Look, I am no particular fan of Vlad. Quite the opposite. Russian-backed forces are illegally occupying parts of Ukraine. Putin’s proxy army was almost certainly guilty of killing the passengers on the Malaysia Airlines jet that came down in eastern Ukraine. He has questions to answer about the death of Alexander Litvinenko, pitilessly poisoned in a London restaurant. As for his reign in Moscow, he is allegedly the linchpin of a vast post-Soviet gangster kleptocracy, and is personally said to be the richest man on the planet. Journalists who oppose him get shot. His rivals find themselves locked up. Despite looking a bit like Dobby the House Elf, he is a ruthless and manipulative tyrant.
Does that mean it is morally impossible to work with him? I am not so sure. We need to focus on what we are trying to achieve. Our aims – at least, our stated aims – are to degrade and ultimately to destroy Isil as a force in Syria and Iraq. That is what it is all about.
Our mission is to remove an evil death cult, to deprive their organisation of the charisma and renown that goes with controlling a territory of some 10 million people. We need to end their hideous administration of Raqqa, with its torchings and beheadings. We need them out of Palmyra, because if Syria is to have a future then we must protect its past.
We cannot do that without terrestrial forces. We need someone to provide the boots on the ground; and given that we are not going to be providing British ground forces – and the French and the Americans are just as reluctant – we cannot afford to be picky about our allies.
I agree. In WWII Hitler was the larger evil than Stalin, so one allied with Stalin to fight Hitler.
Who else is there? The answer is obvious. There is Assad, and his army; and the recent signs are that they are making some progress. Thanks at least partly to Russian air strikes, it looks as if the regime is taking back large parts of Homs. Al-Qaeda-affiliated militants are withdrawing from some districts of the city. Is that a bad thing? I don’t think so.
With Russian air support, the Assad regime is only a few miles from Palmyra – the fabled pink-stoned city of monuments, where Isil decapitated the 82-year-old curator, Khaled Al‑Assad, before beginning an orgy of cultural destruction.
Am I backing the Assad regime, and the Russians, in their joint enterprise to recapture that amazing site? You bet I am. That does not mean I trust Putin, and it does not mean that I want to keep Assad in power indefinitely. But we cannot suck and blow at once.
At the moment, we are in danger of treating our engagement as if it weresome complicated three-sided chess game, in which we are trying to neutralise the Islamists while simultaneously preventing Putin from getting too big for his boots. If we try to be too clever, we will end up achieving nothing.
Johnson is right. Work with Putin and Assad to defeat ISIL.