Con Coughlin is an expert on international terrorism and the Middle East; with the benefit of 25 years in foreign journalism, he deftly scrutinises world affairs
"Thank goodness for Vladimir Putin” is not a sentiment that you come across very often in these pages. Yet, at a time when the limitations of the West’s futile attempts to defeat Islamic State (Isil) are becoming increasingly clear, Mr Putin’s robust approach could prove to be pivotal in trying to resolve the Syria conflict.
It was a year ago today that American warplanes, together with their coalition partners, launched the military campaign against Isil after it added large swathes of territory in northern Iraq to the fiefdom it had created for itself in Syria.
But despite the thousands of combat sorties flown during the past 12 months, Isil is in a stronger position today. It holds more territory in Syria and Iraq, has many more fighters, and has even succeeded inexporting its malevolent Islamist brand as far afield as Afghanistanand Libya.
Western hopes of containing the conflict, meanwhile, lie in tatters. Far from keeping Syria’s brutal conflict within the confines of the Arab world, Europe now finds itself struggling to cope with a tidal wave of desperate refugeesfleeing the Middle East to seek sanctuary in the West.
One of the main reasons for this abject failure of Western policy is the disinclination of politicians on both sides of the Atlantic to formulate a rational and effective plan for tackling the Isil threat. From the outset, both Barack Obama and David Cameron have declared a preference for waging war by remote control, relying primarily on combat jets and drones to attack Isil targets, with ground involvement being limited to the occasional Special Forces operations.
Any effort to dislodge Isil on the ground has been left to pro-Western proxies, such as the Free Syrian Army. But, as a recent Congressional inquiry has revealed, this, too, has been – to quote a senior US official – "a complete disaster”.
The Pentagon has only managed to train 54 "vetted” Syrian fighters, despite spending nearly $500 million on a programme that was supposed to prepare and equip a force of around 15,000.
To this unholy mess must be added the deep-rooted confusion that lies within the highest ranks of both the American and British governments over what should be the main objective in Syria: overthrowing the Assad regime, or destroying Isil?
It now seems clear to me that the West’s incoherent and woefully misjudged response to Isil ranks as the greatest foreign policy disaster of the 21st century, greater even than the invasion of Iraq in 2003 where, whatever you might think about the decision, at least the coalition achieved its main objective of removing Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical regime.
But for too long in Syria our politicians have been caught 'twixt and 'tween as to whether the main effort should be directed against Bashar al-Assad or Isil, which is why Mr Cameron lost the disastrous Commons vote in 2013 over his plans to bomb Assad.
And yet, to judge by George Osborne’s recent comments, the Government still has not learnt its lesson. Earlier this month Mr Osborne, who now seems to have added the role of Foreign Secretary to his ever-expanding political portfolio, suggested Britain’s aim should be to defeat both Assad and Isil at the same time.
With such muddled thinking undermining Whitehall’s ability to mount an effective response to the Syrian crisis, it is hardly surprising that Mr Putin’s altogether more pragmatic approach is attracting attention.
So far as Mr Putin is concerned, Isil, not Assad, constitutes the greater threat, and to this end Russia is now reported to have deployed 28 warplanes to Damascus to support the war effort against Isil.
Mr Putin may have other reasons for wanting to keep Mr Assad in power, such as preserving Moscow’s long-standing strategic ties with Damascus. But his no-nonsense approach has brought a much-needed degree of clarity to the Syria debate.
Even John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, who previously said there could be no peace deal so long as Mr Assad remained in power, has been forced to rethink his position, conceding at the weekend that the Syrian leader’s future should be part of a negotiated settlement of the conflict.
No one doubts the evil that lies at the heart of the Assad regime: the majority of the 220,000 Syrian fatalities during the past four years have died at the hands of regime loyalists, who have used chemical weapons and barrel bombs against their own people.
But whatever his sins – and they are many – Assad does not constitute a threat to the outside world. On that score it is the terrorist fanatics associated with Isil who pose the greater threat, including the hundreds of British-born jihadis who are believed to have returned home after undergoing training in Isil terror camps. If Mr Putin wants to wage war against Isil, therefore, we should be prepared to give him our total backing.