Syria And The Russian Reset Fail: How Putin Turned The Tables On Obama

The Syrian crisis will dominate the G20 summit in St Petersburg. While the U.S. readies a lonely military strike, Russia's President presents himself as protector of international law.

Syria And The Russian Reset Fail: How Putin Turned The Tables On Obama
Luis Lema

GENEVA – When she was Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton famously called for Washington and Moscow to "hit the reset button." And from the Russian perspective, mission accomplished.

Vladimir Putin will certainly struggle to hide his satisfaction when he welcomes the G20 leaders under the splendor of Saint Petersburg, city of Czars.

"After a 15-year eclipse, he has put Russia back at the center of the international stage," says Philippe Migault, research director at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris. "It's a resounding personal victory. Vladimir Putin is sitting pretty right now."

What a turnaround indeed. Just over four years ago, when the Obama administration held its hand out to Russia, the young American president seemed to be holding the world in his hands. Nothing could stop him, not even the old Russian enemies, apparently seduced (like everybody else) by the new tone, the pragmatism and the respect of differences shown by the new master of the world's most powerful country.

Obama's approach has not changed, but it seems to have reached the end of its logic. Meanwhile, the position he refused to occupy on Syria has been filled by others. The "red lines" he clumsily drew did nothing but limit his own course of action, rather than that of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

It's a power thing

While Obama had presented himself as the fierce champion of international law, he now finds himself in an unusual role: virtually alone in defending a strike on Syria almost certainly to wind up outside the bounds of international law. What's more, the American missiles that are now ready to be fired might not have any influence on the outcome of a war in which the United States has, so far, refused to enter. The military stakes have been relegated to second place, giving way to those of a simple, public assertion of power.

But Obama's host can also play this game. Seen from Moscow, through Vladimir Putin's eyes, the evolution has been different. A year ago, according to reports from the New York Times, the former prime minister since recently reelected president met with U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilan, and said as soon as they started talking: "When are you going to start bombing Syria?"

Assad has always been an inconvenient ally for Moscow, but the alliance has held through thick and thin. Forget about Russia's almost insignificant Tartus naval base inside Syria or the arms contracts that Damascus can barely fulfill. What matters is something else, more subtle but more important for Russia: a renewed prominence in geopolitics, the chance to make Saint Petersburg shine.

Libyan precedence

From the beginning, the Russians watched with suspicion as unrest shook the Arab world. They expressed outrage at the Americans manipulating and encouraging these uprisings, and then stepping in to depose the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

As the conflict intensified in Syria, it became a textbook case. The Moscow leader's words had been crystal clear. According to the same New York Times, he had told the Americans: "There will never be another Libya."

Even if the Syrian war has killed 100,000 people? In Chechnya, Russia proved that it "understood" this way of doing things. "Syria is only 1,000 kilometers 620 miles away from the Caucasus. If from there the region should face major instability, it would spread to Central Asia," Philippe Migault observes. "Yet, Russia has experienced attacks from Islamists that were just as traumatic as 9/11 was for the US. Insecurity is still fierce in Ingushetia, Dagestan or Chechnya. These are not excuses but a real interest in security, which is a priority for them."

In order to try to embarrass their opponent, the West will probably use the G20 to brandish their documentation proving that Assad's regime did in fact use chemical weapons in the August 21 attack. But because Russia is sure to stick with its stance, and quibble indefinitely, Moscow has all the time in the world: it is waiting for the result of the investigation of the United Nations, the only organization that has international legitimacy.

Virtually no country lifted a finger to support "punitive" strikes, refusing to bow to the pressure from public opinion, horrified by this chemical attack. It is Putin's Russia indeed that now plays the role of protector of the world order. It is to Russia that the others shall have to ask for a "reset" and a return to diplomatic reason.

As this week's meetings begins, everybody will be counting their supporters. In Washington, the big names in the Republican party, aware of what is at stake, have chosen the right moment to offer their rare support to Barack Obama. Opposite him, rallying to the cause are all the national forces in Russia, including the powerful Orthodox Church (protector of the sacred Christian sites in Syria) and Farid Salman's Islamic Council of Russian Muftis. In unison, they insist as Moscow's diplomats have done already: "It was the opposition who used chemical weapons."

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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