Neocon Freak-out over Syria

Neocon-dominated Official Washington is in freak-out mode about the success of the Russian-backed Syrian army around Aleppo, reviving long-discredited claims about “moderate” rebels and ignoring Al Qaeda’s key presence. This neocon frenzy also demands a new Cold War, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar notes.

By Paul R. Pillar

There is no shortage of certitude in American commentary about what Russia is trying to do in Syria. For example, the Washington Post editorial page, unrelentingly hawkish on everything involving Syria, declares that “it has long been obvious to almost everyone that the regime of Vladimir Putin is seeking a military victory over Western-backed rebels, not a truce.”

Right after that editorial appeared, Moscow made a fresh proposal, currently the subject of international talks, for a cease-fire to begin in less than three weeks.

Dennis Ross, who has served as a senior U.S. emissary in the Middle East.

Dennis Ross, who has served as a senior U.S. emissary in the Middle East.

Also abundant in the commentary is the presumption that to oppose everything Russia is doing in Syria is the right thing to do, and anything that involves cooperation with the Russians there is a mistake. Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy laments that “rather than being opposed to the Russian efforts, we look to be in league with them.”

Much of this commentary is straight out of the early and middle years of the Cold War, when events in the Middle East were assessed in large part in terms of which of the two superpowers was gaining influence in a particular capital by winning the friendship of the local strongman or through a coup that installed some new strongman.

The Cold War scorecard for the region was kept in terms of how many security agreements and arms deals there were with the United States and the USSR respectively. Old habits evidently die hard, even though the Cold War is over. Much of the current discourse about Russia in the Middle East and specifically Syria portrays issues as even more zero-sum than they were during the Cold War, and certainly more than they are now.

For example, James Jeffrey, also of the Washington Institute, explicitly places discussion of Syria in the context of U.S.-Soviet competition in the Middle East during the Cold War, talks of the region as a “U.S. security zone,” bemoans how Russia “seems to be moving from victory to victory in Syria,” asks “if Putin can get away with such activities in Syria, where might he act next,” and asserts that what is happening in Syria has “potentially serious implications for the entire U.S. global security system.”

Putin undoubtedly had a variety of reasons (some of which Ross correctly identifies) for intervening militarily in Syria. But more important than parsing motivations the Russian leader may have had as of last year is to consider current realities that both Russia and the United States are facing in Syria today. The following realities are especially important in formulating an effective policy toward Syria and toward the Russian role there.

First, this is not the Cold War, and not everything is zero-sum. Some Russian objectives conflict with U.S. objectives but others are neutral with respect to U.S. interests and still others are congruent with those interests.

Second, a purely military outcome is currently as much out of reach in the Syrian civil war as it ever has been, notwithstanding the Russian-backed regime advances near Aleppo that have received much attention over the past couple of weeks. Propping up the Assad regime certainly has been one of the Russian objectives, but propping up the regime is not the same as leaving the regime in such a commanding position that it would not need indefinite and costly Russian help to keep standing up, let alone to recapture all of the Syrian territory it has lost in the course of the war.

Besting opposition forces at Aleppo or elsewhere does not mean the armed opposition is going to sulk away. And even if the “moderate” opposition could somehow be wiped out, then the regime and its backers would still be squarely facing the extremists and especially ISIS. Putin surely is perceptive enough to realize all this, notwithstanding what the Post editorialists assert is his objective. Russia still has a strong interest in a negotiated settlement in Syria.

Third, the chief recent impediment to negotiations to reach such a settlement has been erected by opposition elements, who have balked at negotiating unless their demands for preconditions are met, including in particular cessation of the regime’s military operations. Insistence on such demands precludes negotiations. If we were to make a habit out of insisting on prior cease-fires before sitting down to talk, we would still be fighting the Korean War.

The Russian-backed regime offensive around Aleppo should be viewed in these terms. If you want a Cold War-era comparison, think about the Christmas bombing: the devastating escalation of the U.S. air war against North Vietnam in late 1972.

If that offensive were interpreted at the time the way many commentators are interpreting the fighting at Aleppo today, the interpretation would be that the Nixon administration was seeking a military victory and was not genuinely interested in a negotiated settlement. And that interpretation would have been wrong; the bombing was instead a way of changing the incentives of an opponent who had been balking at finalizing a settlement.

Fourth, the interests of Assad and his regime are not the same as Russian interests. The regime may not have an interest in negotiating its own demise, but Russia does not have an interest in indefinitely expending resources to prevent that demise.

With this in mind, a sound strategy is outlined by Samuel Charap and Jeremy Shapiro, who argue that the chances for a peace settlement are enhanced by getting the United States and Russia on the same page, which will be a different page from the one Assad can be expected to be on.

Charap and Shapiro write, “The United States should refocus the next round of talks on creating a unity government that Russia will accept, the first task of which would be to arrange a general cease-fire and an end to the violence. The details of the deal are of secondary importance, because Assad will reject it. Russia will then lose its patience with the regime. At that point, the United States and Russia would have a chance at finding a common position on ending the war.”

It does neither Syrians nor anyone else any good to respond to the Russian intervention by getting into a Cold War-style dither and pretending that U.S. interests are the opposite of whatever Russia is doing. Increased Russian leverage from the intervention, especially over the Assad regime, can itself be leveraged by the United States to advance its own interests.

Those interests have much more to do with tamping down the conflict than with shaping a particular political future for Damascus. A specific timetable for Assad’s departure matters little to U.S. interests. What matters more is curbing the warfare that already has given ISIS a big opportunity for growth, that continues to breed extremism, and that risks destabilizing effects in nearby parts of the region. This is a page that both Washington and Moscow can be on.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

41 comments for “Neocon Freak-out over Syria

  1. Aarsupilani
    February 13, 2016 at 18:31

    Some good points but basically I don’t agree with the opinion expressed in this article. It shows more how an US analyst WANT to see the situation and not how it is. The main error is – like very often in western analysis -, that the thinking of the Russians is completely different to the money and power play-spoiled thinking of an US agent.
    One example: Russia’s interest in backing Assad is not to leave him in power, but to hold a a free vote of the Syrians who will govern then -first. And clear and peaceful situations in s country, where many Russians are liviving since decades – second.

  2. jaycee
    February 12, 2016 at 23:05

    Near the conclusion of the first Gulf War in 1991, a remarkable panel was convened on the PBS Newshour program, consisting of Cold War national security insiders such as Al Haig, McGeorge Bundy, and others. They were reflecting on the success of the war, and the changing circumstances of the international scene. At one point, as the moderator summarized a discussion of the new Cold War realities – namely that at that moment, suddenly, the Russians had lost all influence in the Middle East and couldn’t effect the course of events even if they wanted to- the cameras panned across the faces of the panel who, as this new reality was seemingly just sinking in, all broke into wide triumphant grins. Now, twenty-five years later, suddenly, that moment is over. That is why the neo-cons and other national security insiders are freaking out.

    So has the past quarter century of unilateral American influence been a positive experience for the region? An honest appraisal of events will answer that question. In my opinion, the Middle East has become steadily less secure, more chaotic, and far more sectarian.

    • dahoit
      February 13, 2016 at 11:48

      Yes,very Yinon like huh?

  3. EKW
    February 12, 2016 at 22:51

    Interesting and well considered analysis – but I’m curious as to why the machinations of Turkey and Israel have not been mentioned? Looking also at the bigger picture, Russia must feel surrounded all the way from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Instead of demilitarizing the old Iron Curtain, it seems NATO has just taken over its positions and still doesn’t want to stop – seeking further expansion into the Ukraine and the Middle East.

    And yet Russia is still painted by the Western Media as the aggressor? Eventually Russia will feel it has to make a stand. It did in the Crimea of course, but that was well within its sphere of influence. What will happen if Turkey decides to invade Syria? Russia has already reported troop build ups. I have no doubt that Russia will be forced (by its alliance with Assad) to attack Turkish assets inside Syria – and there we will have it. A major war. We can see it coming, and this time we even know who is going to pull the trigger.

    The Peace Conference may have a chance to stop this. But remember the last time there was an attempt at dialogue (when the French President was doing the rounds)? Turkey shot down a Russian warplane.

  4. Bruce
    February 12, 2016 at 22:05

    AND, it’s the Syrians’ country; ALL Invaders (Coalition of the Wahhabi: Not invited), GTFO!

  5. Abe
    February 12, 2016 at 20:35

    Upon reading the increasingly desperate headlines pumped out by the Western media as Western-backed terrorist forces begin to fold under an effective joint Syrian-Russian offensive to take the country back, readers will notice that though the term “moderate rebels” or “moderate opposition” is used often, the Western media is seemingly incapable of naming a single faction or leader among them.

    The reason for this is because there are no moderates and there never were. Since 2007, the US has conspired to arm and fund extremists affiliated with Al Qaeda to overthrow the government of Syria and destabilize Iranian influence across the entire Middle East.

    Exposed in Seymour Hersh’s 2007 article, “The Redirection Is the Administration’s new policy benefitting our enemies in the war on terrorism?,” it stated explicitly that:

    “The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.”

    The “catastrophe” the Western media constantly cites in its increasingly hysterical headlines is the predictable manifestation of not Syrian and Russian security operations ongoing in Syria today, but of the conspiracy described by Hersh in 2007 that has indisputably been put into play, starting in 2011 under the guise of the so-called “Arab Spring.”

    When the West does attempt to give names and faces to these so-called “moderates,” it is a simple matter to trace them directly back to Al Qaeda.

    In Syria, If You Can’t Find Moderates, Dress Up Some Extremists
    By Tony Cartalucci

  6. Tom Welsh
    February 12, 2016 at 17:58

    ‘For example, James Jeffrey… talks of the region as a “U.S. security zone,” bemoans how Russia “seems to be moving from victory to victory in Syria,” asks “if Putin can get away with such activities in Syria, where might he act next,” and asserts that what is happening in Syria has “potentially serious implications for the entire U.S. global security system.”’

    Good grief, fancy the sheer gall of Putin! Taking military action to defeat terrorists 500 miles away from Russia and 6,500 miles away from the USA. How can he fail to understand that the entire Near East – like the entire Middle East, all of Europe, Africa and South America, and indeed the whole world – belongs to the USA?

    What next? At this rate the nations of the world may soon join together in telling the US government, frankly and directly, to take itself and its armed forces back home to North America and stay there.

    • If only
      February 13, 2016 at 04:22

      Unfortunately, I don’t see any opposition banding together against Washington. Just about every other nation on the planet is terrified of what America can do to them militarily and economically for even making snarky remarks about the hegemon. Even Western Europe, which has every reason and probably the ability to throw off the American yoke, is afraid to do so. Mind you, none of this is to America’s credit. It will remain, for the time being, the bully of the world and existential threat to the entire planet. I hope some of you live long enough to see that change.

  7. David Smith
    February 12, 2016 at 15:48

    Abe is, as usual, 100% wrong. In a murky, confusing situation, what is really going on is unseen. What is unseen is Washington, like a cat ready to pounce. The success of the SAA is its undoing, as it gets close to the Turkish border, the Turkish Army will enter Syria, a purposefully provocation, leading to mess.Then the United States Navy will impose a naval blockade of Syria, and that will be it, every bullet the SAA uses comes from Russia through Tartus. Russia cannot challenge the US Navy. No need for a risky No Fly Zone over Syria. Russia will be granted safe passage to withdraw. There will be no air battles between Russian and American air forces and no WWIII.

    • Tom Welsh
      February 12, 2016 at 18:01

      “Russia cannot challenge the US Navy”.

      Not necessarily true, my chauvinist friend. Besides, that is not how the Russians operate. They do not make threats. Russia would not “challenge” the US Navy: if necessary, it would sink it. Please don’t think it can’t be done; ask the crew of the USS “Donald Duck” and the crews of the swift boats in the Persian Gulf. As for those immense white elephant carriers, they are enough to make an emotional pilot or missile operator or submarine captain drool.

      • David Smith
        February 12, 2016 at 20:03

        Tom, if you believe Russia can “sink” all or even part of the US Navy and break a US Navy blockade of the Syrian coast, you need to back up your assertion with facts. It would be my pleasure to continue this discussion on this thread. Your move.

    • Abe
      February 12, 2016 at 18:13

      Once again, United States Navy cheerleader David Smith whips out the pom poms and the percentages (see comments at )

      Hasbara much, Dave?

      This whole rotten game is about Israel, comrade.

      Regardless of which dimwit tales charge in the White House next year, I doubt the US Navy is eager to go “toe to toe with the Roosskies” on behalf of Netanyahu’s Lebensraum aspirations.

      Neocon delusions notwithstanding, Israel is not “existential” for the United States.

      • David Smith
        February 12, 2016 at 20:38

        Went to your link, Abe, and all I found were your An Hominem Fallacies, Straw man Fallacies, and unsound assertions about Russia going nuclear over Syria. In your present comment you commit the same fallacies, and make a vague assertion about US Navy eagerness. I plainly state the US Navy can blockade the Syrian coast. If you naively think the Russian Navy can take control of the Eastern Med from the US Navy, I am very interested in your explanation of how, but you must use sound assertions in a valid argument. Your move.

        • Abe
          February 12, 2016 at 21:35

          The mercenary terrorist forces in Syria have ceased advancing and started retreating. That’s why the US-Israel-Saudi-NATO alliance is getting ever more desperate.

          […] you, David Smith, make “if…then” declarations about what Syria “must” do and when, entirely without support of evidence.

          (see comments at )

      • Abe
        February 12, 2016 at 21:21

        Russian assets in Syria include the K-300P Bastion-P (NATO reporting name SSC-5) mobile coastal defence missile system.

        The system is designed for the destruction of various surface ships from an enemy’s landing squadrons, convoys, carrier strike groups, as well as single vessels and land-based radiocontrast targets in conditions of intensive fire and electronic countermeasures.

        The system uses the P-800 Oniks (Yakhont, SS-N-26 “Strobile”) anti-ship cruise missile and has a maximum range of 300 km. The missile system is mounted on a mobile vehicle that can deploy its missiles in under five minutes and remain on active standby over a period of 3–5 days.

        Your move, pom pom.

        • David Smith
          February 12, 2016 at 22:37

          Of course both sides have excellent weapons. This is about geography. Russia cannot impose a sea lane to Eastern Med via Black Sea/Bosphorus or via Baltic/Skagerrak/Gibraltar or any other route. Russia is screwed by geography when events turn on the World Ocean. In compensation Russia is gifted with unassailable land frontiers. US chooses confrontation where Russia cannot win.

      • David Smith
        February 12, 2016 at 22:00

        Abe, if the Ad Hominem Fallacy is all you got, then you got nothing. If, like Tom Welsh, you believe a US Navy blockade of the Syrian coast can be broken by the Russian Navy, then use sound premises in valid argumentation, if you are capable , at least Mr. Welsh tried. Your move.

        • Abe
          February 12, 2016 at 23:22

          “Of course both sides have excellent weapons.” Indeed. Syria’s land-based weapons Bastion systems sink ships. The Rooskies ain’t stupid.

          You have no argument whatsoever. You have simply made a set of declarations, like the time before and the time before that. Waving pom poms is all you got, comrade.

      • Roberto
        February 12, 2016 at 23:09

        Geezzzeee, I was kind of hoping they would not launch any of their supersonic, stealth, sea/air , range unknown, pinpoint accurate cruse missiles at the George Washington Bridge.

        That’s why I decided never to vote for Hillary Clinton.

      • dahoit
        February 13, 2016 at 11:45

        You are astute in your observation that this all about the expansion of the wacko racist Zionist monster state.
        Yes,Mr.Smith,ships are very very exposed targets in the age of cruise missiles.Remember the Sheffield?Exocets?

        • David Smith
          February 13, 2016 at 16:42

          US Navy has no need to go near Syrian coast to block Russia. US Navy will block Bosphorus, Gibraltar, and Red Sea, that’s sufficient, maybe block Skagerrak and Iceland Gap to underline things. Vladivostok will be left open, to show Russia we are gentlemen, and its a limited operation.

    • ltr
      February 12, 2016 at 21:21

      Russia will be granted safe passage to withdraw….

      [ Ridiculous and wildly dangerous. Russia will not withdraw, Russia will not be bullied. Such a time is forever gone. ]

      • David Smith
        February 12, 2016 at 23:24

        It is about geography. Russia cannot impose a sea lane to Syrian coast by any route against US Navy opposition. Bosphorus, Gibraltar, Skagerrak are hopeless chokepoints for Russia, and the US Navy absolutely dominates the World Ocean. When the US Navy closes the trap, its all over for Russia in Syria.

      • Abe
        February 13, 2016 at 17:24

        US Navy “opposition” to Russia would not survive the first sinkings of US Navy ships.

        Regardless of the propaganda blitz, the political will to go to war in defense of al Qaeda / ISIS is simply not there in the United States or Europe.

        As usual, David Smith is passing NATO gas.

        His flimsy contentions, RISK map scenarios and pom pom waving are all easily refuted.

        • David Smith
          February 14, 2016 at 11:31

          Abe, see above my reply to comment by “dahoit”. I am very interested in reading your easy refutation.

    • Stefan
      February 13, 2016 at 05:36

      Send your 101 neocon wishlist to Santa.

      If the US regime isn’t suicidal, then the US regime will not embark on an adventure against a nuclear power with the ability to blow US’ head off.

      Russian’s are not only fighting together with their allies, but for their own survival and stability, thus US will indeed risk a tactical nuclear (perhaps worse) confrontation – and by the time a new administration is installed, the landscape in Syria will have changed even more-because the Obama administration will certainly not risk a nuclear war with Russia, at Israel’s backyard, for a decrept wannabe Sultan and a lunatic warrior prince of Saudi Arabia.

      A nuclear confrontation right at Israel’s borders? Even the neocons might pass at that one.

      • David Smith
        February 13, 2016 at 10:17

        Carefully reread all my comments, then look at a World Map.

      • Abe
        February 13, 2016 at 14:20

        Carefully read all David Smith comments, then look at the World Map he uses:

        • David Smith
          February 13, 2016 at 16:24

          Abe, you got the wrong map, again.

    • Gregory Herr
      February 14, 2016 at 16:18

      You appear to have a military strategy all figured out David. And apparently you believe it is not “risky,” at least not on the level of a “risky” no fly zone. You also assume the U.S. will just say “enough” and “allow” Russia to go home peacefully and that they will then do as they’re told like a child sent to their room. Interesting. I wonder, do you also think this is a “correct” course of action, and to what end? Do you as well think Turkey should purposefully provoke Syria and/or Russia?

      • David Smith
        February 15, 2016 at 13:52

        A No-Fly Zone is an act of war against Syria. Russian air defense is excellent, US would take losses, so no guarantee of imposing the zone, which accomplishes nothing anyway.Every bullet Syria uses is supplied by Russia by sea thru Tartus, as well as Russia’s supplies. It is impossible for Russian Navy to fight its way through Bosphorus, Skaggerak, Gibraltar so it won’t try, therefore near zero risk for US Navy. Nothing in, Anything out, Including Pres. Assad and his beautiful wife.If Russia had stayed out, it could have supplied Syria indefinitely and Syria had stabilized the situation.I want Syria to win, but the Turks are scum and Putin has outsmarted himself.US has two goals: permanately cut off Syria’s lifeline to Russia, and humiliate Russia by forcing it to choose between defeat on the high seas or a dignified, if humiliating withdrawal, intact, to Russia.

      • Abe
        February 15, 2016 at 14:50

        Naval blockades are acts of war under international and US law.

        The notion that a United States Navy effort to blockade the Russian Navy in international waters has “near zero risk for US Navy” (as insisted by “pom pom” above) is absurd on its face.

        Modern naval vessels are highly vulnerable to land, sea and air-based anti-ship weaponry. The brinksmanship proposed by “pom pom” carries a high risk of nuclear escalation.

        Such absurd RISK map scenarios and “pom pom” brinksmanship was likely manufactured in a game room in Herzliya, Israel.

        Someone has been outsmarted here, and clearly it ain’t Putin.

      • Abe
        February 15, 2016 at 18:18

        Neocon freakouts and “pom pom” war games notwithstanding, the conflict in Syria has a great deal to do with Israel’s de facto membership in NATO.

        Writing in Haaretz in 2012, Arab-Israel conflict scholar Yehuda Lukacs proposed making official Israeli membership in NATO as “a type of a bold, long-term structural solution to the ongoing crisis in the Middle East that policy makers should seriously consider as the foundations of a new security system in the most volatile region of the world.” Lukacs, director at the Center for Global Education at George Mason University, holds dual citizenship in Israel and the United States.

        A proper diagnosis reveals an indigestible Israel at the root of all this NATO gas that has fouled the atmosphere. A complete series of enemas is urgently recommended.

        • Gregory Herr
          February 16, 2016 at 21:38

          I enjoy serious posts laced with comic relief. “A complete series of enemas is urgently recommended.” Priceless!

  8. Abe
    February 12, 2016 at 15:20

    The Syria talks aren’t about Syria, they are about Israel.

    The neocon freak out over Syria launched into overdrive when Russia stepped in.

    The neocon echo chamber positively reverberates with angst-ridden Israeli “pessimism” about their current prospects for getting rid of the democratically elected head of state of the Syrian Arab Republic.

    Here comes the bogus “realist” Pillar, peddling the “sound strategy” advanced by Charap and Shapiro in Foreign Affairs: “to create a rift between Russia and the Assad regime and to pull Russia closer to its own position”.

    Charap and Shapiro’s astonishingly stupid “right way to think about Syria” is an indication of how desperate Israel has become now that the wheels are coming off its long-nurtured regime change project in Syria.

    Russian air power in Syria thwarts Israeli plans for permanent seizure of the Golan, renewed assaults in Lebanon, and isolation of Iran.

    If US “diplomacy” and military pressure can’t pry the Russians out of Syria, then the neocon-backed vision of an Israel-dominated New Middle East is doomed.

    • Stefan
      February 13, 2016 at 05:03

      I totally agree with you, Paul Pillar calling Charap and Shapiro plan “sound”, just confirms to me what kind of a hack Paul R Pillar is. Surely he is well aware that it is nothing else than “Regime Change” through the backdoor. Pillar ought to be very gullible if his idea of russian skill (and iranian) at the geopolitical negotiation table is at the same low and desperate level as Charpo and Shapiro.

    • Peter Loeb
      February 15, 2016 at 06:44


      I agree with “Abe” in that it is Israel which is at the center.

      The destruction, “removal” and “killing” of Native Americans by Andrew
      Jackson was always presented as “self-defense”. That is, anyone
      anywhere doing something disapproved of by Jackson was a “threat”
      to the “infant republick’s” security etc. And the US’s “rights” since
      all land everywhere belonged to the “infant republck” and its
      land speculators. The solution for Jackson and for all Americans
      was Indian dispossession, removal, genocide. (See Michael Paul
      Rogin’s FATHERS AND SONS….”

      Why does not the US and its friends require the same requirements
      of Israel as of Russia?

      Clearly, Russia and Syria are, at least for now, “winning”. There are
      many other explanations as well.

      The claims of humanitarian imperialistim and the need for Allepo
      is bogus. If the US were invaded and Baltimore (just an example)
      were controlled by the invaders, do you think the US would stop
      its attacks? Allow the poor residents of Baltimore to continue
      getting their supplies etc. from nations that support the invasion?

      I doubt it.

      Of course many would die. But then, “war is hell!”

      Besides which the US is in terrible financial straights itself.
      Does the US want the cost of maintaining a Syria—or its
      remains— as it has done in Libya? Iraq?

      As some writers have pointed out, the Russian policy
      has not only be successful but in line with UN policy.

      If a nuclear war is inevitable as Paul Pillar has suggested,
      those in the US and its allies would suffer as well whoever

      (See Mike Whitney in COUNTERPUNCH on “The Putin Gambol
      in Syria”, February 10, 2016).

      —Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, 2016

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