As it stands today, United States policy in Syria insists that President Bashar al-Assad must go. But if the U.S. succeeds and the Assad government is scattered to the wind it raises the question: Who will defend the ethnic and religious minorities in Syria from the Islamic State, the al-Nusra Front, and all the other heavily armed homicidal maniacs that already control nearly half the country?
An orderly transfer of power in Syria would be terrific. But nothing taking place on the ground would suggest this outcome to be even a remote possibility at this time. The paucity of "moderate" elements among the rebels would seem to preclude a smooth political transition. The U.S. policy of "regime change" in Iraq and Libya unleashed long-term humanitarian catastrophes. The Assad government is the only game in town and if it falls prematurely Syria will probably end up looking a lot like Libya.
By portraying Russian actions in Syria as "aggression" and "interference" without acknowledging the far more significant role U.S. policy played over the past 12 years in creating the crisis, the American people are being led astray once again on the goals and consequences of U.S. military intervention in the Middle East.
Neo-conservatism and liberal interventionism form two equally bogus parts of a bifurcated worldview that hobbles clear-headed thinking among U.S. foreign policy elites. Even in the face of the nightmarish failures that have destroyed the lives of thousands of innocent people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Ukraine, the neo-cons (such as Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland) and liberal interventionists (such as United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power) still cling to "regime change" as a viable policy.
Both schools of thought believe they can restore the United States' damaged credibility in the Middle East by vilifying Russian President Vladimir Putin and telling lurid tales of Assad's "barrel bombs" and human rights abuses. Both of them always assume the posture of taking the moral high ground. Yet they only choose to see "humanitarian disasters" when they fulfill some wider U.S. geostrategic objective.
We've been hit with a narrative that promotes U.S. power and influence but accepts zero responsibility for the consequences of its actions and those of its allies. Saudi Arabia is not only funneling arms and money to Sunni rebels in Syria and Iraq; it's using state-of-the-art American military technology in Yemen to blow to bits the Houthi and other Shia elements. The U.S. recently rewarded Saudi Arabia for its efforts with another billion-dollar arms deal. We also hear very little about the human rights abuses of the pro-U.S. government of Bahrain (where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is stationed) in repressing its own Shia population.
The Russians have called out the U.S. on its hypocrisy and the reaction has been fierce. Condemning the "former KGB man" Putin and his "despicable lies" and "aggression" flows freely from the mouths of politicians, government officials, and media commentators. Some members of Congress and Republican presidential candidates accuse Iran of "destabilizing" the Middle East. They ignore the fact that it was the United States that already set the place on fire. Gore Vidal used to like to compare George W. Bush to a little boy playfully skipping around the globe lighting matches and sparking wildfires without a care in the world.
The only lasting outcome of the Iraq war was to strengthen Iran's position in the region and so alarm America's Sunni allies they began arming some of the most bloodthirsty people on earth. Even on the U.S.'s own geopolitical terms the Iraq war was a grim flop. Bush, Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell, and everyone else who supported the Iraq invasion of 2003 should bear some responsibility for birthing ISIL.
ISIL's high production-value snuff films, which indulge in every imaginable stereotype of the Islamic terrorist, along with its command of social media, have successfully fused together 21st Century technology with 7th Century ideology and customs. ISIL's belief system is frighteningly anachronistic, but so too is the worldview of U.S. policy elites.
Trapped in the bi-polar world of the Cold War, U.S. policymakers still insist on "NATO expansion" right up against the borders of the Russian Federation while accusing Putin of trying to remake the Soviet Union. In Ukraine, the Russian response to the U.S. policy of "regime change" and NATO expansion is consistent with what "realists" (including Henry Kissinger) would expect as a defensive posture any large power would assume when confronted on its borders. Scholars making this realist argument have come under attack.
U.S. officials and the press seldom concede the crimes of Ukraine's "Right Sector," which is loaded with neo-Nazis whose ultra-nationalist credentials translate into political influence in the Kiev government. But within the dominant American foreign policy paradigm the Ukrainian Right Sector disappears from view, while in Syria "moderates" are conjured up out of thin air. It's all an Orwellian dance where those in power erase history and replace it with useful myths.
"American exceptionalism" and the idea that after Iraq and Libya the U.S. can lecture Russia on the proper conduct of international affairs are part of this fantasy world. American State Department officials seem incapable of viewing the world through any other lens than their own.
Both Russian President Putin and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter have cited the history of World War Two to point to the possibility of an alliance between the U.S. and Russia against ISIL (the same way they joined forces to defeat Nazi Germany). So "history" does sometimes creep into the discussion.
Susan Butler's, Roosevelt and Stalin: Portrait of a Partnership (2015), shows there was no love between Josef Stalin and Franklin Roosevelt, but both leaders recognized that "realism" required an alliance against Germany. Why can't that same spirit of "realism" prevail today in U.S.-Russian relations with regard to the Middle East and Ukraine?
At a recent press luncheon, UN Ambassador Samantha Power responded to a question from Michael Gordon of the New York Times where she blamed Assad and his "barrel bombs" for the rise of ISIL in Syria and added that only by overthrowing Assad could ISIL be tamed. Gordon (of course) failed to ask the obvious follow up question: Who do you think will fill the power vacuum after Assad is gone?
It takes no insight, intellect, or skill to rail against Putin and demand that the U.S. "stand up" to Russia as Jonathan Alter, Howard Dean, and E.J. Dionne did recently on the "liberal" The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell Show on MSNBC. Penning defamatory op-eds about Putin and Assad has become a cottage industry and it's the easiest exercise in the world. All one needs to do is Google an old speech by Dick Cheney or George W. Bush condemning Saddam Hussein and switch out the name "Saddam" and insert the names "Putin" or "Assad." It's the same flatulent rhetoric from American pundits who still don't comprehend that the U.S. has lost the ability to cast moral judgment in international affairs.
The more difficult task is to chart out a rational path forward for a political settlement in Syria that doesn't end up sending another million war refugees fleeing into Europe. Russia keeps trying to explain to the United States that the most likely scenario that will play out if the U.S. achieves its goal of ejecting Assad before the Sunni terrorist groups are neutralized is that Syria will become another Libya. And given its geographical location, Syria could become a far more dangerous long-term problem because of the potential of triggering a wider war that might involve the bigger powers, not only by proxy but directly.
Just because the CIA trained and equipped rebel group (A) or (B) in Syria doesn't qualify them, ipso facto, as being the "good guys" - you'd think we would have learned that lesson from the 1980s when the CIA armed the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan against the Soviets and planted the seeds for Al Qaeda. How dare those Ruskies bomb the Sunni cutthroats and assassins that happen to be on the CIA's payroll this week!
The Pentagon admits that its $500 million effort to train "moderate" rebels in Syria has been an unhappy disaster, and has only outfitted about four or five individuals to be anti-Assad fighters at a cost of about $100 million per rebel. That's not a very good return on a taxpayer investment - in fact, it equals the entire amount of the annual federal subsidy for Planned Parenthood.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond believes defending Assad will strengthen the opposition: "We need the Russians to understand that in coming to defense of the regime to attack ISIL, what they will do is forge a single united front under ISIL leadership against the regime." But al-Nusra, ISIL, and the other terrorist groups in Syria (along with the thousands of foreign recruits) are well known to shuffle and reshuffle their alliances in any way that serves their immediate tactical objectives. It's unlikely that expelling Assad now would lead these groups to put down their weapons, stop blowing up antiquities and cutting off heads, and come to the bargaining table.
The ahistorical reportage on the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine is summed up in the concluding paragraph of a recent New York Times article:
"Mr. Putin harbors both international and domestic reasons for interfering in Syria. On the international front, he wants to restore Russian influence as a global power and try to force an end to the diplomatic and financial isolation the West imposed after Moscow seized Crimea and supported separatists in southeastern Ukraine. He also wants to maintain control over Russia's naval station at Tartus, in Syria, its only remaining overseas military base outside the former Soviet Union." (NYT 10/1/15 p. A10)
The omissions are glaring. There's no mention of the U.S. invasion of Iraq that set off this clusterfuck in the first place, which ignited the bloodiest sectarian fighting in centuries, sent packing the Sunni technocratic class in Baghdad, and prepared the ground for the rise of ISIL. The characterization of Russian motives ignores the determined U.S. policy of "NATO expansion" in Eastern Europe and the role of the U.S. in the February 2014 coup that overthrew the elected president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. Inconvenient truths that contradict the U.S. line are airbrushed out of the discourse. Those who still wonder how the American people could be so misled into thinking the Iraq war was a good idea should peruse the current media coverage of Syria and Ukraine for their answer.
In a September 27, 2015, front page article by Michael Gordon, (who's worth reading to deduce exactly what line the CIA wants to push on any given day), criticized the decision of the Russian government to share intelligence on ISIL with the governments of Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Given the reports that hundreds of new ISIL fighters are now flowing into Syria from Russia it would seem a prudent step to try to find out who these people are. Yet Gordon's stenography turns a pragmatic idea -- tracking ISIL terrorists -- into something suspicious. Sounding the alarm about terrorists has been the journalistic gold standard for people like Gordon for years, yet his official sources now lead him to turn a blind eye to the shared interests of the U.S. and Russia in combating ISIL.
Maybe the goal of U.S. policy all along has been to crush the Arab regimes that emerged in the 1960s and '70s (Saddam, Gadhafi, Assad) that built Oil Ministries and other barriers that impede free access to their resources? Maybe American foreign policy seeks to remove any obstacle that interferes with building a neo-liberal Utopia? And maybe the vitriol aimed at Russia is because Putin is exposing the ruse?
Even during the height of the Cold War American diplomats such as George Kennan could use their imaginations to try to put themselves in their adversary's place and view the world from the Russian perspective. One of the more notable examples of this ability to perceive the world from your opponent's standpoint comes from a leader who President Barack Obama, Ambassador Power, and Secretary of State John Kerry hold in high regard: President John F. Kennedy.
During the Cuban missile crisis Kennedy constantly tried to see the crisis from the viewpoint of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. He understood the Russian perspective, the need to "save face," and the pressures from hardliners within the Soviet government. He tried his best to empathize with his adversary even while taking militaristic steps to thwart him. Neither was he afraid of cutting deals and making concessions. In a sense, it was Kennedy's realism that saved the planet.
Since the Bush-Cheney years it seems that the ability of U.S. diplomats to put themselves in "the Other's" shoes has atrophied. We hear American commentators and officials lament Putin's control of Russian state media. Yet they don't acknowledge their own ideological blinders that a "free" media system imposes where many of the same people who brought us the Iraq war (neo-cons and liberal interventionists) are now manufacturing a faulty and dangerous "consensus" about what is to be done in Syria and Ukraine.