More False Outrage on the Syrian War

Washington’s neocon hypocrisy surfaced again with the furor over Russia using an Iranian base to launch airstrikes against terror groups in Syria, while the U.S. uses other Mideast bases for the same purpose, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar notes.

By Paul R. Pillar

We should reflect on the meaning of Russia’s use of a base in Iran for staging airstrikes in Syria, and about what lessons we could learn from the Russians. The significance does not have to do with any grand realignment in the Middle East or the emergence of a military alliance between Russia and Iran.

Russians and Iranians are not buddies. The development has to do more specifically with the conflict in Syria, and the main advantage for Russia concerns tactical operational considerations involving distances to the battlefield and how much of a bomb load certain types of Russian aircraft can carry.

Russian President Vladimir Putin with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at an energy meeting on Nov. 23, 2015, in Tehran. (Russian government photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at an energy meeting on Nov. 23, 2015, in Tehran. (Russian government photo)

Nor does the lesson for us involve using more rather than less military force in the region. The United States is conducting airstrikes in Syria, too, and, although it seems to escape our notice sometimes, a limited ground war against ISIS as well.

The United States has more of a military presence in the Middle East, and is doing more with that presence, than anything Russia is doing there. If we are worrying about Russia one-upping us in the Middle East, it is not because the Russians are doing more militarily in the region than we are.

The lesson we should draw from the Putin government’s policy in the region is how an outside power is able to pursue its objectives and interests more fully and freely because it is willing to do business with anyone, not limiting itself to business only with states it considers allies and not letting old animosities or current differences get in the way of diplomatic initiatives and practical cooperation.

Russia’s approach has been apparent as well in its recent dealings with other non-allies in the region, including Israel and especially Turkey. Russians and Turks aren’t buddies either. Turkish interests, especially economic interests, will continue to point more toward the West than toward Russia.

But that reality, the animosities that have underlain multiple Russo-Turkish wars, current differences between Moscow and Ankara that include but are not limited to Syrian issues, and the fact that it is the United States and not Russia that is using an airbase in Turkey have not kept Vladimir Putin from using rapprochement with the Erdogan government to pursue his own country’s interests.

Flexible Diplomacy

In practicing such flexible diplomacy, Putin is operating in the realist tradition. In that respect Russia is indeed one-upping the United States, insofar as the United States follows the non-realist habit of perceiving the world as divided into allies and adversaries, limits efforts at cooperation to the former, and sees the latter as fit only for confrontation, punishment, and isolation.

President Obama and King Salman Arabia stand at attention during the U.S. national anthem as the First Lady stands in the background with other officials on Jan. 27, 2015, at the start of Obama’s State Visit to Saudi Arabia. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza). (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Obama and King Salman Arabia stand at attention during the U.S. national anthem with the First Lady in the background on Jan. 27, 2015, at the start of Obama’s State Visit to Saudi Arabia. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza).

Such a non-realist approach is a poor way to protect and advance one’s interests. It means associating too closely with misadventures of purported allies (as, for example, the United States is today in supporting the bloody Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen) and missing opportunities to build on the parallel interests that invariably exist even with those states firmly labeled as adversaries.

The United States probably could have made use of that base in Iran, too, although because of other U.S. military assets in the region it may not need such a staging point as much as Russia did. In any event, there exist other parallel or convergent interests between Iran and the United States, including ones related to the restoration of stability in Syria and Iraq, that the United States could profitably build upon (especially in the wake of completing the agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program).

But any inclinations of the Obama administration to move in this direction are stymied by the strong political resistance within the United States against thinking of Iran as anything other than a target for punishment and isolation. So the United States misses opportunities while Putin, wiser than us in that regard, seizes them.

A wiser United States would also think of Russia itself, which has the label of adversary firmly affixed to it, in realist terms in which that label would not prevent the United States from exploring and exploiting areas of parallel interests. The Obama administration is trying to do some of this regarding military operations against extremist groups in Syria.

But again the biggest barrier is the Cold War mindset prevalent in much American politics that mistakenly sees a zero-sum situation in which even any activity of Russia in the Middle East, let alone any discernible Russian gains there, is viewed as a setback for the United States.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

12 comments for “More False Outrage on the Syrian War

  1. Gregory Kruse
    August 21, 2016 at 21:42

    Huzzah, Paul Pillar.

  2. incontinent reader
    August 19, 2016 at 15:17

    Stuart Davies makes a very good point. And why might this be the unwritten story?

    Russia has built credibility through its diplomatic efforts to created a series of bilateral and regional alliances predicated on: (1) a joint effort to combat terrorism, and (2) planning for future economic development when the region is stabilized- and this has gained traction- especially with China announcing it will provide more help for Syria- as the only viable alternative against the chaos and nihilism we have foisted on the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa.

    Re: the use of the Iran airbase as its take-off point, by now it must be clear that Russia sought and obtained Iraq’s approval for its overflights- and did so quietly and without fanfare. I’d call it another successful judo move by the master in Moscow. But, what was it, after all, but respect for Iraq’s national sovereignty and Iraq’s endorsement of Russia’s aerial attacks.

    As for the lame attempt by our Administration to claim that the use of Tehran’s base somehow violated the JCPOA, or UN sanctions not to provide Iran with weapons, Foreign Minister Lavrov disposed of all of that nonsense rather quickly.

    The article does not mention, however, the recent White Helmet efforts to perpetuate the claims of genocide, barrel bombs and humanitarian crises created by the Russian Air Force and the Syrian Arab Army- including with the publication of a heart rending image of a child allegedly gassed to death, and another allegedly bleeding from a Russian aerial attack which had the endorsement of a Syrian journalist and a Syrian doctor. These claims have been strongly disputed by Russian General Konashenkov, who has made it clear that the Russians specifically do not bomb civilian settlements and in any case would not have bombed something so close to the humanitarian corridors that have been set up for people to leave or receive humanitarian aid- and also disputed by analysts who have reviewed the photos. The Reconciliation Center set up by Russia is doing a careful and disciplined job of documenting all ceasefire violations- so what is being peddled by the White Helmets and others is much more easily audited than in the past.

    I’ve also just seen a petition blaming Konashenkov for these attacks, when its intended purpose seems more for gaining propaganda value among so-called progressives on the list.

    What the U.S. and its proxies have not done, despite their promises many months ago, is require the separation of the so-called moderates from the jihadists, or to pressure the jihadists to release their human hostages. (I was also astounded to read that in Iraq, after a recent military success against ISIS the US command gave safe passage to a number of defeated ISIS soldiers, but did not investigate whether those that the soldiers were taking with them were hostages- even though the general in charge speculated that some might have been.)

    • Peter Loeb
      August 20, 2016 at 06:57

      I REMEMBER 2014….

      No death can be excused. Many nations have signed papers,
      accords, treaties to this effect.

      Once again remembering George Orwell:

      “All men are created equal, but some are more equal than others.”

      When there are wars, people die. When Israel (with US complicity)
      was “mowing the grass” in Palestine, bombing civilians, hospitals
      and killing and maiming many people died. Little was
      said. The US did not say a word and blocked investigations
      in the UN as being “anti-Semitic”.These acts of murder
      continue daley in Palestine.

      There is a war in Syria and people are dying. Few if any mention
      any responsibility for the so-called “moderate opposition” for
      disappearances, use of U weaponry, murders, taking over
      major cities in a foreign country and parts of the capital
      of other nations. How innocent these terrorist invaders seem to
      be! There is no talk of Syria’s right of self-defense! And are
      organizations (the “moderate” opposition) who cooperate
      with affiliates of al Qaeda really moderates at all?)

      A better definition is in Nicolas S.B. Davies’ article which appeared

      There is little mention of the Syrian government’s offer to civilians
      to exit cities under siege (exactly as the US did in Fallujah and other
      cities in Iraq.)

      The moral of the story: When groups invade other countries and
      are responsabile for horrific crimes themselves, they have it would
      seem to me given up their rights to claims of innocence and world pity.

      Just as the US-Israeli brutal attack on Gaza in 2014.

      —Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  3. Stuart Davies
    August 19, 2016 at 09:53

    The bigger story here is how Russia manages to get permission to overfly Iraq to strike in Syria from Iran. Either that or they are overflying Turkish Territory, which would be an even bigger story. What is going on with that, and why isn’t it even mentioned here?

    • h
      August 19, 2016 at 11:58

      Iraq long ago offered Russia their air space and if I’m not mistaken, Russia and Iraq worked out an agreement early on regarding the sharing of intelligence, HUMINT/SIGINT via the joint operation center in Baghdad.

      As for Turkey’s air space? Just a guess but Incirlik air base may very well become available to Russia soon. Why? People tend to change once their life and their families life literally flashes before their eyes as it did for Erdogan on the eve of the coup attempt. Imagine learning your and your families life is in grave danger from your brother in law. Imagine learning who was behind it and why. Crazy, crazy stuff.

      That said, we’ll learn more next week when Erdogan makes a visit to Iran where it is anticipated some sort of official announcement will be made regarding the new Russian/Syrian/Iran and Turkey alliance.

      All signals are currently pointing to a major shift in Turkey’s policies towards Syria, however, Biden is heading to Turkey on the 24th to have a pow wow with Erdogan. We’ll see what influence, if any, he’ll have on a man whose very life, not to mention his families, nearly came to an end by the hands of the country of the man he’ll be sitting across from.

      • Gregory Herr
        August 19, 2016 at 14:23

        We own the finish line Biden. C’mon!

  4. John
    August 18, 2016 at 21:14

    If you lazy people in the USA don’t take your country back from the Bolsheviks …aka neocons….. aka Zionist agenda….mercy…your children will be their slaves…..but maybe you like that..maybe that’s okay ???

    • Dtizkrieg
      August 19, 2016 at 06:23

      Do you think that “lazy people in the USA” are the ones who are reading Consortium News every day?

    • Dr. Ibrahim Soudy
      August 19, 2016 at 14:31

      It is not that their children will be salves to them, the vast majority of Americans ARE already slaves to them!! Being a slave does not have to be in the traditional sense. They are slaves as STATE-OF-MIND………
      The Wall Street Bankers control the money flow,
      The Entertainment Industry provides an Escape,
      The Mainstream Media does the brainwashing,
      The Think Tanks feed both the branches of government and the Mainstream Media…

      How is that for a summary of how it operates?!

      I understand that when you say “Lazy People of the US”, you do not mean every single American but the vast majority……..and also Lazy “mentally”………

      • Rikhard Ravindra Tanskanen
        August 21, 2016 at 16:42

        Don’t be anti-Semitic, moron.

  5. Sam F
    August 18, 2016 at 20:23

    I meet no one with a “cold war mindset” and would not expect that from anyone but the lowest TV addict, with whom I would be unlikely to speak, or a right wing demagogue. The fact that the mass media and elections are owned by Israel does not reflect the will of the people.

    • b.grand
      August 18, 2016 at 22:49

      You don’t get out (of your bubble) much, do you? “The People” have other things on their mind and don’t bother to question what they hear from the MSM.about foreign policy. Speaking to a random neighbor is scary (as in, never heard of Victoria Nuland, think hundreds died when ‘Putin invaded Crimea’), and I live in a mostly white, “well educated” upper-middle-class hood in DC.

Comments are closed.