Vladimir Putin will happily let Obama sweat it out alone in Syria

There is many a cautionary tale for Arab leaders – and for arrogant Western ones – about Moscow’s dealings with the Middle East

Related Topics

Not many years ago, a Russian President held a late-night meeting with his special representative and asked him to fly at once to meet with an Arab dictator – to give him a personal warning on an impending American attack. If the Arab autocrat would step down from his post as President voluntarily and allow democratic elections, the Russian President’s secret message went, he could stay on in his country and keep his party post. The dictator was Saddam, the date was February 2003, and the President’s envoy was Yevgeny Primakov.

And the President was Vladimir Putin. Maybe this little tale should be in Barack Obama’s file in St Petersburg. It was Primakov, who was former head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, a former Foreign Minister and Prime Minister, who revealed the secret Putin initiative in his sadly neglected (in the West, at least) book, Russia and the Arabs, which contains many a cautionary tale for Arab leaders – and for arrogant Western ones – about Moscow’s dealings with the Middle East, not least Putin’s. The latter had instructed Primakov to give his warning directly and firstly only to Saddam, not to his Foreign Minister, Tariq Aziz. Putin wanted the proposal to be put to Saddam “as dramatically as possible”. It might, the Russian President said, be Saddam’s last chance to avoid an American attack.

The Iraqi dictator came out with a stream of accusations against Russia: that it was trying to deceive him once again, just as it did when it told him that if he withdrew his troops from Kuwait in 1990 America would not attack Iraq. Primakov told him he waited too long to stage his withdrawal. Saddam did not say anything. He just patted Primakov on the shoulder as he left the room. Tariq Aziz called after him, loud enough for Saddam to hear: “Ten years from now, we’ll see who was right – our beloved President or Primakov.” Well, we know the answer to that one.

Now I suppose it is possible that Obama might like Putin to send his present Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, off to Damascus with a similar message for Bashar al-Assad. After all, Putin’s reason for telling Saddam he could stay in his party role was to avoid post-regime instability in Iraq. The problem in Syria is that the instability started in 2011 and has since turned into one of the region’s ugliest civil wars.

But Putin is not without his progressive side. It was he, after all, who talked of establishing uranium enrichment facilities on the soil of the recognised nuclear powers for nations which have nuclear facilities but don’t want nuclear weapons – this was one of Putin’s initiatives on the Iran crisis (which is partly what America’s proposed attack on Syria is all about). 

There is another side to Putin. In Cairo, several Egyptian politicians call him al thaaleb – “the Fox” – and you can almost see Putin in the snow, bushy-tailed and tough-whiskered, his narrow, slightly frightening eyes darting from his narrow face. He has no truck with Muslim politicians he distrusts. He replaced one dictator in Chechnya with another nastier one and Russia had no hesitation in letting the ruthless Mohammed Najibullah take over in Afghanistan when its army left. Why did the West support rebels, he asked not long ago, that eat their enemies? He was referring to the frightful video of an Islamist fighter apparently eating the liver of an executed Syrian soldier.

But Putin has never been squeamish about using extreme violence himself. His army’s outrageous behaviour in Chechnya has been little different from Saddam’s in the suppression of Iraqi rebels in 1991 or the Syrian regime’s war on its own rebels. And didn’t the Russians, not so long ago, use their own form of gas to fight their way into a Moscow theatre when armed Chechen rebels took it over? If the Syrian regime used sarin gas last month – and Putin still says he has seen no convincing evidence – would that really worry the Russian President?

Oddly, the Western television networks have fallen into a rut over St Petersburg, asking if Obama can “narrow the gap” between himself and Putin. I’m not at all sure if Putin wants to narrow any such gap. He knows that the US President’s “red lines” and “options on the table” and all the other Obama-isms that are talking the Americans into yet another war against Arabs, have given him a powerful card. He knows that the Syrian war is about Iran. And he was perfectly able to entertain Iran’s awful former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Moscow. His slouching figure beside Obama at the Fermanagh summit told you a lot about his feelings for America’s Punisher-in-Chief. After all, that was the role he himself adopted in Chechnya.

And as he looks south from the Kremlin, he can see Chechnya on the horizon and – just 800 miles further away – Syria itself, where Assad is fighting rebel forces that include Chechens. He may certainly point out that Obama is planning to fight on the same side as al-Qa’ida – which is perfectly true. But is he really going to line up behind America’s latest crusade? I rather suspect – since he’s a self-taught expert on fighting Islamist “terror” – that he might let Obama sweat it out.

He’ll be asking, no doubt, what America’s permitted 60 days of “limited” attacks will achieve. And what happens when it’s over and Assad is still in Damascus and gas is used all over again?

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst Consultant (Financial Services)

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

Systems Administrator - Linux / Unix / Windows / TCP/IP / SAN

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider in investment managemen...

AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer

£600 - £700 per day: Harrington Starr: AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer JVS, ...

E-Commerce Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Exciting opp...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Letter from the Political Editor: Phone and data laws to be passed in haste

Andrew Grice
The first lesson of today is... don't treat women unequally?  

Yvette Cooper is right: The classroom is the best place to start teaching men about feminism

Chris Maume
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice