I note with interest that Thomas Friedman, the premier moral imbecile of American journalism, is spitballing the idea of using ISIS to roll back Iran.
Friedman is still an outlier. The moderate voice in hawkish Middle East policy today, on the other hand, belongs to analysts calling for supporting al Qaeda as the preferred US asset against Iran and, for that matter, ISIS.
This marks a sea change in American Middle East public punditry and a sign that the United States has moved beyond the 9/11 era, in which our national policy and indeed our national identity was largely defined by getting those AQ bad guys who had knocked down the World Trade Center, blown a hole in the Pentagon, and killed over 3000 Americans on a single day in 2001.
Now, the oppose-Iran obsession has resumed center stage, at least for the Beltway-friendly commentariat, and al Qaeda is seen as a suitable and acceptable partner, especially since the current Sunni extremist champion, ISIS, is enduring an ass-kicking at the hands and boots of the Iraq government, Shi’ite militias, and Iranian Revolutionary Guard units.
It is sobering to consider that the United States has done less to un-f*ck-up the Middle East in 14 years than Iran has been able to accomplish in a few months of campaigning in eastern Iraq. Another sign, if anybody is paying attention, that Iran is the least dysfunctional polity and partial democracy in the Middle East, while Uncle Sam is trapped driving in circles in a clown car fighting for the wheel with Saudi Arabian autocrats and Israeli apartheidists.
No wonder President Obama wants rapprochement with Iran and a quick pivot outta here to the peaceful and prosperous precincts of Asia. Good luck with that!
As to the odious al Qaeda alliance, the bad news is that it is more than the fever dream of frustrated Beltway analysts.
The de facto US-AQ alliance has been going on in Syria for almost three years.
In fact, I think I can put a date on its formal unveiling: July 17, 2012, the day the US, Europe, Turkey, and the GCC optimistically thought they could wrap up the Syria crisis in a few weeks with a well-timed campaign of terror and insurrection starting in Damascus.
Recently, a Beirut based newspaper, As-Safir, published a report on the July 2012 bombing (not aerial bombing, a C4 boobytrap) that wiped out Bashar al-Assad’s “security cell” a.k.a. his national security team during their daily strategy session in Damascus.
As translated by an outfit called Mideastwire, As-Safir claims the bombing was a decapitation strike as part of an elaborately choreographed scheme by the U.S. to collapse the Syrian government and military and smooth the way for a drive on Damascus by the Free Syrian Army and the elevation of defecting general Manaf Tlass (who possessed limited capacities beyond a firm jaw well suited to Churchillian cigar-clenching but was adored by the French, perhaps because his socialite sister had allegedly been the mistress of a French foreign minister) to the presidency.
Why should we care? With the cataract of blood and rubble and anguish that has hurtled into the Syrian abyss since then, why should we care that three of Assad’s henchman got blown up in July 2012?
a) the aftermath of the attack revealed the essential robustness of the Syrian regime and command structure and apparently convinced President Obama that strategies predicated on quick regime collapse either by covert action or indignant rhetoric were unlikely to remove Assad from his perch;
b) Assad’s view of Western/GCC negotiating sincerity was probably tempered by the awareness that they had tried to murder him ;
and c) the helter-skelter scheme revealed for the first time the presence of armed extremists under the Al Qaeda banner as US auxiliaries.
I am inclined to believe As-Safir, apparently a lefty, Syria-friendly outfit with a large circulation, because shortly after the bombing I drew the same conclusion, immortalized in my July 28, 2012 piece for Asia Times Online:
[A] funny thing happened last week. The Assad regime didn’t collapse, despite an orchestrated, nation-wide assault (coordinated, we can assume, by the crack strategists of the international anti-Assad coalition): a decapitating terrorist bombing in the national security directorate, near-simultaneous armed uprisings in the main regime strongholds of Damascus and Aleppo, and the seizure of many of Syria’s official border crossings with Iraq and Turkey.
Points 1 and 2 are covered in the As-Safir article, which apparently draws on tittle-tattle from a French diplomat. As to the third point, seizure of the border crossings, in July 2012 I wrote (refer to my ATOl article for the links):
Juan Cole of the University of Michigan laid out the big picture strategic thinking behind some of the border seizures on his blog, Informed Comment:
If the FSA can take the third crossing from Iraq, at Walid, they can control truck traffic into Syria from Iraq, starving the regime. The border is long and porous, but big trucks need metalled roads, which are few and go through the checkpoints. Some 70% of goods coming into Syria were coming from Iraq, because Europe cut off trade with the Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad. The rebels are increasingly in a position to block that trade or direct it to their strongholds.
According to an Iraqi deputy minister of the interior, the units that seized the border were perhaps not the goodwill ambassadors that the Syrian opposition or Dr Cole might have hoped for:
The top official said Iraqi border guards had witnessed the Free Syrian Army take control of a border outpost, detain a Syrian army lieutenant colonel, and then cut off his arms and legs.
“Then they executed 22 Syrian soldiers in front of the eyes of Iraqi soldiers.”
They reportedly also raised the al-Qaeda flag.
The forces participating in the operation at the Turkish border crossings were also an interesting bunch – and certainly not all local Syrian insurgents, as AFP reported:
By Saturday evening, a group of some 150 foreign fighters describing themselves as Islamists had taken control of the post.
These fighters were not at the site on Friday, when rebel fighters captured the post.
Some of the fighters said they belonged to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), while others claimed allegiance to the Shura Taliban. They were armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, rocket launchers and improvised mines.
The fighters identified themselves as coming from a number of countries: Algeria, France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates – and the Russian republic of Chechnya…
Nice to remember that Juan Cole, who embarrassed himself mightily by cheerleading the Libyan debacle, also applied his mad analytic and tactical skillz to the Syrian fiasco.
Anyway, the appearance of armed Islamist extremists as part of a meticulously if not particularly intelligently planned regime change gambit in 2012: that’s what matters today.
Because even after the decapitation & collapse strategy failed, the extremists stayed, presumably as executors of an open-ended “success is not an option” “bleed Syria (and Iran)” strategy funded by Gulf interests, supported by Turkish infrastructure, and condoned by the United States.
And bleed Syria did.
The result is a butcher’s bill of nearly one quarter of a million dead and 3.5 million refugees, over 90% incurred after the domestic insurrection failed in February 2012 and the combined genius of the Western, Arab, and Turkish worlds was turned to engineering regime change via external means.
As the sage said, success has a thousand fathers and failure is an orphan. So it is reprehensible but not too surprising that the Syrian horror is now described in the ultimate hands-off passive voice fashion as “a tragedy” and not “the knowing murder of hundreds of thousands and the immiserating of millions by the funding, supply, facilitation, and diplomatic support of thousands of paramilitaries by the United States, European states, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and now Israel (which is now providing medical facilities to wounded AQ fighters at the Syrian border)”.
It is also darkly amusing that the worse IS does, the more pre-emptive squealing one hears from the West about the as yet unmaterialized threat of massive human rights violations against Sunnis by Shi’a forces in areas recovered from IS.
And, to cap it, you get chin-stroking in the press about common cause with AQ and/or ISIS to stop the Iranian menace.
Which reminds me of the final indispensable element in regime-change choreography: credulous, vociferous, enabling media.
According to as-Safir, it was clear at the early July 2012 Friends of Syria conference in Paris that something was afoot:
When a French diplomat stopped two journalists, a French and an Arab, in early July 2012, near a café adjacent to the French foreign ministry, the lights of the Friends of Syria conference had grown dim at the conference center following two exhausting days of debate that provided the impression to the meeting participants that the toppling of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is now a fait accompli.
…[T]he diplomat revealed what he had in mind and advised the journalists to slow down with their packing because a major event was going to take place in July. The bets to topple Al-Assad in Paris and between the “Friends of Syria” had turned into a mere matter of time.
I will be charitable and say, despite these manifest signs (and, for that matter, the fact that an externally choreographed regime change jamboree was under way was apparent even to an outside observer like me), it was not clear to the legion of Western journos covering Syria that they were getting played as part of some PR charade whose primary purpose was to stampede Russian into abandoning Assad and supporting a UNSC resolution condemning him, preferably with an Article 7 stinger approving the use of force, thereby enabling transition to the West/GCC-backed opposition.
At the New York Times, Neil McFarquar (with considerable assistance: “Reporting was contributed by Dalal Mawad and Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Rick Gladstone from New York, Ellen Barry from Moscow, Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem, Elisabeth Bumiller and Eric Schmitt from Washington, and an employee of The New York Times from Damascus, Syria.”) asked if the death knell was being sounded for Assad’s regime:
The impact of the day’s events reverberated on multiple levels, piercing the psychological advantage that Mr. Assad’s superior military strength has provided in preserving the loyalty of his forces and frightening much of the public into staying home. With the opposition energized and the government demoralized, analysts wondered if other military units and trusted lieutenants would be more inclined to switch sides — and if the government would retaliate with an escalation of violence.
The idea that a poorly organized, lightly armed opposition force could somehow get so close to the seat of power raised questions about the viability of a once unassailable police state.
In its final form, the title of the piece is “Syrian Rebels Land Deadly Blow to Assad’s Inner Circle”. I suspect the original, more optimistic drift of the piece is embodied in the URL.
Despite the telephoned and optimistically spun blandishments of President Obama, Putin didn’t bite (I expect he was still feeling the “Libya no-fly-zone burn”), and the anti-Assad coalition had, in addition to botching the putsch, failed to strip the Assad regime of Russian support. In fact, the Russian Federation doubled down on its support of Assad instead. Which, I imagine, feeds the “Bad Vlad” resentment that permeates Western capitals and editorial offices…
…exacerbated, certainly, by Putin’s sabotaging of another brilliant Western scheme, this time in Ukraine…
…which, come to think of it, explains my extremely jaundiced opinion of the reportorial and analytic capacities of the pro-Kyiv journos, who exhibit a similar paired obliviousness to incompetent, catastrophic, and morally bankrupt Western strategic gambits with credulous retailing of anti-Russian novelties as their outlets and colleagues previously displayed in the matter of Syria.
Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.