The beheading of a child and use of poison gas in Syria ought to awaken Obama and Putin to the dangers of sticking with their chosen allies. But it won't happen.
The other day I saw the horrific video of Syrian guerrillas from an anti-government group called the Nour al-Din al-Zinki Movement as they gleefully beheaded a boy of about 12 years old. It was one of the most horrific scenes, of which there have been plenty, to have come out of the multiple Middle East wars underway. I don't recommend watching. To add to the disgust, for an American, is the realization that the Obama administration provided financing to this particular group of criminals up until at least September 2015, and still funds others of its ilk. Close U.S. allies Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia continue direct support to Zinki.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Syrian coin comes word that the government of President Bashar al-Assad used chlorine gas to incapacitate insurgents in a town near Aleppo. Also available on video. While not as shocking as the images of victims of the rocket-borne poison gas attack in Damascus back in August, 2013, it provided evidence enough that the regime of Bashar al-Assad is capable of indiscriminate killing from its planes and troops on the ground. Vladimir Putin's Russia, which has lent its own air power to Assad's arsenal, is more than willing to sanction it all.
Use of gas bombs was supposed to end after Putin persuaded Assad to give up the worst of his chemical weapons arsenal. Never mind. The world has gotten accustomed to the wanton destruction of Syria and the deadly toll on civilians.
To summarize: Obama and Putin, for different reasons, are willing to back allies who have shown themselves capable of the most frightful wartime acts. Is there no shame?
Take Obama first. In Syria, he has carried on parallel policies: to help so-called moderate forces unseat Assad; and to destroy the Islamic State, a dangerous global terror group that is also one of the regime's enemies. ISIS is guilty of beheadings, crucifixions, the stoning of women and persecution of religious minorities as well as majority Sunni Muslims it judges insufficiently loyal. Yet, the U.S. ignores similar crimes committed by the many other equally horrendous U.S.-backed militias tormenting Syria.
Given the shifting loyalties of insurgent groups, Washington does not seem to know where the arms it supplies, or even the soldiers it trains, end up. Take the Nusra Front. The State Department complained recently that U.S.-authorized rebels have been "co-mingling" with Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate, meaning they basically work together. Why is that bad? Because Nusra has been guilty of a vast array of human rights abuses and war crimes, including wanton killing of civilians, expulsion of minorities, including Christians from their homes, kidnappings and all sorts of summary executions, including beheadings.
And get this: Nusra is changing its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (the Conquest of Syria Front) and has asked permission from al-Qaeda to sever its relations with the jihadist terror group. The name change might make ex-Nusra appear more interested in Syria than in al-Qaeda's global aspirations. Maybe its angling for respectability -- and aid from Assad donors. The new label doesn't mean an end to its nefarious and cruel practices, as far as anyone can tell.
Much of the horror is out of public view. Few reporters work in ultra-dangerous Syria. Obama's preference for covert operations helps keep domestic pressure off him for waging continuous wars (the U.S. is bombing targets in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya). It somehow preserves Obama's reputation as a peacemaker.
After a Pentagon briefing the other day, Obama noted that "a big chunk" of his graying hair had come from having to deal with Syria. Imagine how the Syrians feel.
Secrecy covers up US failures and rebel atrocities not only in Syria, but Iraq. In Iraq, where the Administration is supporting the Baghdad government's army in efforts to crush a Sunni Muslim rebellion and oust the Islamic State from cities in the center of the country. At the same time, Obama turns a blind eye to the assaults on civilians carried out by Iranian-backed pro-government militias involved in the same campaign.
Meanwhile, Russia justifies its involvement in Syria on an invitation from Assad to intervene. That Assad has repeatedly and indiscriminately bombs civilian cities, starves out whole towns and disappears and tortures prisoners bothers Putin not at all. The tactics are similar to ones he himself used in 1999 and 2000 to quell a rebellion, part conventionally secular, part viciously Islamist, in Russia's province of Chechnya.
Neither Obama nor Putin seem much concerned with the Syria that will emerge from all this. The country is in ruins, with major towns badly damaged by bombing and artillery. Millions of refugees, lives disrupted for five years running, have taken refuge inside and outside Syria. In a culture with a long tradition of blood revenge, there is plenty of hatred to fuel a century of vendettas.
Obama seems to think that intolerant Islamist forces will simply fade away once Assad is ousted. Putin seems to believe that the country can be tranquilized in a return to a police state and run like Chechnya by a venal client, secret police and intelligence services.
Putin and Obama, through their intermediaries Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, are supposed to be working together end the war. Anyone remember the cessation of hostilities agreement of last February, brokered by this pair? It ceased no hostilities.
For some reason, no one seems to mention Iran in the equation. Iran supplies both weapons and solders to the pro-Assad cause yet Obama carries on as if the Islamic Republic is not a factor. On the contrary, Iran's place as a regional power and sponsor of its client Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia, depends on keeping Assad in power.
It's time to put an end to more fantasies about US-Russia interim agreements and Iran's good will. There ought to be a concerted drive to form a national unity government to represent , Islamist groups not involved in war crimes, non-Islamist Sunnis who oppose Assad, and Sunni communities that support Assad along with minority Christian and Alawite communities who are fearful of an fundamentalist takeover if he falls.
All that would require Russia and the U.S. to in tandem pressure Iran, which evidently prefers the Assad status quo. With Assad having survived the civil war thanks to both Putin, who is feeling good about his success, and Iran, for whom Assad's survival is a point of supreme geopolitical importance, such a compromise is far off.