After Paris, the West brings Putin—and Assad—in from the cold

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After Paris, the West brings Putin—and Assad—in from the cold
Published 20-11-2015, 07:10

Steve LeVine

Steve LeVine is Quartz's Washington Correspondent. He writes about the intersection of energy, technology and geopolitics. He is a Future Tense Fellow at the New America Foundation and an adjunct professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. His newest book, The Powerhouse, will be published in February by Viking. It tracks the geopolitics of lithium-ion batteries. LeVine is the author of two prior books: The Oil and the Glory, a history of oil told through the 1990s-2000s oil rush on the Caspian Sea; and Putin's Labyrinth, a profile of Russia through the lives and deaths of six Russians.

For years, governments in the Persian Gulf and the West alike, while disagreeing on much, have been in accord on one big thing—Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad is among the most heinous forces on the planet and has to go. But after the ISIL attack on Paris, he improbably seems much less odious, and most likely now has a lifeline to continued power.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin, too, has been one of the West’s leading villains, particular since sending his troops into Ukraine, annexing Crimea, and destabilizing the eastern part of his neighboring country. Suspicious of Putin and his motives, the West has ignored his entreaties for a joint Syrian strategy, one that from his own side has meant an air campaign designed to bolster Assad’s hold on power.

But in the wake of the Nov. 13 Paris attack, Ukraine has abruptly vanished into the background, and the West, if not precisely embracing Putin himself, will embrace him as a partner in Syria.

US president Barack Obama signaled this shift in a very public appearance with Putin on Nov. 15, ahead of a G20 summit in Turkey (see photo above). CIA director John Brennan today added to the picture of Putin coming in from the cold in a speech in Washington DC.

Paris was the last of three major strikes in which ISIL claimed responsibility—the first was the Oct. 31 downing of a Russian airliner, killing 224 people; the second a pair of Beirut suicide bombings on Nov. 12 in which 43 died. As a whole, ISIL seemed to be sending a message that it can and will attack anywhere.

But the assault on the French capital has seemed particularly potent because of Paris’ stature as a primary western city and, going back to the 18th century, a symbol of western ideals alongside ancient Greece and the American revolution. At least initially, the attack has claimed the status of a great inflection point that, like 9/11, instantly shifts geopolitics.

It’s yet to be seen whether it assumes grander scale in global geostrategy and the popular imagination, like Pearl Harbor, or Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. But look now for startlingly high-profile unity among formerly tense rivals and enemies.

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