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“Counterproductive” Russia and the Conflict in Syria

The Pentagon and State Department, echoed as usual by the mainstream press, have expressed “concern” about Russian deliveries of the most modern tanks, fighter aircraft, surface-to-air missiles and other military equipment to Syria. They call them “counterproductive,” although it’s not clear what sort of productive cause they counter.

They say these shipments—which they’ve tried to thwart by instructing NATO allies to deny delivery flights through their airspace—are likely “to prolong the war” in that tragically suffering country. Cable news anchors, with furrowed brows and glaring eyes, warn their viewers that Moscow’s stepped-up support for the Assad regime is a “worrisome development.”

Moscow responds blandly that Russia (and the Soviet Union before it) have been allied to the Syrian government since the 1950s, when (like the U.S., actually) it saw the secular Baathists as a preferable alternative to Islamist throughout the region. Russia has been Syria’s main arms supplier for decades, and is (according to RT television) currently filling contracts with Damascus signed years ago.

(Moscow might add that it has maintained a naval base at Tartus on the Syrian coast since 1971, and an airbase at Latakia. These are among Russia’s foreign military basis, which you can count on one hand. The U.S. in contrast has, as you know, well over 700 military bases in over 135 countries where around 300,000 U.S. troops are stationed.)

The Russian Foreign Ministry has repeatedly urged the establishment of an international coalition to fight ISIL, which seems rational enough on the face of it. While it has not yet killed as many people as George W. Bush did, this well funded, growing organization, rapidly evolving into a viable state, is as manifestly cruel as the former U.S. president and his cabinet of amoral neocons hell-bent on imposing their own sort of caliphate on Southwest Asia. It is surely evil.

Pursuing a demented religious ideology, ISIL brutally enforces a version of the Sharia, forces conversions on pain of death, enslaves whole communities, sells women as sex-slaves, practices religiously ritualized gang rape, beheads Christians and Shiites, teaches boys to behead infidels, crucifies those who violate its edicts, burns and buries people alive, blows up precious historical monuments, burns priceless historical manuscripts. It is the evil genie that popped up unexpectedly when Bush rubbed the magic lamp of Iraq.

Although the media downplays it, Washington probably realizes how horrible the situation has become. It claims to have, for its own part, organized a “coalition of over 60 nations” (pointedly excluding Syria, Iran and Russia and including mostly ghost members who pay lip-service to the cause and maybe some cash but play no military role) to fight and defeat ISIL. Yet it continues to insist that Bashar al-Assad is “the (main) problem” and that the Syrian president has to go before that defeat can occur. (It sometimes even preposterously asserts that Assad and ISIL are somehow in cahoots, which as the Russians note, just doesm’t make any sense.)

In July 2011 during the “Arab Spring” President Obama announced that Assad had “lost his legitimacy” by firing upon his own people during protests. In the same month he urged Yemen’s President Ali Saleh, a longstanding ally, to step down. Four months earlier he’d ordered Muammar Gaddafi in Libya to step down. In February he’d called Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, another longtime ally, to give him his marching orders.

Having been taken aback by the toppling of the Tunisian president in January 2011 in the face of a mass uprising, and the surge of region-wide anti-government protests that followed, Obama made the strategic decision to posture as the champion of the Arab masses protesting in the streets, and assert his authority as leader of the world’s one “indispensable,” “exceptional” nation by instructing various leaders, including erstwhile friends and allies, to resign from their posts.

Obama reckoned that Assad like these other leaders was a goner, and that he himself could curry favor with the Arab multitude, and help shape regime change, by issuing his declaration. (Four years later, we have seen the limited efficacy of the president’s pontifications. Assad is still there.)

In fact Washington had been seeking to topple the Syrian leadership for years. This was a key goal of the neocons who controlled foreign policy during the administration of George W. Bush (and retained much influence thereafter). They’d seen Syria as “low hanging fruit” ripe for the plucking.

Gen. Wesley Clark has often related how, days after 9/11, he visited the Pentagon and was told by a former colleague about a memo stating, “We’re going to take out seven countries in 5 years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran.” In 2005, the odious neocon and former Defense Policy Board chair Richard Perle (nicknamed the “Prince of Darkness,” presumably for his eagerness to use blatant lies to promote war) was meeting with old friend Farid Ghadry, a Syrian-American who headed something called the “Syrian Reform Party.”

(Recall how dual national Perle had co-authored the Israeli white paper “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm” for Binyamin Netanyahu, outlining a strategy for U.S.-Israeli transformation of the Middle East, including the achievement of regime change in Syria.)

Ghadry (a former employee of a U.S. defense contactor and failed businessman, whose Syrian citizenship was revoked after he appeared before Israel’s Knesset in 2007) had told the Wall Street Journal that Ahmad Chalaby (the Iraqi charlatan and neocon darling who had promoted some of the lies surrounding the U.S. invasion of Iraq) had “paved the way in Iraq for what we want to do in Syria.” Perle & Co. were then urging the bombing of Syria.

Israel itself conducted a massive airstrike on a suspected nuclear reactor in Syria in 2007. But Bush during his term of office, influenced by cooler heads, refrained from an overt attack. Syria was, after all, cooperating with the U.S. in the “War on Terror,” in 2003 apprising Washington of an al-Qaeda plot against the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. It was a common destination of suspected “terrorists” captured by U.S. forces in various countries and sent to hidden sites for torture under the infamous “extraordinary rendition” program.

In 2010, during the Obama administration, a new U.S. ambassador was sent to Damascus for the first time in five years. In March 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even declared Bashar al-Assad a “reformer,” implying that the U.S. could work with him. But later that year—during the “Arab Spring” and after Obama’s demand that the Syrian president step down, which produced attacks on the U.S. embassy by pro-Assad demonstrators incensed by that display of hyper-power arrogance—he was withdrawn. The U.S. embassy in Damascus remains vacant.

One must ask what the mainstream media never asks. Why is the U.S. been so hostile to the Damascus regime? Surely it’s not due to its horrible human rights record. The U.S. is intimately friendly with Saudi Arabia, which is arguably far worse.

(As we speak a young man who, at age 17 in 2012, attended an anti-government demonstration in Qaif province, and arrested for carrying a firearm—a charge never proved—is appealing a sentence that includes his beheading and posthumous public crucifixion. About 100 people are judicially beheaded in Saudi Arabia every year, including for such offenses as homosexuality and witchcraft. In Syria, which has two-thirds the population of Saudi Arabia, there are rarely more than 10 judicial executions.)

Surely no one can argue that Bashar al-Assad is worse than any among the rogues’ gallery of U.S. clients and puppets, past and present, including Park Chung-hee, Ferdinand Marcos, Suharto, the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein (a U.S. friend for much of his career), Mobuto Sese Seko, Francesco Franco, Augusto Pinochet, Anastasio Samoza, Papa Doc Duvalier, Efraim Rios Montt, etc.

It’s very normal for the U.S. to be in bed with horrible human rights abusers. When Washington embarks on a campaign to overthrow them, it loudly exposes their crimes. But so long as they’re on the same bed, it just whispers quietly—if at all—acknowledging the abuses, perhaps noting some “progress” real or imagined and gently urging more. Thus has it always been with Saudi Arabia.

The hostility doesn’t stem from the fact that Assad has fired on his own people; current U.S. ally Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sessi is responsible for the killing of hundreds of peaceful demonstrators. Nor is it because Syria has willfully sought conflict with the U.S. Indeed, as noted above, Damascus has in some ways cooperated with the U.S. Assad’s father Hafez while Syrian president joined George W. H. Bush’s coalition to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait in 1991.

The placement of Syria on the State Department’s list of “state sponsors of terror” (an arbitrary roster, from which countries appear and disappear without any relationship to empirical reality) results from Damascus’ limited support to Lebanese and Palestinian militant movements opposed to Israel and its occupations. Those in this country who vilify Syria, and insist that its president must leave, are largely responding to Israeli propaganda broadcast through the Israel Lobby.

Why is Russia for its part supporting the Syrian government? Along with the longstanding relationship mentioned above, Russia is deeply concerned with the spread of radical, violent Islamism. This was a key factor in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979; the prospect of jihadi mentality spreading into the Central Asian republics of the USSR, such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, alarmed the Kremlin.

Today Russia faces radical Islamism in the Russian Caucasus. Moscow wants to curb it in Syria, a breeding-ground of religious fanaticism all too close for comfort. Another issue is the affinity between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Syriac Orthodox Church headquartered in Damascus, a city full of ancient Christian sites.

(Hypothetical question, just for discussion: Which would you rather have—Russian troops in Damascus, protecting Christian holy sites, or ISIL forces in the city, blowing them up?)

The U.S. position is this: Assad is the fundamental problem, and we’re on record as demanding his departure. So we can’t align with him, or appear to be doing so. But neither can we let ISIL keep advancing, especially in Iraq so soon after we went in and supposedly liberated it from Saddam’s tyranny. Having underestimated ISIL’s strength as of last fall (when Obama stupidly compared it to a “JV squad”) we now have to “defeat” it, as part of a grand coalition including Arab states. Having ruled out both Assad and ISIL as leaders of a future Syria, we have to train the “moderate opposition” in Syria to fight them both (but especially Assad).

But this position is ludicrous. The fundamental conflict in Syria is the secular regime and its historical allies (including religious minorities and bazaar merchants) and Sunni Islamists who have joined ISIL or the al-Nusra Front arm of al-Qaeda. The middle force Washington wants to create out of whole cloth is not going to appear.

Last year the Pentagon unveiled n ambitious plan to train 5000 Syrians for the “Free Syrian Army” (at the time a rag-tag, unraveling, largely paper army) in Jordan. As of last month, precisely 54 had actually been trained, and most of these when deployed in Syria were immediately captured by al-Nusra (perhaps assisted by Turkish intelligence). They’re apparently under detention (that is, not beheaded) and may well wind up fighting Assad alongside their captors.

CNN’s Barbara Starr reported this as a “near disaster for the U.S. plan to train a rebel force that’s supposed to be the boots on the ground in the fight against ISIL.” That’s an understatement. Central Command (CENTCOM) commander, Gen. Lloyd Austin, then told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “only four or five” of those trained remained in the fight against ISIL.

Isn’t it clear? While jihadis flock to the Islamic State’s battlegrounds, the U.S. cannot recruit Syrian “moderates” because so few Syrian youth want to associate with the U.S. military, and invite rejection from family and friends who are appalled by the U.S. record of brutality throughout the region.

And has not the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, acknowledged that the U.S. knew while training Syrian “moderate” opposition forces that they would likely be drawn to al-Nusra? Doesn’t that confirm that at this point the fundamental contradiction is between the regime and the Islamists—not the regime and some imagined disparate “opposition” that can be molded by an outside force, particularly one as discredited as the U.S.A.?

Do we not now know that the Pentagon’s inspector-general is investigating charges by 50 intelligence analysts for CENTCOM that their objective assessments of the U.S.-led campaign against ISIL were deliberately altered and skewed to make Congress think a faltering effort was in fact a success?

Isn’t it clear that the neocon strategy of consciously deploying lies to win support for ongoing efforts towards Middle East regime change has outlived the departure from government of the likes of Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, John Bolton, Richard Perle, Elliott Abrams, Scooter Libby, and David Frum? (Look no further than the desk of Victoria Nuland to see the lingering shadow of Dick Cheney in the State Department.)

It’s one thing to build public support for a regime change operation, plan and sell a war, pull it off, slaughter masses of people and beat your chest in triumph for a few weeks afterwards. It’s another thing to build anything useful out of the rubble. U.S. wars since 2001 have produced nothing—not even much for the oil companies—other than more terror and more war such as we see in Syria.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. has spent billions to create (on paper, at least) a force of some 300,000 soldiers and police. Plagued by a staggering desertion rate, low morale, and frequent “green on blue” incidents (in which Afghan troops shoot their U.S. trainers), it has been unable to destroy the Taliban, whose strength is estimated at 20-30,000.

This, despite reportedly killing (in 2014) an average of 12 Taliban fighters every day. (In fairness, some of these are no doubt civilians recorded as militants to conceal the extent of “collateral damage.”) U.S. military leaders have long since concluded that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won on the battlefield, but there must be a political solution.

In other words, the U.S. has been defeated, as it was in Vietnam, and its “withdrawal” leaving some 10,000 troops in place is really a matter of slinking off with its tail between its legs.

In Iraq, the U.S. spent $25 billion to create an army with (on paper) over 271,000 active frontline personnel, with half a million reserve personnel. It buckled in its battles with ISIL, a force of tens of thousands that easily took Fallujah, Mosul, Tikrit, and Ramadi between January 2014 and May 2015. The U.S.-trained forces deserted en masse. How embarrassing.

The moral of the story? The U.S. is not good at creating puppet armies. It’s not going to create, and can’t create, an army of (what Washington might consider) “moderates” to realize State Department designs in the region.

So the Russian defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, called U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter last Friday to discuss the Russian arms shipments to Syria, and the dispatch of Russian military trainers. He no doubt repeated the appeal from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for a joint Russian-U.S. effort to combat ISIL, and urged him to recognize that—at least in the Syrian zone of ISIL operations—the Syrian Army is the force most able to do this.

It’s hard to believe that—military man to military man—Carter would tell Shoigu that he really believes otherwise. Or simply repeat Obama’s bold statement that Russian efforts to aid Damascus against the opposition are “doomed to failure.”

What other forces are there, standing between Damascus and the abyss? The Kurdish peshmerga, who have managed to stave off ISIL in Kurdish territory but are not interested in confronting them elsewhere? The Turkish army, accountable to a regime that sees armed Kurds (whether in Iraq or Syria or Turkey) as a bigger enemy than ISIL or al-Nusra? The motley U.S.-led “coalition” whose airstrikes have hardly slowed ISIL’s progress?

So let us suppose that the Russians’ provision of military hardware to Syria (and even boots on the ground, which is at least conceivable, since the Kremlin has announced that Russia would “consider” a Syrian request for ground troops) were to roll back ISIL and al-Nusra gains. What will Obama and Kerry say to that? That it is “counterproductive”? Counterproductive to what? Their own plan to remove Assad from power?

Counterproductive to their own plan to monopolize the right to intervene all over the Middle East at any time, elbowing out the massive country that actually looms north of the region, while the U.S. is located an ocean and continents away? On what logical or moral ground could they stand, before the UN General Assembly or elsewhere, opposing assistance to an internationally recognized government requesting it?

The U.S. has invaded two countries in recent history, totally uninvited, and bombed another to bring down a regime, resulting intotal chaos. One aspect of this mayhem is the rise of ISIL which terrorizes Syria and drives hundreds of thousands of refugees into Europe, worsening the continental economic crisis. What possible argument could Washington, responsible for this huge mess, adduce to oppose Russian soldiers on the ground in Syria, alongside Assad’s army, appearing (at least initially) to be defending civilization against barbarism?

* * *

Postscript: I now read that John Kerry is saying that while Assad still has to go, the timing of that departure needs to be “negotiated.” Another Lavrov victory, perhaps?

More articles by:

Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

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