Washington Hawks Prey on Syrian Killing Fields

Official Washington loves to show heartbreaking images of wounded Syrian children with the implicit message that it’s time to invade Syria and impose “regime change” (rather than commit to peace talks), a dilemma addressed by Michael Brenner.

By Michael Brenner

The Syrian imbroglio is the most complex politico-military conflict of modern times. In terms of number of players, diversity of interests and purposes, intermingling of sectarian and secular ideologies, multiple connections with external parties, and harlequin patterned battlefield, the field of action is unique. Only the Spanish Civil War exhibited a similar mix of elements, although it was simplicity itself by comparison to Syria.

A unique, complicating feature of the Syrian conflict is that the behavior of various leaders appears to follow no discernible logic. Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Crown Prince Mohammed al-Salman of Saudi Arabia, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey are not just dogmatic autocrats; their actions are dictated more by emotion than reason.

Syrian women and children refugees at Budapest railway station. (Photo from Wikipedia)

Syrian women and children refugees at Budapest railway station. (Photo from Wikipedia)

As for the United States, the Obama administration flails about with no evident strategy in a vain effort to square circles. That places it in the untenable position of allying with Al Qaeda to unseat the Assad regime and, above all, to thwart Russia.

Hence, we provide diplomatic cover, weapons indirectly via the CIA “rat line” to its subordinate partners, and tacit approval of overt Turkish and Saudi material support for the jihadis which includes sophisticated anti-armor TOWs and Man-Pads (portable anti-aircraft weapons) originating in the United States. No one in official Washington feels obliged to answer the most elementary questions about the probity of such a policy. Indeed, almost no one poses it.

If one were to reach for a metaphor to depict this singular state of affairs, one might imagine a six-team match of all-in rugby played in a crowded shopping mall without rules or umpires or time limit.  Tactical alliances are as fluid as are the side deals made by riders in the notorious Palio in Siena.

The core contradiction at the heart of the Obama administration’s confused actions in Syria is seeking simultaneously to get rid of President Bashar al-Assad and to suppress the jihadi groups. The simple, uncomfortable truth is that the rebel opposition to the Assad regime is organized by, and overwhelmingly manned by Al Qaeda/Al Nusra and affiliated Salafist groups, and the independent Islamic State (also known as ISIL, ISIS or Daesh).

Both jihadi factions owe their successful development to the backing from Washington’s “allies”: Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. That continues to this day as the provision of arms, training, and recruitment of reinforcements has made possible the Al Qaeda-led counter-offensive around Aleppo.

Obama’s overriding commitment to maintaining close relations with all three “allies” is a major element explaining why Washington has done next to nothing to rein in Al Qaeda’s coalition while observing restrictions in cutting off Islamic State commerce and financing.

Underlying that policy judgment is a shared interest in isolating and weakening Iran by uprooting their ally in Damascus – thereby striking a blow against the supposedly Shi’ite side in the Shi’ite-Sunni civil war that is wracking the Islamic world.

Countering Russia

The other determining consideration in Washington’s thinking is the conviction that Russia represents the greatest security challenge for the United States – in the Middle East and in Europe. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter reiterated the oft-stated view that Russia is security threat Number One just last week. The Islamic State has slipped to Number 5 – behind China, Iran and North Korea as well as Russia. Al Qaeda doesn’t make the cut.

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)

So, it follows that Washington’s priority in Syria as of now is to stymie all and any efforts by Russia to establish its presence in the country and to shape developments. Dealing with terrorism has been downgraded to the status of a subordinate concern – despite the havoc that it has wreaked locally and terrorist atrocities in the West. And, one should add, despite repeated alarums from the President and other high officials for years that ISIL was an imminent threat to basic American interests.

Here, a practical differentiation is made between ISIS and Al Qaeda & Associates on grounds other than pure threat potential. Does this make strategic sense? Is it logically consistent? Obviously, no.

As the ISIS phenomenon fades – in terms of strength on the ground and allure, it is becoming obvious that the greater long-term threat to regional stability and terrorist threat is the better-organized, more disciplined Al Qaeda.

Again, the Obama administration does not provide answers to these questions; indeed, our heated public discourse ignores them. Obama himself is a puzzle. His actions suggest cynicism and a lack of candor. His demeanor, at other times, suggests that he is numbered among the earnest naifs who can persuade themselves that women beach volley ball players wear bikinis because they are aerodynamically advantageous for spiking. Or, he manages to live at multiple levels of reality simultaneously.

There are also domestic political considerations at play that encourage stressing the distinction between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. There is enormous political capital to be gained from rolling back ISIS. After all, it is ISIS that has dominated the headlines and struck fear into the hearts of Western publics.

Al Qaeda somehow seems a bit passe – realities notwithstanding. Think of what this means for a President-elect and then-President Hillary Clinton. Success against ISIS immediately would put wind in the sails of an administration that otherwise will be struggling to cope with an unraveling political system, a likely Republican dominated, truculent Congress, and a host of unfulfillable promises.

By contrast, keeping her campaign pledges to intervene more directly by military means in the Syrian civil war is high risk, unlikely to succeed, and might well split the Democratic Party. There is a possible “out” for Clinton – if not for the neocons and hardliners who have aligned with her in the hope that she follows a more aggressive strategy.

If ISIL is weakened to the point where Washington can declare some sort of victory, that could provide political cover for temporizing on Syria. That is, to allow the “dynamic stalemate” to continue – thereby also satisfying Erdogan who could continue to back Al Qaeda/Al Nusra and friends while leaving ISIS pretty much to its fate. (And accept the increased risk of ISIS terrorist acts in Turkey as a consequence).

Russia would be stymied and frustrated by the inability to mobilize enough force to overcome the significant reinforcement of men and equipment coming from, and through, Turkey. While such an approach does not carry the seed of a resolution, it does conveniently kick the can down the road at little cost.

Bewildering Episodes

That brings us to the latest bewildering episodes.

–The visit of Erdogan to Moscow where he met with President Vladimir Putin in what was widely described as a reconciliation encounter. Little has been said about concrete agreements, though – surely not as regards Syria.

Secretary of State John Kerry testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 8, 2014. (Screenshot from foreign.senate.gov)

Secretary of State John Kerry testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 8, 2014. (Screenshot from foreign.senate.gov)

Indeed, Erdogan stressed in a press conference that Turkey remains committed to backing the jihadi-led opposition in an unrelenting effort to remove Assad. Putin made only passing allusion to Syria although these are the very things that Russia has sought to prevent by its military intervention. Why?

The meeting probably was intended to insulate the clear divergence of interest/policy over Syria from long-term Russo-Turkey relations. The two countries implicitly share broad strategic concerns arising from their alienation from the U.S. and Western security arrangements.

Erdogan is playing the Russia card to extract further concessions from the United States and the European Union which are anxious about a possible Turkish defection to “the other side.” Putin aims to open a diplomatic line to Ankara which is a precondition to bringing a semblance of stability to Syria and the wider region on terms that Moscow can live with. Furthermore, he has an array of economic and political reasons to weaken the American-led campaign to isolate and undermine him.

–Moscow and Washington are in direct talks to resolve the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo, Syria, according to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

“We are in a very active phase of talks with our American counterparts both in Geneva and in Amman; we are frequently in touch with Washington,” Shoigu declared on Monday (Rossiya 24). “We are moving step by step closer to a plan – and I’m only talking about Aleppo here – that would really allow us to start fighting together to bring peace so that people can return to their homes in this troubled land.”

Shoigu explained that “all of the suggestions are aimed at preserving the country’s territorial integrity and fighting terrorism.”

What can we expect in the way of a response from Washington? Obama and the administration that he nominally heads have been trying to square circles in Syria – as discussed above. In this cause, they repeatedly have tried to marginalize (if not eliminate) the Russia factor since Moscow keeps doing and saying things that highlight the contradictions in Washington’s actions.

Secretary of State John Kerry’s ploys over the past few months have aimed at doing this by trapping the Russians in phony cease-fires, the rebranding of Al Nusra & Associates, and related maneuvers. This strategy has had a few tactical successes but seems to have reached the end of the road after the latest fiasco of the “war party” led by Secretary of Defense Carter pulling the rug out from under the Oslo-dreaming Kerry.

Now, it’s Putin’s turn to try cornering the Americans. In effect, the Shoigu message is saying: if you are really concerned about the humanitarian situation in Aleppo, if you really are dedicated to achieving “Syria for the Syrians,” if you really want to crush the terrorist groups – then, we’re prepared to help you militarily, politically inside Syria and diplomatically by doing “X & Y & Z.”

One suspects that the expectation in Moscow is that this will go nowhere. But were Obama to bestir himself to seek a genuine resolution of some sort in the interests of his famous “legacy,” Putin would be glad to cooperate.

What Obama et al have been demanding is tantamount to suicide for the Assad regime, humiliation for Russian, and a strategic defeat for Iran. So, this time it is Obama who will have to climb down from the untenable positions he’s taken.

Does he have the courage and conviction to do that in the next five months? Nothing in his record or character suggests that he does.

Michael Brenner is a professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. mbren@pitt.edu

21 comments for “Washington Hawks Prey on Syrian Killing Fields

  1. Diana
    August 22, 2016 at 10:47

    In response to the question of whether the pro-US Kurds should have a state of their own, may I suggest South Dakota?

  2. Marc
    August 21, 2016 at 07:03

    Excellent synthesis but only a small part of a much larger policy failure.
    Europe is forced to deal with the tide of refugees while the US pursues a general policy against immigration with specific focus on the refugees its policies have created. Russian sanctions are largely symbolic for American but severely impact Europe. Europe is expected to prop up the rump Ukraine economic basket case while trying to deal with its own EU basket cases (Greece, Spain etc.).The UK is supposed to increase military spending to defend Europe from Russian “aggression” while at the same time suffers European economic retaliation for Brexit.
    Efforts to demonise Mr Putin don’t have the prospect of great success because this involves contrasting Putin with either Trump or Clinton. America’s choice of President is fine for America, but Europeans do have the choice of “neither”.
    America is on track to prove that 5% of the world’s population has the capacity to create in-numerable problems without capacity to solve any. The increasing closeness of Russia-China-Iran is a sign of thing to come.

  3. Agent76
    August 20, 2016 at 16:03

    In the meantime, August 17th, 2016 US Soldiers Are Relying on Millions of Dollars in Food Stamps to Survive

    Military service members on active duty spent $24 million in food stamps at military commissary shops from September 2014 to August 2015, 45 percent of students in schools run by the military are eligible for free or reduced-price meal programs. Food insecurity among active-duty soldiers triggered by a number of different factors: low pay among lower-ranking enlistees, high unemployment of military spouses, larger household sizes, challenges around activation, deployment and unexpected financial emergencies.


  4. Michael M
    August 20, 2016 at 13:07

    This is an excellent article. Thank you.

    What’s more troubling is that it appears the US has informally declared a “No Fly Zone” in eastern Syria against the Syrian Air Force when the latter gave close air support to it’s troops battling Kurdish militia.

    Inasmuch as the US is in Syria illegally with no invitation from the government and no declaration of war against the country, and is threatening the Syrian armed forces with violence in it’s own territory, points to an escalation of the war into a new realm.

    It appears to me that the partitioning of Syria and possibly Turkey is the new plan, which in my mind comprises “Plan B”, as referenced by Secretary Kerry. The destruction of the Middle East into manageable mini-states or chaos appears to be the end game by the US.

    • grady swafford
      August 20, 2016 at 17:43

      what also pisses me.off is thst come debate time, the moderators will not ask this. Theyll ask about whether Trump supports equal pay, and whats his favorite color.

      • Daniel
        August 20, 2016 at 23:33

        Or they will dutifully remind us that Assad gassed his own people, without ever providing evidence to support that blood libel.

    • Rikhard Ravindra Tanskanen
      August 21, 2016 at 16:48

      So the Kurds shouldn’t hvae a state, idiot?

  5. bozhidar balkas
    August 20, 2016 at 09:54

    Politics is all in all. You don’t do politics, politics will always do you. And, if i am not mistaken, probably 80% of murcans do not do politics and many of which also detest it.

    So get going; join political parties even by crashing in if you have to. Avoid movements, organizations. Never leave religions to priests only or politics to professional politicians only.

  6. Will
    August 19, 2016 at 22:46

    It seems that everyone in charge is talking peace, but are cleverly whispering war amongst themselves. Meanwhile the brutal media is pulling at heartstrings by pasting pictures of a shocked and wounded child across the globe in hopes of what? Providing us with the moral obligation to (1) let him into our country? (2) blow up the culprits who did that? (3) pull out all stops and bomb Syria and the rest of the Middle East so that we don’t have to look at these pictures anymore?
    This is insane. How can any leader condone such violence at any level? These people who are calling these shots are sociopathic crazies and therefore should be rounded up and put to trial for crimes against humanity. (This is not a question it is the only answer.)
    My question is how did we ever let them into office?

  7. J'hon Doe II
    August 19, 2016 at 15:48

    relive a teenage girl living the dream of sharing a kiss w/Zack Efron on multi-national/world-wide broadcast, as did Simone Biles with the current teen idol —- — —-

    —- — —- as compared to this, in today’s world.

  8. Sam F
    August 19, 2016 at 08:39

    “If ISIL is weakened …that could provide political cover for temporizing on Syria. …Russia would be …frustrated by the inability to …to overcome the significant reinforcement…through, Turkey. While such an approach does not carry the seed of a resolution, it does conveniently kick the can down the road at little cost.”

    That would re-run the AfPak II and Iraq II disasters. ISIL is already weakened but the insurgency will persist. Why should the US oppose Russia there, or do anything without prospect of success, and why would Turkey allow reinforcement against Russia? “Kicking the can” is a plan for our warmonger traitors.

    “What Obama et al have been demanding is tantamount to suicide for the Assad regime, humiliation for Russia, and a strategic defeat for Iran. So, this time it is Obama who will have to climb down from the untenable positions he’s taken”

    These are the same positions that Killary would have to climb down from, and has neither the courage nor the decency to consider, because warmongering brings in the Israeli/MIC bribes.

  9. Joe Tedesky
    August 19, 2016 at 01:36

    As sovereign nations coalesce to one side or another, will ISIS, Daesh, Al Qaeda, Al Nusra or any Islamic rebel faction even matter a year from now? Will the battles for Syrian and Iraqi cities evolve into a much wider war, involving uniformed nations who will be sure to take the violence to a whole new regretful level?

    Almanar reports, Erdogan will visit Tehran this coming week to launch a Turkey-Iran-Russia Coalition. Is this Tayyip Erdogan’s pay back towards NATO, for the U.S. not handing over Muhammed Fethullah Gulen, for his suspected part in the recent Turkish coup?

    What will become of China’s reaching out to Syria, to aid with training? China is actually looking forward towards giving their combat troops real on the job experience by injecting them into the fray of battle. Will this be China’s Pivot to the Middle East, and a sharp response to the U.S. Asian Pivot?

    If infowars.com is to be believed, and they aren’t just making another provocative headline, well worry no more, America is moving those 50 nukes out of Turkey, and shipping them to Romania to be closer to Ukraine. What a comforting and logistical genius move this is, I mean what could go wrong with this kind of decision?

    Russian Foreign Minster Sergey Lavrov is calmly appealing to the western media to cease with the Russian Putin bashing. The Russian statesman can’t for the life of him, understand what Russia has done to deserve this kind of media treatment, and neither can I.

    Someone please tell me why all the sudden interest in battle scared Syrian children is finding it’s way into the American news. I mean don’t American bombs kill and seriously wound Syrian children? Are we to believe only Russian bombs devastate little kids. I’m referring to the breaking news of the little battered boy in the ambulance footage, that’s getting plenty of air play. Moonofalabama is trying to make sense of this story, and leaning heavily to believing this is a staged event.

    To make things even more dangerous Ukraine’s Poroshenko, and his Ukronazis are bumping up against Crimea’s borders, and Russia is getting mighty tired of their provocations. Remember this, by a popular turnout Crimean’s voted for Crimea to be once again part of Russia. If Poroshenko and his Ukronazis aren’t a lot wiser, and more careful they will find themselves in such a place, where retreat won’t be an option.

    With all these nations now picking sides, we are now experiencing what is usually a ramp up to a world war. If all this does turn into WWIII, well for most Americans this will certainly be the biggest shock of their life, and it won’t be a good one at that. At this stage of the game I picture that right before the news networks go to black, the last words you will hear them say, is Trump!


  10. Nancy
    August 18, 2016 at 22:31

    The photos strike me as a failure of U.S. diplomacy and humanitarianism rather than stirring enotions for more war – but that’s, me. Peace.

  11. John
    August 18, 2016 at 21:06

    I’m growing very tired of the tribe’s ambitions….What ?

  12. JWalters
    August 18, 2016 at 19:46

    Back in the 1940’s today’s inflamed MidEast was predicted by the American Secretaries of State and Defense as a consequence of the injustices inherent in establishing Israel. Those facts are forbidden in America’s cowed mainstream media today. Key historical facts are given in “War Profiteers and the Roots of the War on Terror” at

  13. August 18, 2016 at 18:28

    Excellent article.
    I believe these questions needs to be asked:
    “Should the Past and Present Leaders of a Number of Countries Be Charged With Conspiracy, War Crimes, Crimes Against Humanity, and Funding, Training and Arming Terrorists?”

    And: “Has America been Saudi-mized?”

    And: Do We Need Present Day Nuremberg Trials?

    • William
      August 20, 2016 at 17:44

      Stephen, no, America has not be “Saudi-zed.” The U.S. is completely and totally “Israelized.” The facts are clear and evident, so I will not go over them again. There is no U.S. media, only an Israeli booster and supporter. All major news and entertainment outlets — repeat for the non-readers — ALL major news outlets, both print and electronic, are owned or controlled by fervent Jewish supporters of Israel. Nonsense or fact? Most people will never do the research to find out, and the U.S. govt. doesn’t give a damn what the facts are. And that’s a fact. What do you think, Stephen? Want to do a little research into U.S. corporate media or are you content with you current state of ignorance? If you actually do the research and find out that I am wrong and you have the evidence to support your findings, I will gladly take back my statements. So, do the research or don’t waste our time.

      • Rikhard Ravindra Tanskanen
        August 21, 2016 at 16:46

        “Do the research”? You made that up! And calling someone ignorant when thye are CRITICIZING the U.S instead of beng a neoconservative is vulgar.

  14. Gregory Herr
    August 18, 2016 at 18:16

    The “conviction” that Russia represents the greatest security challenge to the United States is deluded thinking at best. Since I don’t believe that Washington’s policy framers are that ignorant to be so deluded (could be wrong here), I will suppose the worst…it is a blatant fabrication to further geopolitical aims that in actuality exacerbate conditions not conducive to security (herein lies the real stupidity).
    Maintaining close relations with “allies” Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey is neither here nor there when you are right in the thick of doing what they are doing. It’s not as if they got the “let’s use terrorist mercenaries” ball rolling and Washington decided to play along so as not to upset them.
    The simple fact is that Assad didn’t go down as expected and Washington got caught with their hand in the cookie jar. What should have been obvious (that ISIL is a creature of Western “intelligence” allowed to flourish) was exposed and Washington had to start looking like it was actually fighting them. The sarin false flag put Obama in further discomfort and Putin made sure Obama knew which end was up.
    Must we have to continue to remind people that the destruction of Iraq, Syria, Libya, etc. was planned? And I tire of talk about “political considerations”. The “consideration” should be about doing what is right. Stop supporting terrorists for nefarious objectives (including the supplication through fear of Americans and Europeans), stop demonizing Russia and China and get real about constructive engagement with our fellow human beings. Stop the murder and mayhem and let the Syrians have their home and their peace.

    • Gregory Herr
      August 18, 2016 at 18:26

      Oh, and by the way….Obama has neither courage nor conviction. The can is already kicked down the road waiting for the Queen of Chaos to pick it up. Any guesses as to what she’ll do with it?

    • Sam F
      August 18, 2016 at 20:12

      I agree that Cold War II is an obviously absurd fabrication that no one could believe. The invisible armored divisions in Ukraine, their attacks on ISIS in Syria…nothing whatsoever fits the demagogic claims of the senile cold warriors. But Graham Fuller apparently made a career of Cold War II demagoguery and still seeks by all means to push that. Keep pushing those faraway victims and shouting that they’re doing the pushing, and cash will flow from Washington.

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