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The West is culpable for the bloodshed in Ukraine and Syria - and Putin holds the key to any breakthrough

There are significant developments in two proxy wars in which the West is involved. The ceasefire in eastern Ukraine now appears to be holding, with flickering hopes of a future peace. New efforts are meanwhile under way to reach a settlement in Syria's savage strife, but that is unlikely to be for some considerable time.

Russia, too, is involved in these wars and, at present, is in a strategically strong position. A frozen conflict in the Donbas will suit the Kremlin, which wants sanctions imposed over its annexation of Crimea and activities in the Donbas to be eased. In Syria it is openly stepping up its military presence while, at the same time, taking a leading role in diplomatic initiatives.

Ukrainian public figures bemoaned at a recent conference in Kiev that the international community is losing interest in their country. There is some truth in that. There is exasperation in the West at the seeming inability of the government of Petro Poroshenko to tackle endemic corruption and halt the economic slide.

But, above all, what is moving Ukraine on to the back-burner is the grim shadow of Syria, the tide of refugees flowing to Europe, and the rise of Isis.

Failure of Western policy has helped to create the violent and unstable conditions for this chaotic state of affairs. Britain has played a leading role, from its part in the 2003 invasion of Iraq to military intervention in Libya, now the main conduit for refugees crossing the Mediterranean. David Cameron was the chief cheerleader for bombing Libya. He was also the first to cry "Assad must go" (just as he had cried "Gaddafi must go") at an early stage of the Syrian uprising when it could, perhaps, have been settled peacefully.

Having encouraged the uprising, the West did nothing to help the moderate rebels when they were still around in some numbers among opposition fighters.

I spent the summer of 2012 with them covering the battle for Aleppo, when such help might have turned the tide against Bashar al-Assad's forces. But that did not happen, and instead this paved the way for the Islamist extremists of Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra, with their wealthy backers in the Gulf States, to take over the rebellion.

We now discover that the West had turned down a Russian plan which could have led to President Assad's removal a few months earlier. Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish president, disclosed that while he was holding talks with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council over Syria, Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador, presented a three-point plan which would lead to Assad relinquishing power after negotiations began between the regime and the opposition. Mr Ahtisaari recalled how Mr Churkin had spoken about the urgent need to start a dialogue and finding an "elegant way for Assad to step aside". But this was rebuffed by the US, Britain and France, all convinced that President Assad faced imminent defeat. The Finnish leader, a Nobel Peace Prize holder, spoke of his regret at the "opportunity lost in 2012".

The consequence of failing to seize that opportunity was the continuation of a war which had cost 220,000 lives by February this year, leaving seven million people homeless. More than four million others have fled the country, tens of thousands heading in recent weeks for Europe.

Mr Ahtisaari described the refugee crisis as a "self-made disaster", adding: "We should have prevented this from happening, this flow of refugees to our countries into Europe. I don't see any other option but to take good care of these poor people... We are paying the bills we have caused ourselves."

It is this social and economic bill, the bitter divisions within the EU provoked by the refugee crisis, as well as jihad coming to the streets of Europe and North America, which has led the West finally to seek a solution to Syria after doing little as the country slid to the jagged edge of anarchy.

Russia, snubbed by the West three years ago, is now viewed - especially in Washington - as having a key role in seeking this solution. Senior former British and American commanders openly call for an alliance with Russia, and even an understanding with Assad, to fight Isis - a view echoed privately by serving commanders.

Saudi Arabia has, belatedly, concluded that some Sunni extremist groups, especially Isis, cannot be controlled.

There has been a flurry of meetings between Russian, Saudi and American officials. Iran, which wants to join the anti-Isis coalition after coming to an agreement with world powers over its nuclear programme, is being kept informed by Oman, which maintains good relations with its Sunni and Shia neighbours.

It is against this background that Russia has not hesitated to confirm its growing military capability in Syria. American objections to this have been relatively muted. Vladimir Putin claimed that he had talked to Barack Obama about it, and the Kremlin stresses the imperative of co-operation with the US.

The Saudis still hold that Assad cannot be part of the solution, as does the Syrian opposition in exile - and there are reports that the Kremlin may be considering another plan for him to step aside elegantly, something the West would now seize with alacrity. Mr Putin, however, is robust about Russia's military support for the regime.

"Without an active participation of the Syrian authorities and the military, it would be impossible to expel the terrorists from that country and the region as a whole," he declared. "Without Russia's support for Syria, the situation in the country would have been worse than in Libya, and the flow of refugees even bigger."

What happens in Syria will continue to be played out in the coming days. But it is Russia's President, increasingly the man of the moment, who seems to be holding most of the aces.

[Source: By Kim Sengupta, The Independent, London, 16Sep15]

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small logoThis document has been published on 17Sep15 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.