the bombing goes on relentlessly. Russia is immune to all the rhetoric and refuses to explain or respond to the West’s verbal assaults, whether they are in the UN or on the media. What was incredibly dispiriting recently, was to watch Kerry alongside Boris Johnson at the press conference following the Syria Summit in London. After the Summit produced nothing more than platitudes and the various nations couldn’t agree to any real action, a deflated Kerry dolefully admitted he had nothing new to propose. The only thing of note was Johnson’s ‘Les Misérables’ cry of to take to the streets, which resulted in red faces at the Foreign Office, only one protestor and a Russian lecture on how diplomacy works.
Small wonder that Putin believes he has withstood the worst the West can throw at him, through sanctions, hollow threats and accusations. He has come to the conclusion that NATO, the EU and the United States are all paper tigers.
Take the sad saga of the Ukraine. The EU overtly offered the Ukraine the opportunity to fully engage with them, holding out the implicit potential of eventual market access. When Russia decided to punish the Ukraine by cutting off the gas, taking over the Crimea and sanctioning a war to gain control of East Ukraine, the EU did next to nothing. Even the sanctions proposed by the UK and the USA were watered down as EU countries like Italy complained about the billions lost on their trade with Russia. Then, almost immediately President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel rushed to strike an agreement with Putin that gave him pretty much what he wanted – the de facto annexation of Eastern Ukraine.
Whatever else you can say about the man, he is brutally consistent. He has been crystal clear what he wants; after all, he has made no secret of the fact that he places Russian self-interest at the heart of his foreign policy. The same is true of his actions in Syria. The emergence of ISIL offered Putin an opportunity to reinforce Russian strategic interests in the Eastern Mediterranean, via his port in Tartus. He moved quickly to build up his forces and now holds two airfields as well in Syria. His purpose is simple. In joining, uninvited, the attack on ISIL, he forced the US-led coalition to work around his plans and accept them. At first he made the pretence that his air strikes were on ISIL, whilst the coalition accused him of attacking the so called ‘moderates.’ Now he has abandoned any of that pretence and, alongside the Syrian government, all the Russian military assets are concentrated on the ‘moderates,’ mostly in Aleppo. The result is devastating.
Putin clearly wants to destroy any pretence the coalition has that there is a moderate alternative to Assad. By destroying what’s left of them in Aleppo and elsewhere, the international community will be left with the stark choice of either Assad’s government or the extremists such as ISIL.
Meanwhile the Russians are condemned in Washington and London and in response they carry on and deploy their Foreign Minister to deny all allegations with a shrug. No-fly zones are proposed alongside protected zones for civilians, followed by renewed calls for a ceasefire, all of which fall on deaf ears. The Russians believe they are winning and they believe the West lacks the resolve to challenge them. The only way that the bombing might stop is if the Russians and Syrians start losing some aircraft. Remember what happened when Turkey shot down a Russian jet after it crossed into Turkish airspace, (not the first to have done so) – all incursions stopped.
Years ago the British Government argued that arming the Bosnian Muslims so that they could defend themselves against the Bosnian Serbs who were massacring many of them would make matters worse by creating a level killing field. In response I asked how it could be that an un-level killing field was better for those being massacred. Providing the weaponry to give the people of Aleppo some defence could alter the balance and provide the impetus to get back to the peace table, though I accept it may yet be too late.
As Obama’s spends his time on his ‘rock star’ tour of foreign capitals, there is a growing sense that his legacy will be one of vacillation at a critical time when the West needed leadership – remember his red lines he set up early on, only for Assad to cross them without Obama fulfilling his ultimatum. No, when summarising the West’s response to Russia, perhaps the last word should be left with Churchill. In 1936 he said this, “…so they go on in a strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent.” I think Putin long ago studied that quote.