Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, wants to teach us about peace. A U.S. strike on Syrian military facilities “would constitute an act of aggression,” he writes in today’s New York Times. It would “result in more innocent victims,” “further destabilize the Middle East,” and endanger “the entire system of international law and order.” Putin laments that “military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States.” Citing Russia as a model, he concludes: “We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.”
How cute. A lecture on nonviolence from Syria’s chief arms supplier. Let’s check Putin’s pieties against the facts.
1. The chemical weapons attack. “No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria” on Aug. 21, Putin writes. “But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces.” Putin supplies no evidence for this claim, and an investigative report published Tuesday by Human Rights Watch thoroughly refutes him:
“Our investigation finds that the August 21 attacks were likely chemical weapons attacks using a surface-to-surface rocket system of approximately 330mm in diameter—likely Syrian-produced—and a Soviet-era 140mm surface-to-surface rocket system to deliver a nerve agent. … The evidence concerning the type of rockets and launchers used in these attacks strongly suggests that these are weapon systems known and documented to be only in the possession of, and used by, Syrian government armed forces. Human Rights Watch and arms experts monitoring the use of weaponry in Syria have not documented Syrian opposition forces to be in the possession of the 140mm and 330mm rockets used in the attack, or their associated launchers. …
The scale and coordinated nature of the two attacks; against opposition-held areas; the presence of government-controlled potential launching sites within range of the targets; the pattern of other recent alleged chemical weapon attacks against opposition-held areas using the same 330mm rocket delivery system; and the documented possession of the 140mm and 330mm rocket systems able to deliver chemical weapons in the government arsenal—all point towards Syrian government responsibility for the attacks. Human Rights Watch has investigated alternative claims that opposition forces themselves were responsible for the August 21 attacks, and has found such claims lacking in credibility and inconsistent with the evidence found at the scene.”
2. Russia’s role. “From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future,” Putin asserts. “We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law.”
Really? Here’s a brief review of what Russia has done for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “During 2008–12 Russia supplied 71 per cent of Syria’s imports of major weapons.” Human Rights First reports, “In January, 2012, Russia signed a $550 million contract to provide the Assad regime with attack jets capable of hitting civilian targets on the ground.” Then Russia tried “to send four repaired Mi-25 attack helicopters to Syria in June 2012.” Around that time, Human Rights Watch sent Syria’s Russian arms supplier a list of human rights abuses perpetrated by Assad using Russian weapons. HRW urged Russia to stop sending missiles, fighter jets, and ammunition to Syria, but nothing changed. The Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Russian think tank, reports that last year, Russia and its contractors supplied Assad’s surface-to-air missile systems, repaired “at least four Syrian Mi-25 helicopters,” and apparently upgraded Syrian tanks.
In May of this year, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs reported that Russia had provided Assad with “20 modernized Mi-25 combat helicopters,” belying Russia’s claims that its arms deliveries were unrelated to the civil war. In June, a HRW official noted:
“Russia has continued to send arms to al-Assad—and not only defensive weapons, as Moscow repeatedly claimed. A recently leaked document reported on by the Washington Post shows the Syrian government requesting 20,000 Kalashnikovs and 20,000,000 bullets as recently as March. And a Russian arms manufacturer just claimed that a contract has been signed to deliver at least 10 fighter jets.”
In July, the United Nations’ Independent International Commission of Inquiry for Syria reported a “shipment by the Russian Federation of S-300 missile batteries” to Assad. This week, the commission added that “pre-conflict arms deals between Moscow and Damascus continue to be honored.” Human Rights First notes that “Russian officials have said they will not halt arms sales to the Assad regime so long as such sales are not prohibited by the U.N. Security Council.” In a delightful Catch-22, HRF points out that Russia itself has blocked such attempts at prohibition within the council.
3. The U.N. “We need to use the United Nations Security Council,” Putin writes. “Preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos.” That’s hilarious. Putin has done everything possible to prevent the council from containing the chaos in Syria. Here’s the U.S. account of Russia’s behavior, delivered by U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power:
“Since 2011, Russia and China have vetoed three separate Security Council resolutions condemning the Syrian regime’s violence or promoting a political solution to the conflict. This year alone, Russia has blocked at least three statements expressing humanitarian concern and calling for humanitarian access to besieged cities in Syria. And in the past two months, Russia has blocked two resolutions condemning the generic use of chemical weapons and two press statements expressing concern about their use.”
If you don’t trust that account, read the Times: “From the start of the war two and a half years ago, Russia has been Syria’s strongest backer, using its veto repeatedly to block any meaningful action at the Security Council.” Or read the Finnish report:
“When the al-Assad regime resorted to the use of military force to suppress growing political unrest in the country, Moscow fiercely resisted initiatives by the Arab and Western countries to adopt the United Nations Security Council (unsc) resolutions condemning the government forces and suggesting the possibility of introducing non-military sanctions against Syria (including an arms embargo). Moscow vetoed the draft unsc resolutions three times …”
Or read the report from the Human Rights Watch monitor in Syria:
“We have tried again and again to convince Moscow to play a constructive role to resolve the Syrian crisis—to use its influence with al-Assad to stop the attacks on civilians; to work with the moderate parts of the opposition; to assist with aid delivery to thousands of displaced people in opposition-controlled areas; and to support international efforts to bring war criminals on both sides to justice. … Moscow consistently refused, for example, to support a U.N. Commission of Inquiry into the situation in Syria.”
That’s the reality of Russia’s conduct. In Moscow, a state-controlled TV network suggested last night that for brokering peace in Syria, Putin deserves a Nobel Peace Prize. I’d nominate him for a different prize: an Oscar.
William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: