Why Putin Is Pushing Authoritarianism in Syria

He is not only defending Assad, he's also preserving his own power. 
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives an interview at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow in early September. (Alexei Druzhinin/Reuters)

Dictators have never looked so good.

Vladimir Putin is saving the United States from another Mideast military intervention. Bashar al-Assad promises to 'thin the herd' of jihadists and hold Syria together. And Egypt's new strongman, General Abdal Fattah el Sisi, says he is sorting out the Muslim Brotherhood. With each passing month in the Middle East, it seems, authoritarianism grows more attractive.

Leaders described as "repressive" sound eminently reasonable. They promise to bring order to chaos without dirtying American hands. Putin's op-ed article in the New York Times on Wednesday was the latest example.

Written with the help of the American public relations firm Ketchum, the piece provoked a dizzying array of reactions. Here's one fact check by Max Fisher of the Washington Post. Here's a take down from Human Rights Watch. And the New Yorker posted this hilarious Andy Borowitz mock Modern Love column by the macho former KGB officer.

The views Putin expresses are seductive. Some of his criticisms of American power are legitimate. American unilateralism -- from Iraq to drone strikes to National Security Agency surveillance -- undermines President Barack Obama's credibility on striking Syria.

The Democracy ReportBut in the end Putin's opinion piece matches his Russia. It is appealing on the surface but hollow at its core. Throughout, Putin lies by omission. In other spots, he lies flat-out. Here are two examples that would make Orwell proud.

Putin presents himself as the pacifist and Obama as the militarist. He argues that American cruise missile strikes will "result in more innocent victims" and that the U.S. increasingly relies "solely on brute force." He makes no mention of the vast amount of weaponry Russia has shipped to Assad over the last two years. Or the 2008 military incursion Russia carried out into Georgia without the approval of the UN Security Council.

The Russian president then portrays the entire Syrian opposition as jihadists. He says there are "few champions of democracy in Syria" and "more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes fighting the government."

No mention is made of Assad's decision to fire on unarmed demonstrators when the uprising against him began. Nor does Putin say that government forces committed eight of the nine mass killings recently investigated by the United Nations. Finally, citing no evidence, he claims that "there is every reason to believe" that the rebels carried out the August 21st chemical attack outside Damascus.

The issue, though, is not a tendentious op-ed. It is the state of Putin's Russia. While he declares himself a defender of "international law" in Syria, Putin's government systematically violates international law at home  - from jailing political opponents, to imprisoning independent journalists to advocating laws that legalize homophobia.

I briefly visited Moscow in May, while covering Secretary of State John Kerry's first trip to Russia. Western diplomats and Russian analysts painted a bleak portrait of Russia's future. In a globalized economy where innovation, foreign investment and transparency are key to growth, Putin is suffocating all three.

Presented by

David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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