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September 28, 2015

What Putin Should Say at the United Nations

by Stanley A. Weiss

LONDON–Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin will address the United Nations General Assembly in New York for the first time since 2005. He is expected to talk about Russia’s increased military activity in Syria and the role that Russia hopes to play in battling the Islamic State–while possibly offering a new “grand bargain” to the West over Syria. Here is what Mr. Putin should say:

My fellow delegates: For the past year, from this podium and others, we have heard variations on the same message: that the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are a regional threat in the Middle East; that while their methods are brutal, ISIL is simply a “jayvee team” that grew out of al Qaeda in Iraq; that the real danger in the region is the government in Damascus; and that by training so-called “moderate” Syrian fighters while supporting a campaign of air strikes led by the United States and a coalition of willing partners, it will be possible to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State while bringing stability to Syria.

I have come here today because I think it’s time that we stop lying to ourselves.

ISIL has been neither degraded nor destroyed. Despite more than 5,000 airstrikes over the past year, Islamic State militants now control swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq. ISIL followers have threatened to carry out attacks from Scandinavia to Southeast Asia, from Nigeria to China, from here in the U.S. to my home in Russia. Even the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff has admitted that the campaign is now at a stalemate.

The highly touted $500 million effort to train “moderate” Syrian fighters has resulted in just five new recruits. Not five thousand. Not five hundred. Five. Meanwhile, four million refugees have flooded into Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. And nearly 500,000 refugees have reportedly made it across the Mediterranean to Europe, where they are encountering various forms of resistance, including tear gas, barbed wire fences and water cannons. Far from a contained regional threat, this is now a global crisis of the highest order.

The most pressing question in Syria today is not who rules in Damascus. It is whether the world can come together -as it did more than 70 years ago – to turn back the increasingly barbaric and growing presence of ISIL across the region before it is too late. The one thing we can say for sure is what another refugee, Albert Einstein, said years after fleeing the Nazi regime in 1933: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” It is insane for the West and its allies to continue down this same path. I am here today to propose a different way forward.

Let us acknowledge from the start that we will not see eye to eye on the four-year civil war in Syria. We have a fundamental disagreement on the nature of the conflict. The popular storyline in Western capitals is that a group of home-grown secular rebels rose up four years ago against a dictator in Damascus – and that dictator, with the help of Teheran and Moscow, has slaughtered tens of thousands of his own people in a viciously desperate attempt to remain in power.

But anybody on the ground in Syria – which, by choice, does not include a single Western power, since air power is all the U.S. and its allies have had an appetite for – will tell you that it’s a false narrative. The rebels fighting the secular Alawite government in Syria today are not, and have never been, either secular or home-grown. They are, and always have been, a group of Jihadi warriors funded by Sunni interests in the Middle East and elsewhere, who used the chaotic aftermath of America’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2010 to launch a new front in the 1,600 year old Sunni-Shia war. These are the people who control more than 50 percent of the territory in Syria today.

It is a false choice to believe that the rebels fighting the legitimate government of Syria are categorically distinct from the jihadists of Islamic State: ideologically, they are cut from the same cloth. That tens of thousands of innocent people have been caught in the crossfire -as happens sadly in every civil war – is both tragic and unassailable. But to place the responsibility entirely on the barrel bombs of one side is to willfully overlook the extent to which the other side has almost gleefully used innocent civilians as human shields to spread terror and sow the seeds of anarchy in towns and cities across Syria.

I say this with the knowledge that I won’t likely convince those in the West who believe otherwise. I do hope, however, that those who believe that Bashar al-Assad is entirely at fault in Syria respect the fact that those of us who do not share that view believe just as strongly in our truth as you do in yours.

Let us also put aside the history that led us to this moment: of America’s support for the very Islamists that became al Qaeda as far back as 1979, when those same extremists were shooting at my brothers in Afghanistan. Let us put aside the fact that the U.S. impulsively overthrew Saddam Hussein in the days after 9/11 – even though he had nothing to do with the attacks on the U.S. – and that U.S.-led mismanagement after the invasion led to a power vacuum that persecuted Sunnis and lit the spark for what become Islamic State. Let’s also remember that much of the initial funding for Islamic State came from U.S. dollars used to bribe Sunni tribesmen to rise up against al Qaeda during the so-called U.S. “surge” in 2007. It’s one of the reasons why reports about ISIL were reportedly doctored by the Pentagon.

But wherever you stand on Assad, none of us want Syria to go the way of Iraq or Libya, whose current anarchy was the direct result of a NATO-led campaign to oust its long-time leaders without a second’s thought for what might come next. That is where we stand today in Syria. Should the Assad government fall in the near future, the likely Islamic State takeover of Damascus would make what is already Europe’s worst refugee crisis since the Second World War pale by comparison. I believe it is incumbent on all of us, therefore, to do whatever is necessary to support the government of Syria in its fight against ISIL – starting with Islamic State-held strongholds in the North of the country – while working to improve the situation so Syrian citizens don’t feel a need to migrate in the first place.

That is why Russia has moved aggressively into Syria in recent weeks at the invitation of the Syrian government, and why we are moving additional tanks, fighter jets, warships, and military advisors into the territory. We are improving airport landing strips to accept additional armaments and beefing up protections around Syrian ports. We are lending our military intelligence to help counter Islamic State positions, and we are working with the Syrian army to prevent attacks on Damascus from the sky with anti-aircraft support around the capital.

We are willing to take a broader leadership role in the region alongside troops from Iran that are already working to counter the Islamic State threat today, which are also in Syria at the invitation of the Assad government. But we cannot defeat this threat alone. Our chance of success will be much greater if we are able to join forces and counter this historic threat together, just as we did 70 years ago. Airpower alone cannot resolve this crisis. Only an international coalition of air power and ground forces will be able to stop ISIL.

That is why I am proposing today that east and west join forces, under the auspices of the United Nations, to end this threat. We can discuss the right combination of air strikes, on the ground intelligence, and regional alliances that will put ISIL on the run once and for all. In turn, we will work with the Assad government to begin cease-fire negotiations in the four-year civil war. I understand that working hand in hand with the Russian government and the Iranian government to defeat a common threat is something that no Western nation has had much practice in the past seven decades. But that is not an excuse for not trying.

I realize that the Syrian people are reluctant to have even more foreigners enter their land, and that the West, in particular, is disliked more than ever. A recent poll found that 80 percent of Syrians believe it was western governments that created ISIL. You may not have a lot of credibility in the region, but together, we can and we should try to defeat this threat there so it doesn’t spread here.

Working together to prevent global calamity is the promise we made to each other through the United Nations seven decades ago. On the 70th anniversary, let’s realize that promise in practice. In the end, that’s the highest tribute we can pay.