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13 December 2016

Bashar al-Assad’s horrific victory is really Vladimir Putin’s triumph

He has secured his warm-water port and sent a message: he doesn't abandon his allies.

By Stephen Bush

Forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad are on the brink of retaking all of Aleppo. The Guardian splashes on a message sent out by a doctor in the city: “This is a final distress call to the world. Save Aleppo”.

The survivors of the bombardment now face execution and other horrors at the hands of the triumphant militia. In geopolitics, it caps off a remarkable 2016 for Vladimir Putin and Russia, a year in which they lost the Olympics but won everything else going.  Assad’s triumph over the forces massed against him now looks certain, not least because he can now say, more credibly than ever, that the choice the West faces is between him and the self-described Islamic State.

That means that Russia maintains its warm water port in Tarsus and that Putin has once again sent a message to the world: unlike the West, he doesn’t abandon his allies. It’s a boost for IS, too, who have always had the message that when the going gets tough, only they stand against repressive governments in the Middle East.
As the UK and the rest of the West contemplates the failure in Syria, fingers will be pointed at Ed Miliband, whose 2013 decision not to back air strikes following the use of chemical weapons by Assad is held up by some as a decisive moment in the passage of the conflict. Certainly, many in the then-Shadow Cabinet feel that Miliband went back on his word and sprung the decision to vote against the government’s motion at the last moment. Guilt and resentment at the vote still exert a powerful force on Labour MPs.

Pressure will also fall upon Jeremy Corbyn; the Morning Star, with which the Labour leader has long been associated, today describes the massacre in Aleppo as a “liberation”, and MPs from inside and outside Labour will call on Corbyn to disavow the paper.

But the decisive moment in the Syria crisis wasn’t the crossing of the red line over chemical weapons, though the triumphalist remarks about “stopping the rush to war” certainly look ugly and ill-judged this morning. It was the hesitancy of Barack Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, about whether they wanted to back regime change in Syria during the Arab Spring in 2010.

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Nor is the problem Corbyn’s reluctance to offer a full-throated condemnation of Russian activity or its boosters in the Western press. The big problem is that no-one had a great idea on how to deal with the “Putin problem” before he successfully installed a Kremlin ally in the White House, and Corbyn-bashing feels like displacement activity, whatever the rights and wrongs of the Labour leader’s behavior.

One of the jarring aspects of the 2013 debate was that it became a proxy for the need of the political class in general and Labour in particular to exorcise the ghost of the Iraq war. It would be a grim irony if the argument about what happens next becomes a debate about 2013 by proxy.

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