The Russian President’s invitation to co-operate in the battle against Islamic State is an era-defining moment, says Evgeny Lebedev
Writing in these pages yesterday, Russian ambassador Alexander Yakovenko argued that this week’s historic meeting at the United Nations should presage a new era of co-operation between Russia and the West. The brutality of Islamic State, he argued, presents us with a common enemy and events of the past year, from the kidnap of Western journalists to the refugee crisis now jeopardising the whole idea of European solidarity, show that this isn’t a distant threat. Rather, it is one whose impact can be felt on our doorstep. “Co-operation,” Mr Yakovenko said, “is the only way ahead.”
It won’t surprise readers of this newspaper to know that I too believe that the human catastrophe unfolding in Syria — “crisis” seems far too limp a word — is just the moment to re-set Russia’s relationship with the West: a Grand Bargain, if you like. I argued along similar lines here a few weeks ago.
My assertion is that Islamism is the greatest threat facing humanity today. What has changed in the intervening period is that Vladimir Putin, the Russia president, has addressed the UN for the first time in a decade and, late last night, spoke face-to-face with Barack Obama. In other words, he has extended an offer to the West, and in particular America. In my view, failure to accept this offer would be a historic mistake, colouring Obama’s legacy and wasting a golden chance to replace heat with light in the bond between Russia and the West.
The revelation in New York yesterday was that, for the first time in a long time, there appears to be some common ground on the subject of Syria. Putin said it was a terrible error not to work with Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s dictator, to defeat Islamic State. Obama said that the US favours a “managed transition” from Assad’s regime but that the international community must work with Russia and Iran to combat Islamic State. Yet, after their talks, there’s still impasse.
I can see why this is a near-impossible situation for Obama. Late in his second term he is being assailed by Republicans for his alleged weakness on the world stage. To break bread with Putin just confirms their prejudices: after all, it’s a basic tenet of the Republican Party that Putin is a mortal threat to the West. The people who think this grew up during the Cold War, and clearly wish it were still with us.
Moreover, for Obama to suggest any policy that keeps Assad in place or even — perish the thought — props him up in the short-term suggests hypocrisy. After all, it was Obama who said the use of chemical weapons by Assad was tantamount to crossing a red line. We know Assad has used them but he seems not to have crossed a red line.
So here is what Obama can say to his critics. It’s a two-pronged argument. First, you guys wasted the peace dividend that followed the end of the Cold War, then screwed up in Iraq, so you’ve got no right to lecture the rest of us on how to deal with the Middle East.
Second, choices in foreign policy, as Ambassador Yakovenko — quoting Henry Kissinger — said yesterday, are not a choice between good and evil but between shades of bad. Of course Assad is a dictator who has started a civil war in which thousands of his people have perished; of course we would prefer Syria to be run by a democrat. But he is the least worst option to deal with the most urgent threat to our security and interests: the savagery of Islamic State.
On this point I am emphatically with Putin. In unambiguous remarks at the UN yesterday he pointed out that in its recent forays and misadventures in the Middle East, the West hardly has a glowing record. The failure to plan post-invasion Iraq was followed by similar errors in Libya. Now Syria is a third example of failed policy. At least Russia has been consistent, not least in pointing out that there is something like a civilisational battle going on and the side we’re against is a perversion of Islam endorsed and militarised by fanatics who span the world but who, in their most virulent form, now control territory between Syria and Iraq and call themselves Islamic State.
This not a battle against Islam itself, as moderate Muslims from Bradford to Baghdad are growing tired of pointing out. Indeed, as Putin said out yesterday, we won’t win unless Muslim nations, particularly Turkey and Saudi Arabia, play their part. This is a battle against a fearless, rampant, armed militia, which must be combated with brutal force on both an ideological and practical level. The former is a daily fight, practised as much in our communities here in London as in the mosques and madrassas of the Middle East. The latter requires a co-ordinated international effort, marrying common interests with clear strategy and military capability.
That was Putin’s argument in New York yesterday. A radical, militarised form of Islam is spreading terror and suffering across vast swathes of humanity; and for all that the Cold Warriors who still dominate many corridors of diplomacy may wish to pretend otherwise, a common humanity does bind us to Russia. It would therefore serve our interests to accept the invitation to collaboration that Putin has offered. Decline that invitation and historians will scorn the present generation of decision-makers forever.
A new Grand Bargain between Russia and the West is not, of course, just an agreement between Russia and America. Far from it: the West has to mean countries such as Britain. It has been clear for several years that, as power shifts to the East, Britain is a declining power without a discernible foreign policy. Perhaps the Prime Minister, who is also in New York this week, could play mediator in a new alliance against our Islamist foe. Half a century after Dean Acheson, a former US Secretary of State, said Britain has “lost an empire and not yet found a role”, securing rapprochement with Russia could give David Cameron just that. If, that is, he has the courage and foresight to do it.
Evgeny Lebedev is the owner of the London Evening Standard and Independent titles. @mrevgenylebedev