Despite all the ranting from armchair-warriors across Official Washington – urging attacks on the Syrian military and even Russian warplanes inside Syria – cooler heads may have finally prevailed with Secretary of State John Kerry agreeing to a formula that will let Iran participate in Syrian peace talks set to begin Friday in Geneva.
The point here is that Iran and Russia, as allies of the Syrian government, are in a strong position to urge concessions from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, much as Russian President Vladimir Putin did in 2013 when he pressured Assad to surrender Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. Also, in late 2013, Putin helped wrest concessions from Iran over its nuclear program.
Assuming Kerry shows corresponding flexibility by relenting on the U.S. demand that “Assad must go” as a precondition to negotiations – and puts pressure on the U.S.-backed Syrian opposition to accept some compromise with Assad – perhaps this humanitarian catastrophe can be brought under some measure of control.
It is way past time for sanity and realism to replace the endless “tough guy/gal” posturing that has consumed Official Washington since 2011 as a quarter million Syrians have been killed and millions have fled as refugees across the Mideast and into Europe.
The only narrative that’s been allowed in the mainstream U.S. press is that Assad is responsible for nearly every bad thing that’s happened, ignoring the support that Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and even Israel have provided to jihadist fighters, including Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front and Al Qaeda’s spinoff, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh).
President Barack Obama has been part of the problem, too, as he has bent to the “regime change” demands of “liberal interventionists” and their close cousins, the neoconservatives.
To appease those political/media voices, Obama has “covertly” intervened in the Syrian conflict by arming and training some rebel forces. Though the administration insists that it has armed and trained only “moderate” rebels, the reality is that such a “moderate” force is largely mythical, with many of the CIA’s recruits later joining Islamist armies and surrendering U.S.-supplied weapons to these extremists.
How U.S. officials have defined “moderate” is also in question. A source briefed on this strategy told me that the CIA supplied 500 TOW anti-tank missiles to Ahrah ash-Sham, an Islamist force founded, in part, by Al Qaeda veterans. Ahrah ash-Sham collaborates with Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front as the two leading militias in the Saudi-backed Army of Conquest.
The sophisticated TOW missiles have been “credited” with enabling the Army of Conquest to make major advances around the city of Idlib and block counter-offenses by the Syrian army. In other words, U.S. support for “moderate” rebels has strengthened the military position of Al Qaeda, even if the administration can technically argue that it isn’t giving weapons to Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front.
A Grave Danger
The grave danger of such U.S. calibrations about ratcheting up the war pressure on the Assad government just enough for Assad to leave but not for his government to collapse is the high probability of a miscalculation that could lead to a disintegrating Syrian army and open a path for Al Qaeda and/or the Islamic State to capture Damascus, raising the black flag of Sunni terrorism over a major city in the Middle East.
As grim as the human rights situation in Syria is now, a victory by the Sunni terrorists would very possibly lead to genocide against the Alawites, Christians, Shiites and other “infidels.” Millions more Syrians would flee the slaughter, destabilizing not only Turkey and other Mideast nations but Europe as well.
Then, Official Washington’s “regime change” tough-talkers would surely demand a full-scale U.S. military invasion and occupation of Syria, an extraordinarily costly and likely futile attempt to restore some semblance of order in the region.
So, any sign that President Obama and Secretary Kerry have gotten down off their “Assad must go” high horses represents a glimmer of hope that a political solution may finally be possible. But a deal would also require Obama and Kerry getting tough with Sunni “allies” and aggressively clamping down on the continued flow of money and weapons to the Islamist rebels.
If a political power-sharing arrangement between Assad’s side and the U.S.-backed “moderate” Sunni politicians can be arranged – and if the borders can be sealed off to prevent resupply of the extremists – then Syria might eventually restore enough order to conduct elections so the Syrians themselves can decide who they want as their leaders.
But Official Washington’s neocons/liberal interventionists seem determined to wreck any possible peace deal. These influential opinion leaders – bolstered by the “human rights” community – continue to insist on “regime change” in Syria, a top neocon goal since the 1990s. The Assad family’s ouster was expected to be the quick follow-on to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, except that the Iraq operation didn’t turn out exactly as the neocons had drawn it up at their think tanks.
The neocons also wanted to bomb-bomb-bomb Iran and force another “regime change” there. But their fuzzy dreams of installing their favorite Iraqi/Syrian/Iranian puppets were dashed by the hard realities of the Middle East. Still, the dreams did not die. They were just put on hold until a more advantageous moment presented itself.
That moment almost came on Aug. 21, 2013, when a sarin gas attack outside Damascus killed hundreds of civilians. Though the whodunit was never clear, U.S. officials and mainstream media rushed to pin the blame on Assad and demand that Obama launch a major military strike to punish Assad for crossing a U.S. “red line” against using chemical weapons.
That dangerous plan was only averted at the last minute because of growing doubts among intelligence analysts that Assad was responsible, with later evidence suggesting a “false flag” attack by extremist rebels trying to draw the U.S. military into the war on their side. The bombing plans were also derailed because Russian President Putin came up with a compromise in which Assad gave up all his chemical weapons while still denying any role in the sarin attack.
The Putin-Obama Team
Later in 2013, Putin also teamed up with Obama to work on a tentative agreement to prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb, a move that derailed neocon hopes for a military strike by U.S. or Israeli warplanes against Iran. In other words, the neocons were again thwarted in their plans for violently remaking the Middle East.
By January 2014, it also seemed possible that this Putin-Obama collaboration could make progress on Syrian peace talks in Geneva with Iran invited to join the negotiations, holding out the prospect that Russia and Iran could extract concessions from Assad while the Obama administration could twist the arms of its Syrian proxies.
But Official Washington’s neocons rose up in fury over the idea of Iran in the negotiations. After all, Iran was still Israel’s bête noire and the neocons had not given up their hopes for a bombing campaign. Faced with this political/media fury, Obama and Kerry buckled under the pressure and insisted that United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon disinvite Iran from the talks, which then degenerated into a shouting match, with the U.S. side demanding that “Assad must go” and the Assad side leaving in a huff.
It also became clear to the neocons that the Obama-Putin collaboration presented another danger. It carried the possibility of the two major powers pressing Israel and the Palestinians into an agreement on a Palestinian state, another prospect that upset the neocons who prefer giving Israel free rein over the Palestinian territories.
So, this Obama-Putin cooperation itself had to be blown up – and it was. In February 2014, U.S. neocons – including Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, Sen. John McCain and National Endowment for Democracy president Carl Gershman – helped orchestrate a coup in Ukraine, ousting a democratically elected government friendly with Moscow and replacing it with a fiercely anti-Russian regime that even deployed neo-Nazis to help put down resistance among Ukraine’s ethnic Russians.
When the people of Crimea – many of them ethnic Russians – voted by 96 percent to leave Ukraine and rejoin Russia, the neocon-dominated U.S. news media pronounced the referendum a “sham” and detected a Russian “invasion,” although Russian troops were already in Crimea under an agreement for the Russian naval base at Sevastopol.
As the Ukraine crisis worsened, a wave of Putin bashing swept through U.S. and European political and media circles. Rather than resist this “group think,” President Obama joined it. He agreed that Putin and Russia had to be frozen out of polite international society. The neocons and the liberal interventionists were again riding high.
But the situation in Syria continued to worsen. In summer 2014, the Islamic State, which had begun a decade earlier as “Al Qaeda in Iraq” fighting the U.S. occupation of Iraq, suddenly emerged as a potent force, seizing large swaths of Syria and then Iraq. The Islamic State’s lightning military strikes and its gruesome videos of beheading Westerners and other “infidels” shocked the world and prompted Obama to hit back both in Iraq and Syria.
Yet, the U.S. alliance of anti-Islamic State forces was half-hearted, since Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states had been supporting Sunni jihadists in Syria, including elements of the Islamic State. Thus, many Sunni participants in the U.S.-led alliance were less than enthusiastic partners, with their principal goal still the ouster of Assad, an Alawite, an offshoot of Shia Islam.
The ineffectual campaign against the Islamic State and the embarrassing results of Obama’s $500 million plan to train “moderate” Syrian rebels, which ended up inserting only about five fighters into the field, helped convince Putin that stronger measures were needed to prevent the eventual collapse of the Syrian military and a victory for Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Since Putin had already been turned into an international pariah over Ukraine, there was also less downside for his acting more assertively in Syria. With the permission of the Assad government and Iran’s help on the ground, Russia launched an ambitious air campaign, hitting a variety of “terrorist” targets, including Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front and the Islamic State.
Howls went up from the neocons, liberal interventionists and much of the mainstream U.S. media that Putin’s air offensive was killing “our guys.” In an extraordinary interview aired Oct. 11 on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” correspondent Steve Kroft baited President Obama to do something to stop Putin.
“[Putin’s] bombing the people that we are supporting,” Kroft wailed. “He’s challenging your leadership, Mr. President. He’s challenging your leadership. … [People] say you’re projecting a weakness.”
Though Obama had gone along with the demonization of Putin – even listing Russia along with Ebola and the Islamic State as the three top threats to the world – he appears belatedly to have recognized that the only solution to the Syrian conflict is a political compromise in which all sides make concessions – and Russia and Iran play key roles in assuring more give from Assad.
Thus, with negotiations resuming in Geneva on Friday, it appears there is finally the possibility of progress toward ending the horrific war in Syria. But that result will not come easily. Secretary Kerry will have to demand significant concessions from both the U.S.-funded Syrian “moderates” and from the regional Sunni powers to get serious about cutting off their “covert” assistance to the Sunni jihadists inside Syria.
If some stability can be restored in Syria, the ultimate solution might be an election that will let the Syrian people decide who their leaders should be.
But President Obama will have to contend with Official Washington’s neocons, liberal interventionists and “human rights” community which will continue to put their “regime change” agenda ahead of a pragmatic effort to end the slaughter and to stanch the destabilizing flow of refugees across the Mideast and into Europe.