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Judo, jihadists and juggling Syrian crisis

YOU couldn't make it up.

GOOD POINT: Despite their differences, David Cameron and Vladimir Putin share a common fear over what is happening in Syria. Picture: Getty Images
GOOD POINT: Despite their differences, David Cameron and Vladimir Putin share a common fear over what is happening in Syria. Picture: Getty Images

Prime Minister David Cameron and Russian President Vladimir Putin decide to engage in a bout of Judo diplomacy together at a time when relations between the two nations are about as strained as a Gyaku-juji-jime – that's a reverse cross strangle for those readers unfamiliar with the sport's Japanese terminology.

As a former Judoka myself I can at least quote that phrase with some authority. Wearing my other hat, I can only speculate though on what both leaders might discuss regarding the conflict in Syria, the murder of former KGB agent – and Putin critic – Alexander Litvinenko and other current contentious issues between London and Moscow.

For the Kremlin leader, himself a black belt and honorary president of the International Judo Federation, Downing Street's invitation to attend the Olympic arena to watch the judo finals with Mr Cameron gave an evocative backdrop to what will almost certainly be combative talks with the Prime Minister.

That their meeting coincided with news that joint UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, had quit, only added to the standoff.

Speaking of Mr Annan's resignation, UN officials cited "persistent divisions" in the UN Security Council, that "have themselves become an obstacle to diplomacy," a clear reference to Russia's persistent veto of numerous resolutions aimed at stabilising Syria.

While judo tough Mr Putin has consistently played hard over Syria, Moscow's diplomatic performance to date has also at times been more akin to that other game at which Russia has always excelled – chess. At its start Moscow thought it would be able to prolong the Syrian crisis for a while and thus keep the US preoccupied with a stalemate between President Bashar-al Assad's regime and the rebels by playing both sides of the conflict. But like everyone else with an interest in Syria, Russia too is now being cajoled into action.

The Kremlin can be under no illusions any more that the Assad regime is expiring, even if as a I write this, Assad's forces are engaged in a major counter-offensive against rebels in the city of Aleppo.

Things in Syria are now in a state of dangerous flux and Moscow realises it must emerge from the crisis with its influence reasonably intact both in the region and at the international negotiating table.

For years the Syria-Iran axis has given Russia a useful tool for dealing with the US. Through its relationships with Syria and Iran, Moscow has been able to either pressure Washington or open the door for negotiations, and for now must find a way to use the Syrian transition to keep the US and other Western powers dependent on Russian cooperation in the Middle East.

Acrimonious as relations over Syria have been between Russia on the one side and Britain, France and the US on the other, all share a common fear over what may be unfolding in Syria as the war there mutates into a multi-faceted conflict with jihadist groups now really beginning to make their presence felt.

How interesting it was to hear the account of British war photographer John Cantlie who was kidnapped and held by a group of foreign jihadists last week before being freed by Syrian opposition fighters. According to Mr Cantlie perhaps as many as 30% of those who captured him were British jihadists while others were Chechen as well as Bangladeshi or Pakistani.

For now, Mr Cameron and Putin are engaged in their own diplomatic wrestling bout and vastly different though their respective long-time interests are, neither leader would like to see a post-Assad Syria where jihadists or Islamic extremists continue to fuel an insurgency.

That these elements are now firmly establishing themselves inside Syria's civil war is no longer in any doubt. Apart from accounts by eyewitnesses like Cantlie the presence of certain weaponry and expertise also provide evidence.

Many of these foreign jihadist fighters have brought with them exceptional bomb-making skills as well as considerable battlefield experience accumulated in a number of frontlines, especially Iraq.

According to some military analysts, these fighters have extensive knowledge of the assembly and use of Improvised Explosive Devices.

The increasing number of Syrian tanks and armoured personnel carriers being destroyed as the fighting escalates is testimony to this. In some instances many of these vehicles have been subjected to a very specialised form of roadside bomb known as an Explosive Formed Penetrator (EFP), a customised constructed charge that pierces even the most sophisticated armour and a weapon I well remember being the scourge of US Stryker armoured units in Baghdad during the war in Iraq.

In an introduction to one of its latest research documents on Syria the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) highlighted how diplomatic manoeuvrings on Syria have ended up "being little more than inertia masquerading as motion".

According to the ICG the West has "used such manoeuvrings to pretend it was doing more than it was while Russia exploited them to feign it backed the Syrian regime less than it actually did".

Yesterday's talks between Mr Cameron and Mr Putin will no doubt soon cast some light on the accuracy of such an analysis.

At the end of every judo contest it is customary for the judoka to bow to their opponent as a mark of respect. At the Olympic venue yesterday such traditions were respected. Whether the same will prevail between Mr Cameron and Mr Putin in the diplomatic arena over Syria is altogether a different matter.

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