Exclusive: America’s neocons are so wedded to their “regime change” plans for Syria that they even flirted with embracing Al Qaeda. They are now furious over Russia’s expanded engagement in support of Syria’s secular government because it frustrates long-held neocon desires, reports Daniel Lazare.
By Daniel Lazare
Typical of the incoherence now common among U.S. foreign policy pundits discussing the Syrian crisis is Jeffrey Lewis, who took to the pages of the prestigious journal Foreign Policy to venture his opinion. He started out reciting the usual “group think” narrative about the need to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and denounced Russia’s President Vladimir Putin for stepping up support for the Syrian military in the face of gains by Sunni terror groups.
But Lewis, who is billed as an arms-control specialist at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, then admitted that he doesn’t have a clue what to do, which at least is an improvement over all the other “experts” who say the U.S. must do something anything! to counter Russian intervention.
Lewis begins his article with a lot of scary talk about satellite photos confirming that Russia is expanding an air base near Latakia with the goal of increasing military aid to the evil Bashar al-Assad so as to give his doddering regime another lease on life.
“The satellite image shows far more than prefabricated housing and an air traffic control station,” Lewis observed. “It shows extensive construction of what appears to be a military canton designed to support Russian combat air operations from the base and [which] may serve as a logistical hub for Russian combat forces.”
U.S. officials, he said, “believe Russia will base combat aircraft at the site.” The photos show that “construction crews have completed a taxiway that connects the runway to the construction area,” which in turn “means aircraft shelters for Russian aircraft.” Bottom line: “Russia is substantially expanding its involvement.”
In other words, the Russians are coming! The Russians are coming! After all, alarmism and drumbeating are de rigueur nowadays for U.S. pundits, so Lewis was doing what he had to do to remain in good standing with an increasingly bellicose and delusional foreign-policy establishment.
Lewis then accused Moscow of preventing a U.S.-favored regime change that would somehow please “moderate” Syrians so much that they would rally and defeat Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. That notion of an easy and seamless “regime change” is one of the favorite fantasies of neoconservatives and liberal interventionists who were equally confident that they could neatly transform Iraq by installing think-tank favorite Ahmed Chalabi to replace Saddam Hussein.
But now with the Russian intervention in Syria, at least Lewis and his fellow pundits have an excuse for why their best-laid plans didn’t work out this time. It’s Putin’s fault!
“What Russia has done,” Lewis wrote, “is make it clear that it will not let Assad fall. He can’t win, but Russia won’t let him lose. That dooms Syria to what looks like endless war. So this column does not have a neat and tidy ending. And that is because I am not sure that it is now possible to save Syria. There is no path to resurrect a state that is failing, not so long as Putin has decided to do whatever it takes to preserve Assad’s awful regime and condemn Syria to endless conflict.
“We can, of course, make it difficult for Russia to resupply its forces in Syria. But these measures won’t replace Bashar al-Assad with a figure who could rally moderate Syrians to restore a stable government, let alone stop the bloodshed.”
In Lewis’s view, Putin’s insertion of Russian forces to defend the Syrian government and fight Al Qaeda and the Islamic State has checkmated U.S. plans for overthrowing Assad and neutralizing his military.
Lewis wrote: “There is now little hope of establishing a no-fly zone over Syria unless Washington wants to be in the business of shooting down Russian aircraft. From a broader perspective, U.S. efforts to arm the opposition to Assad mean fighting a proxy war with Moscow either by trying to down the Russian planes or helping Syrian opposition forces kill Russian combat troops on the ground.”
World War III, Anyone?
Unless President Obama thinks that Syria is a good place to start World War III, he has no choice but to back off. But Lewis’s conclusion rests of two dubious claims that he makes no effort to prove. The first is that Assad is uninterested in fighting the Islamic State and is indeed happy to see ISIS (or ISIL or Daesh as it is also know) open up a “second front” against rebel groups with whom his troops are engaged.
The second claim is that Assad is weak and unpopular yet at the same time so Machiavellian as to foster the growth of an ultra-violent Salafist group that scares the pants off the West and encourages ordinary Syrians to seek shelter in areas under his control.
But these assertions are a variation on the right-wing conspiracy theory that the evil genius in Damascus encouraged the growth of ISIS by springing jihadi elements from prison in the belief that they would rush out to join the opposition and thus bring discredit on the rebels. If you believe this, then you might as well believe that the CIA wired the World Trade Center with explosives in order to provide George W. Bush with a pretext for the War on Terror.
The facts in Syria are otherwise. According to no less an authority than Vice President Joe Biden, Saudi Arabia and the other Arab gulf states “poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of military weapons into Al Nusra and Al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world,” groups that eventually morphed into ISIS.
As early as August 2012, the Defense Intelligence Agency noted that Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other such groups were driving the anti-Assad movement, that they were seeking to establish a “Salafist principality” in eastern Syria as part of an international anti-Shi‘ite crusade, and that their backers in the U.S., Turkey, and the gulf states were all comfortable with such an outcome. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “On Syria, Incoherence, Squared.”]
So it wasn’t Assad and the Baathists who fostered the growth of ISIS, but their enemies in the super-rich oil sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf. Needless to say, the gulf states declared war on Assad not because he is undemocratic the totalitarians in Riyadh couldn’t care less about anything so trivial but because he is an Alawite, which is to say a member of the Shi‘ite branch of Islam that the Saudis, as even The New York Times recognizes, are obsessed with fighting.
Consequently, the Saudis, Qataris and other gulf state sheikdoms are sponsoring a reign of terror in Syria for the same reason they are imprisoning democratic protesters in Bahrain and conducting nightly bombing raids in Yemen because they are engaged in a growing all-Sunni jihad against a “Shi‘ite crescent” that is supposedly enveloping their countries.
As for Assad’s weakness and lack of popular support, the case is not as proven as Lewis wants us to believe. As the French geographer Fabrice Balanche notes, anywhere from 55 to 72 percent of the Syrian population lives in areas under government control, which suggests that the majority has voted with its feet in favor of the Baathist regime in Damascus.
Moreover, Assad received 88.7 percent of the vote in June 2014 in multi-party elections that the State Department predictably denounced as a “disgrace,” but which 30 other countries certified as “free, fair, and transparent.” These include not just Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela, but also India and South Africa, whose opinion the U.S. usually takes more seriously.
This is not to say that the results would not be different under more normal circumstances. But it strongly suggests that the mass of ordinary Syrians prefer Assad to either ISIS, the Nusra Front (Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria), or any of the “moderate” rebels backed by the U.S. So Assad’s unpopularity is at best unproven.
How to Restore Stability
As for Lewis’s contention that “Assad must leave” for Syrian unity to be restored, it is a pure non-sequitur. The only thing that Assad’s departure would create under present circumstances is a power vacuum that only ISIS and other jihadists could fill. The result would be unity all right, but unity under a black banner of religious obscurantism that would send millions more refugees fleeing to Europe.
If that’s what President Obama wants, then he should by all means continue with the present policy of ousting Assad at all costs. If not, then he should think very carefully about heeding a U.S. foreign-policy establishment that unanimously backed the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Still, Lewis’s conclusion is telling in a backwards sort of way. As he puts it: “Moscow’s apparent commitment to Damascus raises fundamental questions about what U.S. strategy, if any, can succeed. There are those who see Syria as a quagmire for Putin, a kind of matched pair to our own folly in Iraq; just as Washington collectively saw Afghanistan as payback for Vietnam.
“While Charlie Wilson’s war [in Afghanistan] helped popularize the idea of bleeding Moscow, I don’t think that can be the basis of U.S. policy either. The moral cost is far too high. Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old boy whose corpse washed up on a Turkish beach, was fleeing Syria’s civil war, as are hundreds of thousands of the refugees now in Europe. More than half of Syria’s 17 million people have been displaced. Bleeding Moscow means bleeding these people. It may sound strategic in a Pentagon war room, but not when children’s bodies wash up on shore.”
According to this thinking, Obama can’t let Moscow prevail in bolstering the Syrian government since that would mean prolonging Syria’s agony. But Obama can’t prevent it either, so the only thing that Lewis foresees is an endless vista of washed-up bodies and desperate refugees. It’s a vision of hell straight out of Hieronymus Bosch.
But if we were to turn Lewis’s argument upside-down or, rather, right side up given his skewed viewpoint it might go something like this:
If true, Moscow’s decision to step up support for Assad means that America and its Arab gulf partners will now have a harder time removing him after all. This raises fundamental questions about what U.S. strategy, if any, can succeed. Conceivably, America and its allies could admit defeat and go home. But “surrender” is not in the imperial lexicon.
Or the West could cooperate with Russia and Iran in organizing a power-sharing “unity government” in Damascus that would allow Assad to remain in office for the time being while adopting democratic reforms. Obama could also put the squeeze on Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the gulf states to stop the flow of money and weapons to Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front and ISIS. That multinational cooperation might reestablish at least some stability inside Syria.
But that would require Washington’s foreign policy establishment both the neocons and the liberal interventionists to get down off their high horses and admit their “regime change” approach was wrongheaded and destructive. Instead, they will almost certainly respond by demanding that Obama match Moscow’s move and raise it one higher, more support for the anti-Assad rebels, up to and including Al Qaeda and perhaps even secretly aiding ISIS as well. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Neocons Urge Embrace of Al Qaeda.”]
The aim will not only be to topple Assad and the Baathists, but to bleed Russia the same way that U.S. and Saudi-backed mujahedeen bled the Soviets in Afghanistan (a strategy that destroyed a pro-Moscow secular regime in Kabul but also led to the rise of the Taliban and the formation of Al Qaeda). Likewise, in Syria, the human cost for upping the ante will be immense, but Washington’s vast corps of laptop bombardiers will tell themselves that it’s all Assad and Putin’s fault. These foreign policy pundits will feel good about themselves and more bellicose toward Russia.
No one knows where it will end, though one can bet that there will be many more dead Syrian children along the way as well as worsening instability reaching into Europe. But the U.S. attempts to counter the Russians will sound strategic both in Pentagon war rooms and Washington think tanks. As Madeleine Albright once said about the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children due to U.S. sanctions, the price in terms of toppling Assad will be “worth it.”
[For more on this topic, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Climbing into Bed with Al-Qaeda.”]
Daniel Lazare is the author of several books including The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace).