By Ray McGovern
Russia’s airstrikes on rebel strongholds in Syria, now in their fifth day, are a game-changer. To borrow an aphorism from philosopher Yogi Berra, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” Yogi also warned, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”
What follows, then, will focus primarily on how and why the violence in Syria has reached this week’s crescendo, the magnitude of the tipping point reached with direct Russian military intervention in support of Syria’s government, and the self-inflicted dilemma confronting President Barack Obama and his hapless advisers who have been demanding “regime change” in Syria as the panacea to the bloody conflict.
Think of this piece as an attempted antidote to the adolescent analysis by Steven Lee Myers front-paged in Sunday’s New York Times, and, for that matter, much else that’s been written about Syria in the Times and other mainstream U.S. news outlets. Many articles, in accusing Russian President Vladimir Putin of bad faith, have willfully misrepresented his vow to strike at all “terrorist groups” as meaning only the Islamic State as if Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front and other violent extremists don’t qualify as “terrorists.”
However, if Washington finally decides to face the real world – not remain in the land of make-believe that stretches from the White House and State Department through the neocon-dominated think tanks to the editorial pages of the mainstream media – it will confront a classic “devil-you-know” dilemma.
Does Washington really think that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as demonized as he has been as a key player in a conflict blamed for killing more than 250,000, is worse than the beheaders of the Islamic State or the global-terrorism plotters of Al Qaeda? Does President Obama really think that some surgical “regime change” in Damascus can be executed without collapsing the Syrian government and clearing the way for an Islamic State/Al Qaeda victory? Is that a gamble worth taking?
President Obama needs to ask those questions to the State Department’s neocons and liberal interventionists emplaced by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who – like Israel’s leaders – positively lust for Assad’s demise. “Regime change” in Syria has been on the Israeli/neocon to-do list since at least the mid-1990s and the neocon idea last decade was that Assad’s overthrow would immediately follow the Iraq “regime change” in 2003, except the Iraq scheme didn’t work out exactly as planned.
But there may be some reason to hope. After all, Obama showed courage in overcoming the strong resistance of the neocons to the recent nuclear deal with Iran. So, he may have the intelligence and stamina to face them down again, although you wouldn’t know it from his recent rhetoric, which panders to the war hawks’ arguments even as he resists their most dangerous action plans.
At his news conference on Friday, Obama said, “in my discussions with President Putin, I was very clear that the only way to solve the problem in Syria is to have a political transition that is inclusive — that keeps the state intact, that keeps the military intact, that maintains cohesion, but that is inclusive — and the only way to accomplish that is for Mr. Assad to transition [out], because you cannot rehabilitate him in the eyes of Syrians. This is not a judgment I’m making; it is a judgment that the overwhelming majority of Syrians make.”
But Obama did not explain how he knew what “the overwhelming majority of Syrians” want. Many Syrians – especially the Christians, Alawites, Shiites and secular Sunnis – appear to see Assad and his military as their protectors, the last bulwark against the horror of a victory by the Islamic State or Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front, which is a major player in the so-called “Army of Conquest,” as both groups make major gains across Syria.
Obama’s cavalier notion, as expressed at the news conference, that “regime changes” are neat and tidy, easily performed without unintended consequences, suggests a sophomoric understanding of the world that is stunning for a U.S. president in office for more than 6 ½ years, especially since he adopted a similar approach toward Libya, which now has descended into violent anarchy.
Obama must realize that the alternative to Assad is both risky and grim – and some of the suggestions coming from presidential candidate Clinton and other hawks for a U.S. imposition of a “no-fly zone” over parts of Syria would not only be a clear violation of international law but could create a direct military clash with nuclear-armed Russia. This time, the President may have to get down off his high horse and substitute a reality-based foreign policy for his rhetorical flourishes.
Yet, it is an open question whether Obama has become captive to his own propaganda, such as his obsession with Syria’s use of “barrel bombs” in attacking rebel strongholds, as if this crude home-made weapon were some uniquely cruel device unlike the hundreds of thousands of tons of high explosives that the United States has dropped on Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and other countries in the last dozen years.
Does Obama really think that his “humanitarian” bombs – and those given to U.S. “allies” such as Saudi Arabia and Israel – don’t kill innocents? In just the past week, a Saudi airstrike inside Yemen reportedly killed some 131 people at a wedding and an apparent U.S. attack in Kunduz, Afghanistan, blasted a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, killing at least 22 people.
(By contrast, too, The New York Times treated the Kunduz atrocity gingerly, with the cautious headline, “US Is Blamed After Bombs Hit Afghan Hospital,” noting that Defense Secretary Ashton Carter extended his “thoughts and prayers to everyone afflicted” and added that a full investigation is under way in coordination with Afghanistan’s government to “determine exactly what happened.” Surely, we can expect the slaughter to be dismissed as some unavoidable “accident” or a justifiable case of “collateral damage.”)
With Obama, one cannot exclude the possibility that he has become so infatuated with his soaring words that he actually believes what he told the West Point graduating class on May 28, 2014; but if he does, someone needs to give him a quick reality check. He told the graduates:
“In fact, by most measures, America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world. Those who argue otherwise … are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics. … So the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century passed and it will be true for the century to come.”
How We Got Here
The world could have taken a very different direction after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the evaporation of the Warsaw Pact in February 1991, and the breakup of the Soviet Union in December 1991. Those developments left the United States in a virtually unchallenged position of power — and wise leaders might have seized the opportunity to wind down the world’s excessive investment in military hardware and war-like solutions.
But the U.S. government chose a different course, one of “permanent” global hegemony with American troops as the world’s “armed-up” policemen. Gulf War I, led by the United States in January-February 1991 to punish Iraq for invading Kuwait the previous summer, injected steroids into leading arrogant neocons like Paul Wolfowitz – already awash in hubris.
Shortly after that war, Gen. Wesley Clark recalled Wolfowitz (then Undersecretary of Defense for Policy) explaining the thinking: “We learned [from Gulf War I] that we can use our military in the region, in the Middle East, and the Soviets won’t stop us. And we’ve got about five or ten years to clean up those old Soviet client regimes – Syria, Iran, Iraq before the next great superpower comes on to challenge us.”
Clark highlighted this comment in an Oct. 3, 2007 speech, apparently thinking this might somehow enhance his credentials as a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination (see this highly instructive eight-minute excerpt).
Clark added that neocons like Bill Kristol and Richard Perle “could hardly wait to finish Iraq so they could move into Syria. … It was a policy coup. … Wolfowitz, [Vice President Dick] Cheney, [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld, and you could name a half-dozen other collaborators from the Project for a New American Century. They wanted us to destabilize the Middle East, turn it upside down, make it under our control.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Neocon ‘Chaos Promotion’ in the Mideast.”]
The ideology of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) was summarized in a 90-page report published in 2000 and titled, Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategies, Forces, and Resources For a New Century, which advocated a Pax Americana enforced by the “preeminence of U.S. military forces.”
The report emphasized that the fall of the Soviet Union left the U.S. the world’s preeminent superpower, adding that the U.S. must work hard, not only to maintain that position, but to spread its military might into geographic areas that are ideologically opposed to its influence, subduing countries that may stand in the way of U.S. global preeminence.
PNAC’s dogma, in turn, had antecedents in “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” a study written in 1996 for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he was running for the election of his first government. That study was chaired by arch-neocon Richard Perle, who later served as Chair of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s Defense Policy Board (2001-2003); the majority of the study contributors were also prominent American neocons.
Here’s what Perle and associates, many of whom later found influential posts in the Bush/Cheney administration, had to say on Syria: “Given the nature of the regime in Damascus, it is both natural and moral that Israel abandon the slogan ‘comprehensive peace’ and move to contain Syria, drawing attention to its weapons of mass destruction program [sic], and rejecting ‘land for peace’ deals on the Golan Heights. …
“Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq – an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right – as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions.”
Why Won’t Assad Do What He’s Told?
Given the hangover from the neocon binge during the Bush/Cheney years, one might say that President Obama was “under the influence” when he began calling for Assad to “step aside” in August 2011. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chimed in, too, telling ABC, “Assad must go – the sooner the better for everyone concerned.”
The violence in 2011 was the catalyst for the civil war – as Assad’s forces cracked down on an “Arab Spring” uprising that while largely peaceful included extremist elements who killed police and ambushed troops. But the repeated unconditional-surrender demands from Secretary Clinton and other U.S. leaders that “Assad must go,” plus “covert” U.S. support for rebels fighting against Syrian government forces, surely raised expectations that Assad would bow out, making the capture of Damascus a promising prize for a variety of Sunni militants.
Particularly pathetic has been Washington’s benighted, keystone-cops support for so-called “moderate” rebels – an embarrassing fiasco if there ever was one. For a while, the “mainstream media” actually was taking note of this disaster within a disaster, after the Pentagon recently acknowledged that its $500 million project had produced only four or five fighters still in the field.
Even earlier, President Obama recognized the fallacy in this approach. In August 2014, he told New York Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman that trust in rebel “moderates” was a “fantasy” that was “never in the cards” as a workable strategy. But Obama bent to political and media pressure to “do something.”
As journalist Robert Parry pointed out, “Official Washington’s most treasured ‘fantasy’ … is the notion that a viable ‘moderate opposition’ exists in Syria or could somehow be created. That wish-upon-a-star belief was the centerpiece of congressional [approval in September 2014 of] a $500 million plan by President Barack Obama to train and arm these ‘moderate’ rebels.”
Even Pentagon-friend Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies recently conceded that “what is very clearly not happening is there has not been any meaningful military action or success on the part of any of the rebels that we have trained.”
Cordesman described the state of play in Syria as “convoluted,” noting that “In addition to Iran’s involvement in the conflict, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have all sponsored armed groups in Syria, making it a surreal proxy playground, even by Middle East standards.”
Yet, this past week, the “moderate” Syrian rebels sprang back to prominence, at least in the mainstream U.S. media, when Russian planes began bombing targets associated with the Army of Conquest, a coalition which is dominated by Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front. This militant coalition suddenly was redefined as “moderate,” as part of the argument that Russia should only be attacking Islamic State targets.
The U.S. media also has downplayed where the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh) came from. It was an outgrowth of the Sunni resistance to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 when the group was known as “Al Qaeda in Iraq.” It later splintered off from Al Qaeda over a tactical dispute, whether a fundamentalist Sunni caliphate should be started now (the ISIS view) or whether the focus should be on mounting terror attacks against the West (Al Qaeda’s view.)
Putin Chides US Failures
Putin reminded the world of this embarrassing history – and other damaging consequences of U.S. interventionism – during his Sept. 28 speech to the UN General Assembly when he noted: “The so-called Islamic State has tens of thousands of militants fighting for it, including former Iraqi soldiers who were left on the street after the 2003 invasion.
“Many recruits come from Libya whose statehood was destroyed as a result of a gross violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1973. And now radical groups are joined by members of the so-called ‘moderate’ Syrian opposition backed by the West. They get weapons and training, and then they defect and join the so-called Islamic State. …
“I’d like to tell those who engage in this: Gentlemen, the people you are dealing with are cruel but they are not dumb. They are as smart as you are. So, it’s a big question: who’s playing whom here? The recent incident where the most ‘moderate’ opposition group handed over their weapons to terrorists is a vivid example of that.”
The UN speech was not the first time Putin complained about the way U.S. officials have presented the factual circumstances of the Syrian conflict. On Sept. 5, 2013, he publicly accused Secretary of State John Kerry of lying to Congress in exaggerating the strength of “moderate” rebels in Syria.
Alluding to Kerry’s congressional testimony, Putin said: “This was very unpleasant and surprising for me. We talk to them [the Americans], and we assume they are decent people, but he is lying and he knows that he is lying. This is sad.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Rebuilding the Obama-Putin Trust.”]
But the pretense continues. Obama knows only too well the sorry state of the handful of intrepid “moderates” that may still be operating within Syria. By the same token, he does not need Putin to tell him of the danger from ISIS or Al Qaeda if these Sunni extremists (either separately or together) march into Damascus.
So the question becomes: Will Obama bring himself to see Russian military intervention as a positive step toward stabilizing Syria and creating the chance for a political settlement or will he cling to the “Assad must go” precondition, rejecting Russia’s help and risking an ISIS/Al Qaeda victory?
This Time the Russians Can Stop Us
There is another element here, creating an even graver risk. It is no longer 1991 when the triumphant neocons brushed aside hopes for global military de-escalation and instead pressed for worldwide U.S. military dominance. Under Putin, Russia has made clear that it will no longer sit back and let U.S. and NATO tighten a vise around Russia’s borders.
Regarding its “front yard” in Ukraine, Putin has sharply admonished those in the West who “want the Ukrainian government to destroy … all political opponents and adversaries [in eastern Ukraine]. Is that what you want? That’s not what we want and we won’t allow that to happen.”
Putin’s deployment of aircraft and other arms to Assad reflects a similar attitude toward events in Syria, which Russia considers part of its backyard. The message is clear: “Overthrow Assad with the prospect of a terrorist victory? We won’t allow that to happen.”
The risk here, however, is that the American neocons and liberal interventionists remain drunk on their dreams of a permanent U.S. global hegemony that doesn’t broach any rivalry from Russia, China or any other potential challenger to America’s “full-spectrum dominance.” If these war hawks don’t sober up – and if Obama remains their reluctant enabler – the chances that the crises in Ukraine or Syria could escalate into a nuclear showdown cannot be ignored.
Thus, Russia’s move last week was truly a game-changer; and Putin is no longer playing games. One can only hope Obama can break free from the belligerent neocons and liberal war hawks. [For more on this topic, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Obama Tolerates the Warmongers.”]
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. During his 27-years as a CIA analyst, he served as chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch, and prepared and personally conducted early morning one-on-one briefings of the President’s Daily Brief. In January 2013, he co-founded Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS