The Syrian Ceasefire Has Revealed Russia's Superpower Status
Russia has negotiated a ceasefire with the US in Syria. Vladimir Putin has explicitly denied Russia’s aspirations to be reckoned as a 'superpower'. However, the reality of the present situation in Syria speaks for itself.
Yesterday’s evening news in Russia was dominated by one story: the announcement by Vladimir Putin on national television that the United and Russia had concluded an agreement to facilitate the start and supervise the implementation of a ceasefire in Syria between government and opposition forces, set to begin on 27 February. The agreement was sealed by a telephone conversation between Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama that took place shortly before the broadcast. Putin’s televised address was less than 10 minutes long and it has been rebroadcast in entirety on state television at hourly intervals. Understandably, it has been the number one topic in the Russian print media this morning.
Since political correctness in Russia barred mention of the President’s demeanor in his broadcast, I will say what went unsaid: Putin looked stressed, downcast, without his characteristic buoyancy.
Indeed there can be no doubt that many Russians were less than delighted by this news, which interrupts the dramatic winning streak of the Syrian Army under the protection of Russian airpower, and likely brings their ground operations to a halt before they complete the liberation of Aleppo, the second largest city in the country which would give Bashar al-Assad control of most of the population of his country even if large swathes of territory to the east in the direction of Iraq remain in jihadist hands. Moreover, Aleppo, with its northern suburbs, is key to sealing the paths of incursion into Syria from neighboring Turkey and cutting off the jihadists from their main bases of supply.
However, one would be seriously mistaken in reading disappointment into Vladimir Putin’s facial expressions last night. They may be attributed to something quite different: what must have been his first experiment with delivery of a talk using a teleprompter. In fact, Putin has always spoken either from a written text that he holds before himself at the lectern or he has spoken extemporaneously. It will take some practice before he attains the unaffected radiance of a Barack Obama before the cameras when reading from a teleprompter.
Be that as it may, Putin’s address carried several important points. He described in some detail the architecture of the ceasefire agreed with the Americans. The deal foresees liaison of US-Russian military forces to determine where the opposing forces that are clients of the two countries are located on the ground as of the ceasefire’s coming into force, this to prevent any abuse that would give one or another side the possibility of gaining unilateral advantage, and also to ensure that Russia’s continued bombing raids against the Islamic State, allowed under the agreement, do not run afoul of American-protected forces. It also foresees a hot line between the brokers of this ceasefire to deal with problems as they occur. In fact, these were Russian proposals presented to the US-led coalition in Syria from the very start of the Russian air intervention at the end of September, proposals that were either ignored or ridiculed by the United States and its allies ever since.
Putin also used the speech to drive home a core message from his vision of international relations: that this agreement in Syria, which enjoys the full backing of the United Nations and adheres to the terms of the UN Charter, should be seen as a model for settlement of the kinds of conflicts that for the past two decades have been tackled by (US-led) coalitions acting outside the rules of international law and in contravention of the UN Charter. He named in particular, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan.
It stands to reason that the US-Russian agreement announced in a joint communique yesterday and which was the subject of Vladimir Putin’s televised address would be considered ‘breaking news’ by all major news organizations globally given the way eighty or more countries have been drawn into the Syrian civil war in one way or another. In the short survey of the press which follows, let us see to what extent this simple journalistic rule has been followed in Europe and America.
As of 9.00 am Central European Time today, 23 February, not one of the U.S. newspapers of record makes any mention in its online editions of the US-Russian communique on a ceasefire in Syria: not The New York Times, not The Washington Post, not The Wall Street Journal. And even a leader in instant, 24-hour global communications like Bloomberg.com is totally silent about the deal.
A couple of tentative working explanations may be put forward. First, the time difference between Russia and the U.S. East Coast might be thought to play a role. But in this case, the U.S. journalists and their editors had 6 hours more than their European peers to get their arms around the story. Yet, almost all leading European press nonetheless did find the time and the space to post articles on the agreement, as we shall see.
When I say ‘almost’ about the European print media, I have in mind one very significant exception that matches the U.S. 1:1, namely Germany. This morning there was absolutely no mention of the US-Russian deal on Syria in Die Welt, Der Spiegel, the Frankfurter Allgemeine, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung. Nothing.
As a working hypothesis, I suggest the explanation that has been appropriate in similar cases of news blackouts that I have monitored. In particular, there was no news in US media for several days following the Russian Ministry of Defense’s news conference at the start of December 2015 when the Russians set out unwelcome and inconvenient proofs of Turkish involvement in financing ISIL through its massive illicit oil purchases. That news like this news of the US-Russian agreement was at odds with the official type-casting of Russia as the enemy and with Vladimir Putin regularly vilified in vicious personal attacks. For these reasons, the media waits for signals from on high before reacting.
In Germany today, news of the Russian-American deal is unwelcome because it challenges directly the entire recent stance of Chancellor Angela Merkel with respect to Russia, with respect to the migrant crisis that is threatening her hold on power. In recent weeks Merkel has denounced Russia for being the cause of the mass migration of refugees from Syria to Europe due to its support from al-Assad in his civil war and due to the recent bombing campaign. She has insisted that Turkey is the cure for as opposed to the source of the crisis, siding with Turkish President Erdogan against Russia ever since the downing of the Russian military jet by Turkish forces. Moreover, she has been pressing her EU colleagues to extend large financial grants to Turkey to create conditions that keep the Syrian refugees on its soil, rather than on the move to Europe. This is a policy which ignores who is on the move and why. And the countdown is underway for key state elections in mid-March that may bear on the viability of the coalition government Merkel heads. News commentary on the pending ceasefire brokered jointly by the U.S. and Russia will unavoidably be construed in Germany as politically motivated by one or another of the parties standing for imminent elections.
Even Poland, which has no fondness for Russia, saw fit to do better than the Germans. The Gazeta Wyborcza this morning splashed across its home page a picture of Lech Walesa and the revelations of how the former president was likely a police informer for much of his life. And yet the paper also posted a small notice on the home page about Vladimir Putin’s televised address which takes you to an ‘inside’ article on the pending ceasefire in Syria. The report is dry but informative.
Meanwhile, In France both leading centrist, Le Monde and Le Figaro, presented articles on the ceasefire announcement in their morning editions. They are factual and almost impartial. They do not go into the question of the basis for American-Russian cooperation. Instead, they weigh the possibilities of the deal’s working given the failure of the latest conference of the International Syrian Support Group in Munich to produce results on the ground.
In the United Kingdom, the Times of London and the tabloid Daily Mirror both had no coverage and The Financial Times had coverage similar in nature to the French dailies. Meanwhile, The Guardian was odd man out with an in-depth article by Patrick Wintour, their Diplomatic Editor, posted today at 1.00 am British time.
Wintour stresses the key role of the United States and Russia as brokers and guarantors of the pending ceasefire, which he expects will make all the difference in its viability. He describes in full the implementation arrangements agreed between them.
One interesting feature of the Wintour’s article is that it is accompanied by a click-on one minute video excerpt from Vladimir Putin’s televised address with English subtitles. The editors have cleverly chosen precisely the most meaty section of Putin’s presentation, his description of the architecture of implementation agreed with the Americans.
The second remarkable point in Wintour is his choice of words to describe what has just transpired: an “agreement brokered between the two superpowers….” In his many recent public appearances, Vladimir Putin has explicitly denied Russia’s aspirations to be reckoned as a superpower. However, the reality of the present situation in Syria speaks for itself to savvy observers.
The speed and depth of Wintour’s article, written and posted within a few hours of Putin’s televised address shows that the real issue driving mainstream news coverage in the USA and in Europe has been journalistic independence or the absence of it.
In this regard, it bears mention that The Guardian has had above-average volume of coverage of Russia-related issues ever since the start of the West-Russia confrontation two years ago. Its reporters and reports have never fit a clear mold as regards blame allocated to the parties in conflict.
Its greater claim to attention in this period came from its defense of Edward Snowden and participation in the publication of his trove of documents on US intelligence abuses. As Wikipedia notes, “The Guardian was named newspaper of the year at the 2014 British Press Awards, for its reporting on government surveillance.”
The Guardian had a long tradition as the favorite read of British educators and intellectuals in its former incarnation as The Manchester Guardian. Its independence and daring is partly explained by its financing from a trust. Today it is one of the few major world newspapers to provide unlimited unpaid access to its news and features. This may explain why The Guardian was cited in October 2014 as having the fifth most widely read online edition in the world, with 42.6 million readers.
G. Doctorow is the European Coordinator, American Committee for East West Accord, Ltd. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015.