It's not what Vladimir Putin's New York Times op-ed says that's so worrisome; it's what it doesn't say. As a Russian and as someone who has been to Syria multiple times since the beginning of the conflict to investigate war crimes and other violations, I would like to mention a few things Putin overlooked …
There is not a single mention in Putin's article, addressed to the American people, of the egregious crimes committed by the Syrian government and extensively documented by the UN Commission of Inquiry, local and international human rights groups, and numerous journalists: deliberate and indiscriminate killings of tens of thousands of civilians, executions, torture, enforced disappearances and arbitrary arrests. His op-ed also makes no mention of Russia's ongoing transfer of arms to Assad throughout the past two and a half years.
The Russian president strategically emphasizes the role of Islamic extremists in the Syrian conflict. Yes, many rebel groups have committed abuses and atrocities. Yet Putin fails to mention that it is the Syrian government that is responsible for shooting peaceful protesters (before the conflict even started) and detaining and torturing their leaders – many of whom remain detained – and that the continued failure of the international community to respond to atrocities in Syria allows crimes on all sides to continue unaddressed.
Putin's plea to use the United Nations security council to resolve the conflict sounds great, until you remember that, from the very start of this conflict, Russia has vetoed or blocked any security council action that may bring relief to Syria's civilians or bring perpetrators of abuses in Syria to account.
While Russia's proposal for international monitoring of Syria's chemical weapons is a welcome step, it will do nothing to bring justice to hundreds of victims of the latest attack, let alone to thousands of others, killed by conventional weapons. And when Putin squarely blames the opposition for the 21 August chemical attack – against all available evidence and without presenting a shred of his own evidence – one can only wonder why Russia remains so vehemently opposed to referring Syria to the International Criminal Court, an action that would be fully in line with international law, which Putin seems so keen to uphold in his op-ed, and would enable an investigation into abuses by both sides of the conflict.
Finally, the sincerity of Putin's talk about democratic values and international law is hard to take seriously when back home his own government continues to throw activists in jail, threatens to close NGOs, and rubber-stamps draconian and discriminatory laws.
President Putin should give more credit to his audience: Russia will be judged by its actions, both on the international arena and domestically. So far, Russia has been a key obstacle to ending the suffering in Syria. A change towards a more constructive role would be welcome. But a compilation of half-truths and accusations is not the right way to signal such a change.
Anna Neistat/ The Guardian
• This article was originally published on Human Rights Watch's Dispatches blog and is crossposted by kind permission