Handshake won't end Syria's woes

Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin prepare to shake hands at the United Nations in New York. (Kevin Lamarque, Reuters)

Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin prepare to shake hands at the United Nations in New York. (Kevin Lamarque, Reuters)


The devil has all the most convincing solutions in Syria. But will you shake hands with him?

President Obama looked extremely reluctant to do so at the United Nations this week. Then again, the devil – or rather, Vladimir Putin – did not seem too keen on pressing the flesh with him either.
Their public handshake was a terse and stiff occasion, over in a few camera flashes. They came out of a door together, quickly shook hands, and were gone. There was no repartee. There were no smiles.

The photographs are hardly worth the effort of setting up this forced exchange of civilities, if the aim was to portray a friendly relationship between the powers that divided the world between them from 1945 until 1991 and are today once again uneasy rivals. Putin and Obama walk towards each other like marionettes. They raise their hands robotically. They seem frozen for a moment, as if neither can actually bear to touch the other. Then the cold contact.

Obama looks the most graceful and civil, but in shaking hands with Putin he briefly connected with an odious logic. Their private meeting and public rhetoric at the UN was above all an attempt to engage globally with the civil war in Syria, the rise of Islamic State, and the future of Syria’s ruler, Bashar al-Assad.

In his speech at the UN, Obama stood up for democratic values, for opposing the old regime and for destroying Islamic State, and eloquently repudiated cynical realpolitik: “In accordance with this logic, we should support tyrants like Al-Assad who drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent civilians because the alternative is surely worse … Yes, realism dictates that compromise will be required to end the fighting and ultimately stamp out [Islamic State]. But realism also requires a managed transition away from Assad.”

Fine words: but it is Putin who has cold reason on his side. The “logic” Obama denounced is vile, but it is also logical. And as with so many Western positions on the Middle East, the current one is totally amnesiac.

Putin is indeed a scary guy to shake hands with. He is cheerfully post-democratic, and at the UN argued that only by straightforwardly supporting Syria’s “legitimate” government – barrel bombs? What barrel bombs? – can a grand coalition end this particularly barbarous war and the humanitarian crisis that is so perturbing the world. Monstrous. And it comes from a man who has himself acted in disturbing, sinister, ruthless ways. But what is Putin? Does he resemble 20th-century dictators, or is he more like the 19th-­century Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck, who sometimes used military might but mostly won through harsh diplomatic intelligence?

The horrible, unsettling thing about Putin’s position on Syria is that he is merely repeating the diplomatic common sense of the West as it was tacitly understood before the Arab Spring. Dictators were indeed supported and befriended, in Obama’s words, “because the alternative is surely worse”. Egypt’s harsh regime got no complaints from Western governments. Then the Arab Spring began in 2010, and it turned out that people across North Africa and the Middle East wanted democracy and human rights – the great Western values.

At once keen to support the liberal ideals the Arab Spring sought to universalise, and paralysed by the bad conscience of the Iraq war, Western foreign policy is totally confused and ineffectual. Syria is the victim of a pathetically incoherent Western response. It was always clear there would be no happy ending to the Arab Spring, unless outside intervention helped. What might have happened if there had been a military response to Assad’s attacks on his own people in 2013? Could an American, British and French intervention have hastened the regime’s departure and sidelined Islamists?

We will never know. But it is easy to see how pointless the West’s current strategy actually is, all muscular liberal talk with no basis in reality. Bombing Islamic State only shocks pacifists, but vague plans for a post-Assad transition are just fantasy now that Syria is a bloody wasteland, its history demolished, its people scattered, its everyday life torn apart not just by war but also by religious extremists who persecute at will. Syria is no longer a landscape on which to project our fine ideals. It is a human catastrophe. Looking for a happy ending to such a nightmare is childish. But there has to be an ending. There has to be a chance for Syria to rebuild something like a human society.

The image of the leaders of the world’s biggest military powers awkwardly shaking hands as a country is destroyed and its people scattered to the winds is chilling, like a meeting between Pontius Pilate and Herod. Who is guilty? And who is right?

Obama’s foreign policy is rich in liberal rhetoric, weak on actually helping anyone. Putin is a dangerous Machiavellian manipulator, but shaking hands with him is the very least of what rebuilding Syria would actually mean. But the handshakes will probably stay brittle, the body language cold, and fine words and a few bombs will be all the finely moral leaders of the West ever offer, while hell is built before their eyes. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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