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Samantha Powers Condemns Russia for Condemning a U.S. War Crime

U.S. ambassador to the UN Samantha Power was furious Saturday when a Russian demand for an emergency closed-door session of the UN Security Council forced her to show up at the UN building to explain U.S. actions.

The Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin called the session to condemn the U.S. for an attack on a Syrian Army position in Deir Ezzor earlier that day that had killed at least 62 government troops (perhaps as many as 83) and injured over 100. This was a clear, egregious violation of the weeklong ceasefire negotiated by Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and generally observed by the Syrian army and the “moderate” armed opposition. The U.S. immediately ceased the strike after the Russians protested. The Pentagon announced that it was not targeting Syrian forces, indeed apologizing to Damascus via Moscow for the loss of life. It says the incident is under investigation.

But the impact of the attack is quite serious. Nearby ISIL forces were able to capture the site and advance towards Deir Ezzor’s airport, which remains in government hands. To prevent this, Russia has reportedly deployed more forces in the area.  Meanwhile Syria accuses Washington of deliberately aiding ISIL to bring down the Assad regime.

Power’s response? She showed up at the UN in a huff, told Churkin straightaway that she was not going to listen to him, and that the Russian demand for the meeting was a mere “stunt.” Leaving a deputy to chat with the other Security Council diplomats, she appeared at a podium before reporters to denounce the “stunt,” as a “cynical and hypocritical” effort by the allies of the horrible Syrian government to embarrass the U.S. Her angry statement alluded only in passing to the killing of the Syrian troops. Shortly afterwards, a clearly amazed Churkin recounted to the same reporters Power’s arrogant behavior.

The U.S. ambassador was plainly irked that she would have to spend her Saturday night explaining to the ambassadors from Russia, China, Britain, France, Angola, Egypt, Japan, Malaysia, Senegal, Spain, Ukraine, Uruguay and Venezuela why the U.S. did this, or how it could have happened. Why, from her point of view, should the U.S. ever have to apologize, or even explain its actions, when it is so exceptional, and indispensable, and fundamentally good, whereas other nations are good to the extent that they cooperate with the U.S. (as Saudi Arabia does so dependably) and bad to the extent that they impede U.S. objectives (such as ongoing NATO expansion or more Middle East “regime change”).

Power’s statement began:

“Good evening, everybody. We are still gathering information at this time, but we have been able to confirm that, earlier today, the United States struck what we believed to be an ISIL target. We halted the attack when we were informed by Russia that it was possible that we were striking Syrian regime military personnel and vehicles. We are investigating the incident. If we determine that we did indeed strike Syrian military personnel, that was not our intention, and we, of course, regret the loss of life.

“This said, even by Russia’s standards, tonight’s stunt – a stunt replete with moralism and grandstanding – is uniquely cynical and hypocritical. Since 2011, the Assad regime has been intentionally striking civilian targets with horrifying, predictable regularity…  And yet, in the face of none of these atrocities has Russia expressed outrage, nor has it demanded investigations, nor has it ever called for a Saturday night emergency consultation in the Security Council – or a Monday day; or a Tuesday day; or a Wednesday day; Thursday day; Friday day, Saturday, Sunday – you name it. If there’s a day of the week, they have never called an emergency consultation on any of these practices…

“And a year ago, at the UN General Assembly, Russia decided to join the Assad regime, escalating the conflict, and – perhaps worst of all – itself adopting some of the regime’s worst practices: hitting hospitals, hitting refugee camps, hitting markets without a single public expression of remorse.”

Thus Power shifted focus from the illegal attack on the army of a sovereign state to the alleged crimes of that state. In her position of moral bankruptcy and with no leg to stand on legally, she was reduced to schoolyard bully’s wonted weapon of ridicule.

Seriously? They’re calling this emergency meeting? Really? Now, because of a single airstrike – a strike that, if it struck regime forces, did so in error; a strike that we have swiftly acknowledged and committed to investigating – again, none of which the Assad regime or Russia have done in their airstrikes on innocent civilians. Now, of all times, Russia calls the entire UN Security Council to convene urgently so that it can stand up here and express outrage. Imagine how often this Council would be meeting if we were to gather every time the regime or Russia struck a hospital, or a school, or a bread line.”

Or, one might add, if it were to gather every time the U.S. struck a hospital, or school, or wedding party in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya or Pakistan. Notice that the Russians have not “demanded investigations” of these crimes. Russia did not call for a meeting last April, after the U.S. bombed a hospital in Kunduz, or in November 2008, when a U.S. airstrike killed 63 people including 37 civilians, mostly women and children, at a housing complex in the village of Wech Baghtu in Afghanistan.

Power treats the slaughter of Syrian soldiers in “a single airstrike” (just one, after all) as a trivial matter, an irritation only because Putin wants to make it one. Just as her former boss Hillary Clinton has, in connection with the DNC email leaks documenting who her nomination was rigged, tried to change the subject to “Russian efforts to influence the U.S. elections,” so Power is trying to change the subject here from one minor U.S. atrocity to Russian support for Assad’s military.

Churkin was diplomatically appalled. “I have never,” he told the press, “seen such an extraordinary display of American heavy-handedness as we are witnessing today.” He recounted how the livid Power had dissed him before storming out of the meeting room, leaving a deputy who merely stated that the attack was “under investigation.”

Now the Russians note that the Lavrov-Kerry deal for U.S.-Russian cooperation on Syria so painstakingly negotiated as of Sept. 9 is in danger of collapse. That would be very unfortunate, because the likely alternative is another U.S. regime change war, including a high possibility to aerial confrontations with Russia over Syria.

***

I won’t say I “support” that agreement on Syria, which was soon embraced by the Syrian government, Turkey, Iran and the EU. I would support a mass uprising of the Syrian people towards the establishment of an independent, secular and socialist society that that empowers working people and promotes religious tolerance and gender equality. But that is not in the cards, any time soon.

No, I’d say I’m relieved by the agreement, just as I was relieved by the announcement of the Iran “nuclear deal” in April 2015, as a sort of respite in the succession of horrible breaking news stories that is our time. It is a step back from war.

Lenin declared that for a revolution to occur there must be a revolutionary situation and a revolutionary party. I don’t see any such party in Syria; instead, there is a welter of armed groups both foreign and domestic whose ideologies range from Baathism to Islamism and whose tactics range from the truly demonic to the merely vicious. Among these assorted forces the Syrian Arab Army and its allies have been most effective against the al-Nusra-aligned “Free Syrian Army” (in fact a myriad of militias without a central command, led—to the extent that they have any leadership—by the CIA).

Before the outbreak of the so-called “Arab Spring” in 2011, Syria was (like most countries in the region) an oppressive, undemocratic police state with what U.S. State Department officials hypocritically and selectively term a “poor human rights record.” (This record includes accepting “extraordinary renditions” dispatched by the Pentagon for torturous interrogation in Syria from 2001.)  It was on the U.S. list of “terror sponsoring” nations due to its support for groups that Israel considers terrorists. Still the U.S. had enlisted Syria in the 1991 attack on Iraq, maintained diplomatic relations with Damascus, and welcomed Bashar al-Assad as a “reformer” after he succeeded his father in 2000. Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, had referred to him as such as late as 2010.

But meanwhile a faction in the State Department (best represented by the hideous neocon John Bolton during the George W. Bush administration) has pressed incessantly for regime change in Syria. Members of this faction have referred to Syria as “low-hanging fruit”—that is, easy pick countries ripe for the plucking. They have for some years been restrained by more cautious officials; Hillary Clinton, who if not a neocon by a technical definition is surely their most solid “liberal interventionist” ally, famously wanted to arm the Syrian “opposition” in 2011 (or rather, wanted to arm it more than Washington did covertly and through third parties) while Obama rejected her plan. But Clinton has positively boasted of this policy difference, as if to promote her war mongering credentials and win more endorsements from the likes of Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan.

The months leading up to the Lavrov-Kerry agreement saw the publication of a dissent memo signed by 51 State Department officials urging that the U.S. target Assad, not ISIL, in Syria; the publication of a slough of columns by liberal pundits condemning U.S. “silence” and “inaction” in Syria; and Clinton’s repeated statements during her campaign that she favors imposing a “no-fly zone” over Syria (which really means war and regime change a la Libya). Hillary stated that after winning the election she would make Syria her foreign policy priority.

The writing seemed to be appearing on the wall. (Recall the Bible story of the fall of Balshazzar, the Chaldean king, in which his fall to the Persian Empire—the U.S.A. of the day—was foretold by “the fingers of a human hand” that “appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lamp stand in the royal palace;” Daniel 5:5). It really looked like more insane war, this time in Syria.

I found a Boston Globe column by “the Internationalist” Thanassis Cambanis on July 3 especially troubling. Entitled “Syria nears the abyss, now’s the time to act” it contained the bald assertion: “Military escalation in Syria today us the best of bad options. Even dissidents in the US Department of State have gone public with their desire for it.” Even the dissidents? What a shameless misrepresentation! In fact, what was at stake in July, following advances by the Russia-backed Syrian Arab Army, was whether the U.S. and Russia would work together to jointly target forces both consider terrorist and to jointly mediate a solution to the Syrian political conflict as favored by Kerry, or the State Department neocons and allies would push for more war, producing more “creative chaos” in another Muslim country that bothers Israel. Cambanis openly advocated U.S. military intervention.

The column conveyed the impression that everyone, right and left, agrees that of course the U.S should act—which necessarily means (not that he mentioned it), attacking a sovereign state, violating the UN Charter (again), facing Russian and Chinese opposition in the UNSC (unlike in 2011), and provoking Russia which has been helping Syrian state forces against the Nusra-ridden opposition since September 2015. As the TV anchor airheads  responded to the viral video of the 5-year-old shell-shocked Aleppo boy rhetorically asking viewers Why are we doing nothing? it did look like Hillary as next president  would pull another “humanitarian intervention” like her husband pulled with her encouragement in Bosnia and Kosovo, and like she pulled in Libya. And given Russia’s investment in the survival of the regime, such intervention could produce very frightening results.

But from the first week of August the Russian Foreign Ministry began to optimistically predict a U.S.-Russia agreement to coordinate bombing raids on agreed-upon terrorist targets. The concessions entailed in this agreement (although the state RT news channel hasn’t emphasized them) are principally from the U.S., and reflect the new facts on the ground since the Russian intervention beginning last fall. The Syrian regime has maintained control of most of the population centers, commands considerable support, and Assad is not going to step down tomorrow. The U.S. agreed to put the Assad issue on the back burner while focusing on the ISIL terror issue.

Samantha Power’s explosion of indignation at the UN suggests that priorities may soon reverse again.

The Russians have argued for a year that the U.S. and Russia need to draw up a list of groups to include on the terror list, since Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies fund some of these. And when the Russians have bombed them the U.S. has protested. It was announced earlier this month that the two governments had agreed on who is who, that the U.S. would instruct its clients to end ties with the targeted groups, that the government forces and opposition forces deemed legitimate (i.e. non-terrorist) would both observe a cease-fire, while the Syrian Air Force would suspend bombing operations and talks towards a political solution would resume in Geneva.

This arrangement appears to have been another deft chess move by the Russians, who as you recall saved Obama’s ass when in 2013 he almost attacked Syria in response to (probably false) reports that the Syrian state had used chemical weapons against its people. Lavrov called up Kerry and told him Assad would turn over all Syrian chemical weapons to the UN if the U.S. would back off on the regime-change plan. Thus Obama was spared a legacy more hideous than that of his predecessor. He wound up merely presiding over repeated failed efforts to construct a proxy army in Syria by the CIA and Special Forces, which have produced multiple embarrassments since June 2015.

The obvious inability of the U.S. to produce regime change in Syria using reliable creatures and allies, global revulsion at U.S. aggression, the stubbornness of the regime and its forces with their level of popular support pushed Washington to respond positively to Moscow’s repeated requests for talks. Thus the agreement to co-sponsor a “transition” (of some sort, of unspecified duration) avoiding confrontation.

Overextended and overexposed, the U.S appeared to be backing down in Syria. That could only be good. But now what happens? The main groups comprising the “Free Syrian Army” agreed to the ceasefire. So did the Syrian government. The Russians and Americans jointly warned the “legitimate opposition” to steer clear of al-Nusra (now Fateh al-Sham) and ISIL lest they be bombed. The cease-fire up to Saturday had been a general success, although the delivery of humanitarian aid to Aleppo has been stymied, not by Russian or Syrian action, but by Turkish obstruction. The cease-fire has been rejected by the Saudi- and Turkish-backed Ahrar al-Sham militia, an ally of al-Qaeda considered “moderate” by the amoral thugs who make these designations in the State Department (and include it within what they call the “Free Syrian Army”), among others.

Meanwhile over the weekend a group called Ahrar al-Sharqiya (within the FSA) drove out a small contingent of U.S. Special Forces from the Syrian town of al-Rai. Videos show a Pentagon convoy retreating back towards the Turkish border accompanied by locals calling U.S. troops “pigs” and “crusaders” and  chanting “Down with America,” “Get out you dogs,” and “They are coming to Syria to occupy it.”

“We don’t want a single American fighting in Syria alongside us,”  declares one man. “”We are Muslims, we are not infidels. Get out!” Is there any wonder the U.S. has been unable to recruit a puppet Syrian army to achieve its regime change goals?

***

It seems to me the Syrian armed opposition (as opposed to the peaceful protesters of the “Arab Spring”) is a kind of rainbow coalition ranging from truly secular soldiers who defected from the army out of some vague interest in fighting for human rights to jihadis happy to behead or crucify pro-Assad children or enslave Yezidi women. Many members of the myriad groups will feel uncomfortable sitting on the sidelines while a new coalition of bombers targets their erstwhile comrades. It might not be possible to separate the “moderates” from the “radicals” if the former’s numbers are small.

U.S. policy has centered (as have State Department talking points certainly) on the premise that there’s a popular movement in Syria, based not on religious fundamentalism and intolerance but on liberal democratic values, that deserves U.S. support in its desire to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad. (It should be pointed out, should it not, that Washington was conspiring to overthrow the Syrian government, which it labels a sponsor of terrorism, for its own reasons long before the Arab Spring? And that the U.S. has a long history of using and co-opting mass movements to produce regime change?)

The degree of success of the ceasefire from this point will show us how willing the opposition (legitimated by inclusion on a joint U.S.-Russian list) is to break ties with men that they (or many among them at least) have seen as brothers in the struggle, and watch them eradicated or dispersed by this unexpected alliance of pro- and anti-Assad forces. They know this weakens them as a military player, and as negotiators in Geneva in the future. It will be very hard for them to insist on Assad’s immediate removal as a precondition of peace talks if and when the main threats to the Syrian state have been vitiated and the national army is steadily advancing against the “Free Syrian Army” militias.

And (even) if Hillary wins the presidency and decides to ratchet up tensions with Russia starting in Syria, it might be more difficult as Moscow strikes the world (including the governments of China and India) as by far the more responsible, rational actor in the Middle East. Power’s Saturday night live performance at the UN, conveying sheer arrogance and contempt for world opinion, will not sway anyone over to the Syrian regime-change cause. It just draws the lines more clearly and reveals the depth of bad faith.

How could the U.S. Air Force, with all the intelligence at its disposal, including Russian intelligence Moscow is eager to share, kill 62 likely conscript Syrian boys fighting ISIL imagining they’re striking the really bad guys? I doubt it was done deliberately (although I wouldn’t rule it out either, given what we know about the U.S. has used Islamist forces in Syria in the past). But it shows a basic indifference to Syrian life, a willingness to screw up and then when criticized angrily fume that there’s lots of death going on. So why pick on the U.S.?

Sort of like Samantha Power saying at the UN—as she always does—that given all the Palestinian attacks on Israelis, why pick on Israel when it (say) bombs the hell out of Gaza? Different standards apply, don’t you see?

So if Russia in its determination to prevent an Islamist takeover of Syria and maintain a viable secular Syrian state takes on the terrorists, staving off the U.S. drive to topple Assad regardless (as in Iraq or Libya) of any consequences; and if the U.S., having realized its need to cooperate to some extent with Russia (to avoid the profound embarrassment of its destruction of Iraq leading to the conquest of Syria by bin Laden clones), cooperates for a week but then fucks up big-time by bombing the key participant in the cease-fire and infuriating Russia; and then the agreement collapses—hey, isn’t it obvious?

It was all a Russian cynical hypocritical stunt, designed to embarrass the leaders of the Free World in their ongoing noble efforts to spread freedom in the Middle East.

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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