US Middle Eastern Hegemony: Russia and Assad in the Cross-Hairs

Syria has become America’s Vietnam, an arena for testing regional power with eliminating ISIS a pretext for internal regime change (Assad) to satisfy an ally (Israel). Netanyahu is our Diem, and Assad our Ho. Meanwhile the country is torn up, wracked with violence, generating a refugee problem not seen for over half-a-century—a complicated geopolitical setting in which the US is more anti-Assad than anti-ISIS, for reasons never openly explained and leaving ISIS more room to operate. Genuine opposition to ISIS would have enlisted Assad’s support. Instead, the guns are turned in his direction. Russia equally opposed to ISIS as America claims to be, is viewed as the Cold War enemy whose support is rejected, lest it assist in the defense of Assad against both ISIS and the US. The friend of our enemy (Syria) is our enemy, whilst the enemy (ISIS) of our enemy remains our enemy, but practically at one step removed. In Washington’s policy circles we hear more about Assad than ISIS, as though the entire strategy has been scripted by Israel, which ISIS has curiously left alone.

Very suspicious diplomatic high jinks as meanwhile the trail of human suffering extends through Europe in agonizing flight from a country the victim of international pressures having little to do with the record of the Assad government in relation to its own people. We create the turmoil, and then walk away from its consequences. I have said before that Putin sees through Obama, no free passes because of color, and instead recognition that he has militarized capitalism and intensified confrontation with both Russia and China. Syria, and thus unilateral dominance in the Middle East, is the staging area for mounting a geostrategic offensive with respect to China and Russia as well as safeguarding Israel’s interests. Unlike his predecessors, Obama values the former purpose over the latter, Israel less the end-all and be-all of policy in the area, than to be automatically a high priority as America has bigger fish to fry.

Israel is short-sighted, thinking of itself only in regional terms, to which it has been accustomed to wrapping America around its little finger, but the global framework, as the US sees it, is now rapidly changing, the rise of Russia and China to all intents and purposes having equal strength with America creating on its part the necessity for a realpolitik of war, intervention, threats of embargoes (Xi’s coming visit and planned discussions on cyberwarfare, to which the US already hints at embargo-retaliation should the negotiations not go as we want), covert action, and in Syria, regime change, in response to perceived threats. America now is running at full throttle. Israel, a reflex action of pledges of security (Obama will lavish more military hardware on Israel in Netanyahu’s coming visit), but attention is directed elsewhere, so that Syria is merely part of an omelet of scrambled eggs with Russia and China the featured adversaries. Assad, Putin, Xi, the two-and-one-half horsemen of the apocalypse, or perhaps better, Assad the stalking horse to get at the other two. What happens in Damascus has repercussions in Moscow and Beijing.

Presently, Russia is in Washington’s spotlight for its involvement in the Syrian conflict, thought wholly unwarranted because, by the grace of God, only the US has any right to be in the Middle East. Let’s turn to Michael Gordon’s New York Times article, “U.S. Begins Military Talks With Russia on Syria,” (Sept. 19), for clarification on American thinking with respect to Russia in the region. Gordon writes, “As the first Russian combat aircraft arrived in Syria, the Obama administration reached out to Moscow on Friday [Sept. 18] to try to coordinate actions in the war zone and avoid an accidental escalation of one of the world’s most volatile conflicts.” This is a “pivot’ in policy, now the more diplomatic route, for two weeks earlier Obama had warned Russia it was risking “an escalation of the civil war” in Syria or “an inadvertent confrontation” with the US; last week he “condemned Russia’s move as a ‘strategy that’s doomed to failure.’”

From brandishing the sword, the US, according to Gordon, “seemed to acknowledge [I doubt this very much] that the Kremlin had effectively changed the calculus in Syria in a way that would not be soon reversed despite vigorous American objections. The decision to start talks also reflected a hope that Russia might yet be drawn into a more constructive role in resolving the four-year-old civil war.” Translation: Russia’s presence is unacceptable, but perhaps the US can involve it in regime change (“constructive role”). To that end, swallowing a little pride, i.e., starting talks, was a small price to pay, however grudging, in pursuit of geopolitical objectives. Accordingly, Ashton Carter, the new Defense Secretary, met with Sergei Shoigu, his Russian counterpart, to discuss the US and Russia’s “avoid[ing] running into each other by mistake.”

Each side has established a military presence; although Gordon sees the US exclusively focused on ISIS and doing nothing to unseat Assad, at least he admits American intervention: The US has “flown hundreds of air missions in Syria striking the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.” Is regime change far behind, for he continues: “But while Mr. Carter’s initial military-to-military talks were limited in scope, officials indicated that the larger goal was to draw the Russians into a political process that would ultimately replace Syria’s government of President Bashar al-Assad, a long-time ally of the Kremlin.” The last words should be savored, for deposing Assad is an American two-fer: strengthen Israel in the region, weaken Russia (as part of an early skirmish in the Cold War). As for the latter, with power politics perhaps a stand-in for Cold War, Gordon observes that “some former diplomats view the Russian move as a brazen effort to undercut American influence in the region,” one example being James Jeffrey, former US ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, who stated: “’The whole region is watching this. Russia is trying to change the security dynamic in the Middle East and demonstrating that it supports its allies to the hilt. The White House is sitting there and worrying about de-conflicting airplanes when we should be upping our efforts against Assad.’”

Not to worry, Amb. Jeffrey, for what is brazen is America’s insistence on unqualified regional dominance, a status quo “security dynamic in the Middle East,” which looks beyond removing Assad to backing down Russia. In fact, Russia, not the US, invited talks: “Mr. Carter’s call to Mr. Shoigu was his first conversation with his Russian counterpart since he took office seven months ago, and it followed Moscow’s proposal that the two sides begin military-to-military talks on Syria.” The odds of anything productive coming from this, Assad still the stumbling block to any political settlement, are miniscule. Here I move forward a day to Kerry’s activity in shaping a united front against both Russia and Syria, in Gordon and Eric Schmitt’s Times article, “Russian Buildup in Syria Raises Questions on Role,” (Sept. 20), in which they write that, despite Russia’s claim that its weaponry there is to fight ISIS, the move “has spurred concerns that Moscow’s goal is also to establish a military outpost in the Middle East.” Perhaps this is not far-fetched, in that America has done so, with far greater personnel and equipment, for decades.

With an “inadvertent confrontation” between US and Russian aircraft nominally the issue of the two nations’ discussion, we see Kerry now in London holding a press conference with the British Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, making clear what America wants in the immediate setting, a complaint “that Moscow was not putting enough pressure” on Assad “to make him negotiate seriously.” That is, to step down. The refugee crisis is entirely Assad’s fault, Kerry claimed at the news conference: “’We need to get to the negotiation. That’s what we’re looking for, and we hope Russia and Iran, other countries with influence, will help to bring that about, because that’s what’s preventing this crisis from ending. Right now, Assad has refused to have a serious discussion, and Russia has refused to help bring him to the table in order to do that.’”

Generously, both Hammond and Kerry will give Assad time to go—but go he must. Kerry: “It doesn’t have to be on Day 1 or Month 1. There is a process by which all the parties have to come together and reach an understanding of how this can best be achieved.’” Hammond: “’Assad has to go. He can’t be part of Syria’s long-term future. But the modality and the timing has to be part of a discussion about a political solution.’” Regime change, anyone? Talk of intervention! And if a political solution is not forthcoming, can a military one—a la Iraq and Saddam—be far behind? On to Berlin for more talks, now Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Kerry’s German counterpart.

My New York Times Comment on the Gordon article, same date, follows:

The US opposition to Assad has never been explained. It cannot be over the matter of supposed atrocities, an issue that has never disturbed US foreign policy in recent years. Why, then, is a defense of this hostility not forthcoming? Is Israel behind the animus?

The comment of one US former official, that Russia is attempting to usurp America’s preponderant influence in the Middle East, is instructive. Why should the US take for granted its right to exercise regional dominance? If, in fact, the primary object of policy is the elimination of ISIS, then the better part of wisdom is to enlist Putin in that cause, something he seems willing to consider.

Objectively, the US is less concerned by ISIS than in remaining itself the hegemon in the region. Indeed, that concern appears motivated by the geopolitical strategy of containing and isolating Russia, part of Washington’s renewal of Cold War hostilities. The result will be further destabilization of the Middle East, with ISIS slipping between the cracks of America’s confrontation with Russia.

It is significant that ISIS has made no move to attack Israel. What gives, in that relationship?

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at