“Negotiations are a euphemism for capitulation if the shadow of power is not cast across the bargaining table.”
– George Schultz, former U.S. Secretary of State
For anyone wondering what this most recent attack on Syria by the U.S., U.K. and France is all about the answer is refreshingly simple. It is about the shape of the peace to come. The U.S. its allies and their proxies have lost the ground war but have no intention of losing the peace. And what is it precisely that they intend to win? It comes down to two words: territorial integrity. The Syrian government unsurprisingly wants its country to go back to its internationally recognized borders. The U.S. and its allies however have precisely zero intention of allowing that to happen.
Across the internet in the last week or so there have been numerous links provided to the evidentiary record showing that the U.S. has been working towards the overthrow of the Syrian government going back to 1949. Jeremy Scahill has also released a short history of U.S. involvement across the region. My favorite bit of information is this quote from a declassified CIA memo from its ‘Foreign Subversion and Instability Center’:
“Mistaking the new protests as a resurgence of the Muslim Brotherhood, the government would step up its use of force and launch violent attacks on a broad spectrum of Sunni community leaders as well as on those engaged in protests. Regime efforts to restore order would founder if government violence against protestors inspired broad-based communal violence between Alawis and Sunnis.”
This memo was written in 1986 and credit where credit is due it is as fresh now as when it was written.
First let me tell you the good news. A) This is not the start of WWIII. B) Peace in Syria is at hand. C) There will be elections and they will be ‘free and fair’. Aka Internationally monitored. These are no small achievements although one can’t help but stress that this war could have been over years ago. The CIA’s ‘Operation Timber Sycamore‘ along with the unending flow of money from the Saudis and Qatar bear much of the blame for the protracted nature of this conflict. Turkey also bears a significant responsibility for its support of the ‘moderate rebels’. The invasions of Iraq and Lybia also played a central role thru their creation of a virtually inexhaustible supply of mercenaries and jihadists.
Absent these factors this war may well have lasted no longer than the civil unrest in Egypt or Bahrain. That said such a conclusion would have been no more satisfying than were the outcomes in Egypt and Bahrain, but would still have been far preferable to what has transpired. Alternately of course Assad and the Syrian elite could have given up and fled into exile. That this is true for every elite everywhere at all times renders this truth into something rather less useful for all of its veracity.
So let us try to achieve an Obamian level of insouciance and move forward instead of back. As pointed out by Patrick Cockburn the recent victory in Douma by the Syrian army is in many respects its most important. By gaining control of all of East Ghouta it has finally guaranteed the safety of the residents of the capital Damascus. The rebels are now confined mostly to Idlib and the people in Damascus finally have for the first time in seven years the chance to breathe free of the fear of attacks. (U.S. and Israel aside) Given this break from the horrors of the last seven years it is impossible to imagine that the popularity of Assad is not now the highest of any person in the country. It is equally inconceivable however that those opposed to Assad are going to allow him to stand in the elections to come. Our first sticky wicket on the road to what comes next.
So who are the opponents to Assad? It’s quite the list. The U.S. the Saudis, Qatar, Turkey, Israel, the U.K. and France. This exhausts the list of direct participants though it is certain that many more from the E.U./NATO and the GCC will be lined up on their side once the bargaining table is set. I will refer to them until a better name comes along as ‘The Allied Forces’.
On the other side we have Syria, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. You would be right in thinking that this represents a rather unequal distribution of forces economically, politically and militarily. They do however have two things on their side. Firstly they won the war and so are guaranteed at least part of a share in the government to come. Russia’s entry into the war has proved decisive not only in saving the Assad government but also in the defeat of the ISIS caliphate. ‘The Donald’s’ claims to have won the war against ISIS should be viewed in pretty much the same light as the U.S. having won WWII.
Secondly they have China. This is no small thing. It does not by any means balance the scales but China more so than any other country in the world is able to provide the kind of funds and engineering that will be required in the rebuilding of this desperately broken country. As I say this does not balance the scales entirely but it does go a very long way to bringing them at least somewhat nearer a semblance of balance. It is also no small part of the reason that the recent attack by ‘The Allied Forces’ was measured and temperate. As temperate as war crimes ever get at least.
Now I did promise you that this was not the start of WWIII. Let me be clear however, while this war has failed to ignite that particular conflagration we cannot be so sure about the peace. As with Versailles there is pretty much zero certainty that the negotiations that are to come will not lay the groundwork for precisely the right/wrong conditions needed to bring about what America’s evangelicals are so eager to witness.
One of the first issues that will have to be resolved once peace is more firmly established is what is to happen to Assad and those in his government responsible for prosecuting the war. There will be a great hue and cry throughout ‘the international community’ that at least some of them be prosecuted for ‘crimes against humanity’. This will serve as leverage over Assad and his ministers as their future is negotiated, but given that they have won the war this will not happen for a very long time if ever. Think Pinochet in Spain.
Next, what happens to Idlib? This is where the ‘moderate rebels’ are now firmly ensconced. The current saber rattling by the U.S. and its allies is no doubt intended in part to dissuade Syria and by extension Russia and Iran from attempting to crush this final pocket of resistance. Will they accede? Not that it matters but I really hope they do. If they do it is also to be devoutly wished that as part of the settlement anyone who wants to leave Idlib is allowed. If Idlib is instead besieged the end of times rhetoric is sure to escalate as is the military response of ‘The Allied Forces’.
Now we come to the biggest stumbling block of all. Currently the U.S. and its Kurdish allies occupy some of the best arable land in the country as well as its richest fossil fuel prizes. This is no accident. And because nothing about this conflict is easy Turkey, a NATO ally, has charged into this occupied area and taken control of the city of Afrin tossing more than 200,000 Kurds out of their homes.
What does the U.S. want? What are they willing to settle for? What does Turkey want? What are they willing to settle for? Will ‘The Donald’ be at the peace table wielding his legendary deal making skills? These questions make the very serious issue of Idlib, its fighters and civilians, shrink to insignificance by comparison.
There are a few things that we know for certain. One is that those who have been dragged from their apathy by the potential for WWIII are about to learn that when the suing for peace begins geopolitical considerations invariably outweigh calls for justice. There will be no war crimes tribunal for either the Syrian government or the Salafi jihadists. There will instead, at most, be something like the ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ we saw in South Africa.
What we also know for certain is that the Kurds are about to be betrayed …… again. We can hope they do as well as the Kurds in Iraq before their ill advised referendum. Given the secular nature of the government to come that hope is not entirely baseless. Given Turkey’s goals one becomes rapidly less hopeful. It is very difficult to see the Turks or the U.S. leaving Syria in the next few years. To sum up the subtext of the Turkish and U.S./Israeli positions. “We will not leave until the PKK/Iran do.”
The final thing that we know with 100% certainty is that Israel will not be returning the Golan Heights during these negotiations. Though can you imagine the diplomatic value if they did? But they won’t. Beyond that very little about the Syria that will emerge from these negotiations is clear, much less what is to happen in the rest of the Middle East. What can be said is that never in my half century of life have the underlying fault lines started to show themselves so clearly as shifting ground. We’ve got Tucker Carlson and Tomi Lahren as the emerging leaders of the U.S. peace movement for gawd sake, what more need be said? Nothing, but I can’t help myself. 2024 Exploratory Committee anyone?
Jeff Berg lives in Toronto, Canada, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org