Putin's strident defense of Assad sets him apart

1:55 PM, Sep 5, 2013   |    comments
Presidents Obama and Putin (Photo: PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS, AFP/Getty Images)
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MOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir Putin's strident defense of a Syrian regime that has killed 100,000 of its own people has isolated him from nearly all world powers and has leaders guessing about his reasons for doing so.

Yet Russians seem not to care much.

With the Syria civil war set to dominate the G-20 Summit that kicked off in St. Petersburg, polls showed that Russians themselves were largely indifferent or against intervention in the conflict.

"I think there will be another Iraq (if they do it)," said Olga Yakovleva, a real estate agent who said she thought Putin was probably right on his stance against President Obama's plan for a military strike against Syria over its use of chemical weapons.

"Russians are indifferent" to the Syria issue, said Stanislav Belkovsky, a political consultant and commentator. "The times when (Russians) thought of themselves as a superpower are long gone," and they don't feel they have any stake in the issue, he said.

But Putin has made it clear for years that he laments the loss of Russia's status as a superpower under its former guise of the Soviet Union, and has said he wishes for it to return to the world stage as a bigger player.

He acted on that desire in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, where Russian troops moved into in 2008 to back a separatist movement loyal to Moscow. Now comes Syria, which Russia is arming and protecting from sanctions at the United Nations.

The Soviet Union was a traditional ally of Syria's regime, and Russia continued to supply S-300 air defense systems to Syria, as well as small arms and aviation parts to keep Assad's helicopters and jets flying. The Syrian aircraft have had a devastating effect on rebel-held cities, reducing many to piles of concrete and shattered glass.

Most Western and Arab nations have expressed a desire to see Syria's dictator Bashar Assad out of power, and many are backing military strikes to end his slaughter of civilians.

Putin has lashed out at the West for considering such airstrikes and most recently called Secretary of State John Kerry a liar over the matter. Putin has demanded proof that the gas attack is the work of Assad's military and not rebels, and claims that the rebellion of Sunni Muslims against Assad is a terrorist insurgency to be crushed.

The Syrian rebels' "main combat unit is the so-called Al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda unit," Putin said Wednesday. They (the U.S.) are aware of that. ... He (Kerry) lied. And he knows that he lied. This is sad."

Even China, which opposes air strikes on Syria as well, won't go as far as to defend Assad's unprecedented brutality against the rebellion. The only ones who seem to agree with Putin's views of Assad publicly are the mullahs who run Iran and Hezbollah, the terrorist group based in Lebanon.

This has some leaders trying to figure out why Putin is going to such lengths to defend what leaders such as France's President Francois Hollande and Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron say is indefensible.

Fiona Hill, a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, says Putin sees no advantage to Russia by abandoning Assad and may even be worried that his departure from the scene would benefit Islamic terrorists in Syria. But no one knows for sure, she said.

"He wants to keep people on edge and constantly guessing about his intentions," Hill told Fox News.

Putin has many opponents in Russia who disagree with him on domestic concerns, but his stance does not appear to cost him anything in public opinion.

According to an opinion survey by the independent Levada Center, only 8% of respondents polled in June said they were paying attention to the developments in Syria. A large share - 51% - did not sympathize with either side in the conflict; 19% said they supported Assad's side, while just 7% supported the rebels.

According to a July poll by the All-Russian Center for Public Opinion Research, 46% of respondents said they believed the Syrian conflict was the result of provocations from other countries who wanted to increase their influence in the region.

Adding to confusion on Putin's intentions, he has assailed world leaders who say they can strike Syria without approval from a U.N. Security Council resolution. But then he told the Associated Press this week that he could back such a resolution provided there was proof the Assad regime used poison gas against civilians.

Putin remained open on backing a U.N. resolution approving of a strike "because he knows it would never happen," Belkovsky said, adding that Russia, which has the power of veto on the Security Council, would not be the only nation to veto such a resolution.

Belkovsky also downplayed Putin's real influence in the conflict, saying Russia's leverage there has diminished. He said Russia's weapons shipments "play no role for Syria."

Despite the tension, Putin greeted President Obama in St. Petersburg on Thursday and had"constructive" relations with his counterpart, according to Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov.

"They have the kind of relations that leaders of two countries who share responsibility for global security and stability should have," Peskov was quoted by RIA Novosti as saying. "These relations are constructive, although recently they have been full of rather serious disagreements."

Contributing: Anna Arutunyan

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