THE BLOG

Will Vladimir Putin Save the World?

05/10/2015 10:15 BST | Updated 02/10/2016 10:12 BST

There has been precious little to praise about the regime of Vladimir Putin in recent years. His actions in stoking civil war in Ukraine and annexing the Crimea region is criminal under international law, his crackdown on political opposition and dissenting voices has seen numerous state-sponsored and the oppression that can be experienced in Russia by ethnic and religious minorities, and the LGBT community, is shocking and criminally under-reported here in the west.

And yet it seems that this tyrannical despot might just be the one person able to stop the march of Islamic extremism in Syria, given the failings of our own Governments and International organisations to act.

The rise of ISIS and other Islamism groups in Syria and Iraq has been driven by the civil war in the region which has created a power vacuum in much of the east of the country. Combined with the inept and weak US-supported Iraqi government, the circumstances in the region were ripe for a non-state entity to fill the void.

This is precisely what ISIS have done having seen an opportunity to impose their own warped interpretation of the Koran on a large territorial area.

It is exactly this kind of situation which the UN should address as a peacekeeping organisation. However these days the UN can be perceived as little more than a feckless talking shop where nations can afford to be big of rhetoric, without ever having to worry about taking any meaningful action to back it up. Its history is littered with inaction and its role in the Syrian conflict to date has barely stretched beyond putting out press releases.

The UN's ineptitude is at least partly why the US and the UK have been drawn into other Middle East conflicts and it has been these ill-thought-through campaigns which have made further such interventions politically toxic. This has left a situation where the US and the UK are unable to justify putting troops on the ground in Syria.

This is despite the fact that ISIS do offer a far more tangible threat to British and US interests than other adversaries in the region. It was ISIS followers who killed the satirists at Charlie Hebdo in Paris. It was an ISIS gunman who slaughtered British tourists on the beach in Tunisia. And it is ISIS who have gloated over the beheading of innocent western hostages and lured our Muslim citizens to their deaths in a conflict they are no part of.

Politicians go to great lengths to explain why ground troops will not work against them, yet military experts, such as the former head of British Armed Forces, Sir David Richards, consistently say it is the only way to defeat ISIS, and that success could be achieved in as little as six months.

Vladimir Putin is now stepping into this hiatus, and although his actions so far have been confined to air strikes, it is widely expected that ground troops will follow.

So what's the difference between Putin and the West? The primary one is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is allied to Putin and fiercely opposed by western leaders.

Make no mistake, he is also not a nice man. He has tortured captives, bombed his own civilians and is responsible for the deaths of some 200,000 of his own people during the civil war. In normal situations he is not the sort of leader we would want to work with.

But the current situation in Syria is far from normal, and the treat to our interests in growing. Yet still we remain intransigent in our insistence that we must get rid of ISIS and Assad. Such ambitions are at best naïve, and at worst making the situation far worse.

Speaking on BBC Newsnight this week, Lt General Sir Simon Mayall, a senior Military advisor, criticised the UK for being guilty of 'wishful thinking' over the removal of Assad, and stated that the Russians had been 'in many ways more realistic'.

History has shown time and time again that trying to win a conflict on two fronts at the same time always leads to disaster. Diplomacy norms state that it is fruitless to try and deal with two conflicting issues at the same time. The aftermath of the Arab Spring in countries like Libya has demonstrated clearly that removing those in power without a plan of transition leads to chaos and offers a fertile breeding ground for yet more Arab extremists.

And yet we remain steadfast.

To remove Assad from the regions he still controls now is only going to open up more territory for ISIS, or other Islamist groups, to move into. To remove them both together is all but impossible, and would simply open the door to al-Qaeda or others.

The only way to bring an end to the war in Syria is to take it one step at a time.

The first task has to be to defeat ISIS because it is they who pose the direct threat to western nations. Bashir al-Assad is a despicable figure, but he does not threaten the lives or security of Western people. It therefore makes sense to leave him in power, however flimsy and hampered by sanctions that may be, until the extremist threat has died down.

Then is the time to start political and diplomatic efforts to get rid of him.

Of course this is not Vladimir Putin's objective. His motivation is far from altruistic, as he wants to retain Assad as an ally in the region. But as the only actor in the region who seems willing to step up and take on ISIS, he is the most likely to move us on down the road towards this endpoint. Once Putin has removed those threatening Assad, the international community will find it much more straightforward to manoeuvre him out of power.

It is not a perfect scenario by any means, and will likely see a great deal more bloodshed in the interim. But in the long run, it seems to be the only viable, realistic solution to bring stability back to the region.

And while the rest of the world sits on its heels and fails to act, it seems it will be Vladimir Putin who is keeping the streets of the UK and the US safe from Islamic extremists. We may well have, not Barack Obama or David Cameron, but Vladimir Putin to thank for saving us from the horrors of ISIS.