Tuesday, May 10, 2016

May 10, 2016--Putin's Concert in Palmyra

Vladimir Putin has figured out yet another way to make everyone crazy.

Not just by annexing Crimea, not just by threatening Latvia, not just by striking new accords with China, not just by essentially endorsing Donald Trump's candidacy, not just by rolling out sophisticated 21st century weapon systems in the skies and on the ground in Syria, not just by helping his fellow oligarchs stash away billions of stolen Russian assets in Panama while his country languishes for a second year with a stalled economy.

In addition to all of this, as an act of assertion and to poke us and our Western allies in the eye, he arranged for a classical music concert last week in the formerly ISIS-controlled World Heritage city of Palmyra, Syria. A form of victory lap.

Palmyra had been overrun and subjugated for more than a year by ISIS. While they held the city in thrall, ISIS goons, in addition to torturing and slaughtering Palmyrians, set about destroying the ancient 1st and 2nd century Greco-Roman temples--to them "pagan" shrines--in an attempt to obliterate all traces of Western culture.

ISIS also last summer used the most spectacular of these ruins, the concert site, as a killing field, actually a public beheading field for at least 25 victims.

For some time, the United States and its coalition allies had been unable to stop the carnage much less dislodge the Islamic State fighters. Then along came the Russians.

Defying our urgings, in support of fighters loyal to their ally, Syria president Bashar al-Assad, the Russians began a sustained air offensive against ISIS and Syrian rebel targets in Palmyra and elsewhere.

The American administration was quick to point out--with some official smugness--that among other things, derived from our own propensity to became mired in internecine wars in the region, that the Russians too would find it easier to become involved than to accomplish their mission and then manage to extract themselves.

Amazingly, with some limitations, exceptions, and caveats, the Russians were able to find ways to be effective, including driving ISIS from some of the territories it had overrun in Iraq and Syria. Very much including returning Palmyra to precarious local control.

And thus the "victory" concert.

Using what the New York Times called its "soft power," Russia deployed a chamber orchestra to Palmyra along with one of the country's most esteemed conductors, Valery Gergiev, and cellist, Sergei Roldugin. A tightly-guarded V.I.P. audience, was also flown in to attend the concert, which included two pieces by Johan Sebastian Bach. Recommended attire--bulletproof vests. And then, at concert's end, quickly flown out.

Admittedly, this was a Potemkin-Village concert--more show and facade than evidence of Palmyra's liberation.

But what a brilliant piece of geopolitical theater by Putin. It might be considered his version of "Mission Accomplished." Though, as we know, these missions are rarely accomplished.

(Today would be my father's 110th birthday. He would have hated all of this.)

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