When President Barack Obama took questions from reporters on Tuesday, the one that needed to be asked – but wasn’t – was whether he had forbidden Turkey and Saudi Arabia to invade Syria, because on that question could hinge whether the ugly Syrian civil war could spin off into World War III and possibly a nuclear showdown.
If Turkey (with hundreds of thousands of troops massed near the Syrian border) and Saudi Arabia (with its sophisticated air force) follow through on threats and intervene militarily to save their rebel clients, who include Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front, from a powerful Russian-backed Syrian government offensive, then Russia will have to decide what to do to protect its 20,000 or so military personnel inside Syria.
A source close to Russian President Vladimir Putin told me that the Russians have warned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Moscow is prepared to use tactical nuclear weapons if necessary to save their troops in the face of a Turkish-Saudi onslaught. Since Turkey is a member of NATO, any such conflict could quickly escalate into a full-scale nuclear confrontation.
Given Erdogan’s megalomania or mental instability and the aggressiveness and inexperience of Saudi Prince Mohammad bin Salman (defense minister and son of King Salman), the only person who probably can stop a Turkish-Saudi invasion is President Obama. But I’m told that he has been unwilling to flatly prohibit such an intervention, though he has sought to calm Erdogan down and made clear that the U.S. military would not join the invasion.
So far, Erdogan has limited Turkey’s direct military attacks on Syria to cross-border shelling against U.S.-backed Kurdish forces that have seized territory from the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in northern Syria. Turkey considers the Kurdish fighters, known as YPG, to be terrorists but the U.S. government sees them as valuable allies in the fight against Islamic State terrorists, an Al Qaeda spinoff that controls large swaths of Syria and Iraq.
But Erdogan’s short fuse may have grown shorter on Wednesday when a powerful car bomb killed at least 28 people in Turkey’s capital of Ankara. The bomb apparently targeted a military convoy and Turkish officials cast suspicion on Kurdish militants who also have been under assault from Turkish forces inside Turkey.
Though showing no evidence, Turkish officials suggested the attack may have been sponsored by Iran or Russia, another sign of how complicated the geopolitical morass in Syria has become. “Those who think they can steer our country away from our goals by using terrorist organizations will see that they have failed,” declared Erdogan, according to The Wall Street Journal.
(On Wednesday night, Turkey retaliated for the Ankara bombing by launching airstrikes against Kurdish targets in northern Iraq.)
The dilemma for Obama is that many traditional U.S. allies, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have been the principal backers and funders of Sunni terror groups inside Syria, including Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front and – to a lesser degree – the Islamic State. Now, the “allies” want the United States to risk a nuclear confrontation with Russia to, in effect, protect Al Qaeda.
Biden Blurts Out Truth
The twisted reality was acknowledged by no less an authority than Vice President Joe Biden during a talk at Harvard in 2014. Biden answered a student’s question by saying Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had “poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad.” The result, Biden said, was that “the people who were being supplied were Al Nusra and Al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”
The risks from these tangled alliances were also highlighted by a Defense Intelligence Agency report in August 2012, warning the Obama administration that the growing strength of Al Qaeda and other Sunni jihadists in Syria could lead to the creation of “an Islamic state” whose militants could move back into Iraq where the threat originated after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
The DIA said Al Qaeda’s growing strength in Syria “creates the ideal atmosphere for AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] to return to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi and will provide a renewed momentum under the presumption of unifying the jihad among Sunni Iraq and Syria and the rest of the Sunnis in the Arab world against what it considers one enemy, the dissenters [i.e. the Shiites].
“ISI [Islamic State of Iraq, forerunner of ISIS, also known as the Islamic State] could also declare an Islamic state through its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria, which will create grave danger in regards to unifying Iraq and the protection of its territory.”
Despite the prescient DIA report and Biden’s blunt admission (for which he quickly apologized), President Obama failed to put a stop to the strategy of supporting Assad’s opponents. He let Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey continue funneling weapons to the most extreme elements of the rebellion. Meanwhile, the U.S. government insisted that it was only arming “moderate” rebels, but those groups were largely subsumed or controlled by Al Qaeda’s Nusra and/or ISIS, a hyper-violent spinoff from Al Qaeda.
In Syria, rather than cooperate with Russia and Iran in helping Assad’s military defeat the jihadists, the Obama administration has continued playing it cute, insisting – as Secretary of State John Kerry has said recently – that armed “legitimate opposition groups” exist separately from Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front.
In reality, however, the so-called “moderate” rebels around Aleppo and Idlib are Al Qaeda’s junior partners whose value to the cause is that they qualify for CIA weaponry that can then be passed on to Nusra as well as Nusra’s key ally Ahrar al-Sham and other jihadist fighters.
Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, the chief elements of the Saudi-created “Army of Conquest,” deployed U.S. TOW missiles to devastating effect against the Syrian army in the jihadists’ victory last year in Idlib province, a success that finally prompted Putin to commit Russian air power to defend the Syrian government last September.
Helping the Islamic State
Meanwhile, Turkey has left about 100 kilometers of its border open for various jihadist groups to bring in reinforcements and weapons while letting the Islamic State smuggle out oil for sale on the black market. Last fall, after Russia (and a reluctant United States) began bombing ISIS oil-truck convoys, Turkey shot down a Russian bomber near Turkey’s border, leading to the deaths of the pilot and a rescuer.
Now, as the Russian-backed Syrian army makes major gains against the Nusra-dominated rebels around Aleppo and encroaches on Islamic State territory near Raqqa – and as U.S.-backed Kurdish forces also advance against ISIS – Turkey’s Erdogan has grown frantic over the prospects that his five-year project of aiding Syrian jihadists may be collapsing.
Amid this desperation, Turkey has been urging President Obama to support a limited invasion of Syria to create a “safe zone,” supposedly to protect Syrian rebels and civilians in northern Syria. But that humanitarian-sounding plan may well be a cover for a more ambitious plan to march to Damascus and forcibly remove President Assad from power.
That is a goal shared by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states along with Israel and America’s influential neoconservatives and their “liberal interventionist” sidekicks. For his part, Obama has called on Assad “to go” but has favored diplomatic negotiations to achieve that end. Russia has advocated a political settlement with free elections so the Syrian people can decide Assad’s future themselves.
The Russians also keenly remember the West’s subterfuge regarding Libya in 2011 when the U.S. and its NATO allies pushed a “humanitarian” resolution through the United Nations Security Council supposedly to protect Libyan civilians but then used it to achieve violent “regime change,” a classic case of the camel getting its nose into the tent.
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On Syria, Russia watched for years as the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Sunni states supported various Sunni rebel groups seeking to overthrow Assad, an Alawite, representing a branch of Shiite Islam. Though Assad has been widely criticized for the harsh response to the uprising, he maintains a secular government that has protected Christians, Alawites, Shiites and other minorities.
Besides being a target of Sunni regional powers, Assad has long been on the Israeli-neocon hit list because he’s seen as the centerpiece of the “Shiite crescent” stretching from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. Since Israeli leaders (and thus the American neocons) see Iran as Israel’s greatest enemy, the goal of collapsing the “Shiite crescent” has concentrated on bringing down Assad — even if his ouster would create a political/military vacuum that Al Qaeda and/or Islamic State might fill.
Making Syria the site for this proxy war has inflicted particularly savage results on the Syrians. For five years the violence by both the rebels and the army has destroyed much of the country and killed more than 250,000 people while also sending waves of desperate refugees crashing into Europe, now destabilizing the European Union.
However, as the U.S. and its Mideast allies – especially Saudi Arabia and Turkey – escalated the conflict last year by supplying the rebels, including Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front, with American TOW missiles and other sophisticated weapons, Russian President Putin decided it was time to help Syria’s government stop the spread of Sunni terrorism, a threat that has also plagued Russia.
Initially, Official Washington mocked the Russian effort as incapable of accomplishing much, but the Syrian military’s recent victories have turned that derisive laughter into shocked fury. For one, the neoconservative flagship Washington Post has unleashed a stream of editorials and op-eds decrying the Syrian-Russian victories.
“Russia, Iran and the Syrian government are conducting a major offensive aimed at recapturing the city of Aleppo and the rebel-held territory that connects it to the border with Turkey,” the Post lamented. “They have cut one supply route to the city and are close to severing another, trapping rebel forces along with hundreds of thousands of civilians.”
Though one might think that driving Al Qaeda’s forces out of a major urban center like Aleppo would be a good thing, the Post’s neocon editors pretend that the rebels controlling that area are only noble “moderates” who must be protected by the United States. No mention is made of Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front, so as not to spoil the desired propaganda theme.
The Post then badgered Obama to do something: “In the face of this onslaught, which promises to destroy any chance of an acceptable end to the Syrian civil war, the Obama administration has been a study in passivity and moral confusion. President Obama is silent.”
In another hysterical editorial, the Post’s editors conjured up what they called “the real world” where “the best-case scenario after five years of U.S. inaction is a partial peace that leaves Syria partitioned into zones controlled by the [Assad] regime and the Islamic State, with a few opposition and Kurdish enclaves squeezed in. Even that would require the Obama administration to aggressively step up its military support for rebel groups, and confront Russia with more than rhetoric.”
However, in the actual “real world,” the Obama administration has been funneling military equipment to rebels seeking to overthrow an internationally recognized government for years. That assistance has included averting U.S. eyes from the fact that many of those rebel groups were collaborating with Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front and/or the Islamic State.
As Mideast expert Gareth Porter reported, “The Russian airstrikes in question are aimed at cutting off Aleppo city, which is now the primary center of Nusra’s power in Syria, from the Turkish border. To succeed in that aim, Russian, Syrian and Iranian forces are attacking rebel troops deployed in towns all along the routes from Aleppo to the border. Those rebels include units belonging to Nusra, their close ally Ahrar al-Sham, and other armed opposition groups – some of whom have gotten weapons from the CIA in the past. …
“Information from a wide range of sources, including some of those the United States has been explicitly supporting, makes it clear that every armed anti-Assad organization unit in those provinces is engaged in a military structure controlled by Nusra militants. All of these rebel groups fight alongside the Nusra Front and coordinate their military activities with it.”
But The Washington Post and its mainstream U.S. cohorts don’t want you to know the real “real world” reality that Syria’s sainted “moderate” rebels are fighting side by side with Al Qaeda, which was responsible for killing nearly 3,000 Americans on 9/11 and for drawing the U.S. military into a series of Mideast conflicts that have claimed the lives of about 8,000 U.S. soldiers.
The bizarre goal of saving Al Qaeda’s skin presumably would not be a very good selling point to get Americans behind a new war that could pit nuclear-armed Russia against nuclear-armed America with all the horrors that such a conflict could entail.
Still, the inconvenient truth about Al Qaeda’s role occasionally slips into mainstream news accounts, albeit only in passing. For instance, New York Times correspondent Anne Barnard reported last Saturday about a proposed Syrian cease-fire, writing: “With the proviso that the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s branch in Syria, can still be bombed, Russia puts the United States in a difficult position; the insurgent groups it supports cooperate in some places with the well-armed, well-financed Nusra in what they say is a tactical alliance of necessity against government forces.”
So, the quandary that Obama faces is whether the United States should join with Turkey and Saudi Arabia in a blatant invasion of Syria to salvage Al Qaeda’s cause. Of course, that’s not how it would be sold to the American people. The project would be couched in pretty words about “humanitarianism” and the need to maintain U.S. “credibility.”
But Obama seems to recognize enough of the actual reality that he has so far resisted the frantic cries of Official Washington’s neocons and liberal hawks. I’m told Obama also has discouraged Turkey and Saudi Arabia from taking matters into their own hands.
After all, a full-scale invasion by Turkey and Saudi Arabia in support of Al Qaeda and other Sunni rebels would pit the invading force against not only the Syrian army but its Iranian and Hezbollah (Shiite) allies – and most dangerously Russia, which lacks the manpower inside Syria to match up with the Turkish army but could deploy tactical nuclear weapons if necessary to save the lives of Russian soldiers.
So, here is a significant difference between Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She has publicly called for the U.S. military to establish a “safe zone” inside Syria along with a “no-fly zone.” While all that sounds very nice and peaceful, it would actually require the same invasion that Turkey is now seeking and it would require the U.S. air force to eliminate much of the Syrian air force and air defenses. It would be a major act of war.
On Tuesday, Obama was asked about the Syrian conflict at a news conference but it was within the typical mainstream frame of suggesting that Obama is too weak in dealing with Putin. For five years, the mainstream U.S. media can’t get beyond goading Obama to increase U.S. intervention in Syria and thus bring about another “regime change.”
Despite the contrary evidence, it has remained a beloved Washington delusion that some “moderate” oppositionists would replace Assad and bring a happy democracy to Syria. Similar delusions preceded the catastrophes of “regime change” in Iraq and Libya – and one could even go back to the Reagan administration’s “regime change” goal in Afghanistan that led to the emergence of the Taliban, Al Qaeda and modern jihadism in the first place.
But today the stakes include a potential nuclear showdown with Russia — with the United States being urged to take on that existential risk for all humankind on behalf of preserving Al Qaeda’s hopes for raising its black flag over Damascus. If there has ever been a crazier demand by major foreign policy players in Official Washington, it is hard to imagine what it might have been.