As the U.S. is considering extending airstrikes on Islamic State militants operating in Syria and Iraq, Western policymakers and analysts are debating whether or not Syrian authoritarian but secular President Bashar Assad is ultimately more preferable than the radical Islamists who are fighting to take his place.
One proponent of such an idea has long been Russian President Vladimir Putin. Approximately year ago, on Sept. 11, 2013, he wrote an op-ed in The New York Times, urging moderation against Assad. "A [U.S.] strike [against Assad] would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. ... Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country," he warned.
Before Western policymakers turn to Putin for wisdom, however, it is worth recalling a very different op-ed Putin wrote in the Times in November 1999, urging more U.S. action against global terrorism, not less:
"No government can stand idly by when terrorism strikes. It is the solemn duty of all governments to protect their citizens from danger. Americans obviously understand this concept. When two United States embassies in Africa were blown up, American warplanes were soon dispatched to bomb suspected terrorist facilities in Sudan and Afghanistan. Americans also have had first-hand experience with religious fanaticism financed from overseas sources. The World Trade Center bombing in New York City was the sad result of such extremism."
In 1999, Putin's call for U.S. action was driven by desire to mute Western criticism of Russia's actions in the Caucasus as the breakaway republic of Chechnya fought a separatist war with Moscow. The Kremlin had been committing gross human rights abuses in Chechnya since the first separatist war in 1994, and Putin knew that if he equated the situation in the Caucasus with the U.S. struggle against terrorism, Western criticism against him would decrease. "Terrorism today knows no boundaries. Its purveyors collaborate with each other over vast distances. We know that a great deal of the violence emanating from Chechnya is financed from abroad," he wrote in 1999, at the time exaggerating the radical Islamist presence in this region. Chechnya's struggle for separatism originally began as a secular one.
Similarly, Putin's plea for "moderation" in Syria a year ago was never a sincere attempt to contain radical Islamism. Rather, Putin pushed to keep Assad in power, no matter the humanitarian cost.
Indeed, for all of Putin's attempts to contain radicalism within Russia — which indeed is now a serious threat, in no small part due to Moscow's own policies — Putin had not shied away from turning a blind eye to radicalism abroad in the past. By urging the West to stay out of Syria a year ago, Putin assured that the more moderate elements would get no assistance, which very well may have been why the radicals took over in the first place.
Looking back to Putin's two op-eds, it is clear that he is not guided by genuine principle. Ultimately Putin pushes his own agenda, often aimed at criticizing and undermining the United States.