By Daniel Lazare
Centuries ago, an Andalusian philosopher known as Ibn Rushd wrote a treatise called Tahafut al-Tahafut, or “The Incoherence of the Incoherence.” He was taking aim at an old rival named Al-Ghazzali, but were he alive today, Averroes, as he was known to the Europeans, might very well have been talking about U.S. policy in Syria instead.
Never very sensible to begin with, Washington’s foreign-policy gurus have been piling confusion upon confusion in response to charges that Russia is stepping up military aid for Bashar al-Assad’s besieged government in Damascus.
The words began flying over the Labor Day weekend when the Obama administration announced that Moscow was jetting in soldiers and advisers to an airfield south of Latakia on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. It was setting up prefab housing for as many as a thousand personnel and installing a portable air traffic control station, the administration said, while Reuters added a few days later that Russia had sent two tank landing ships as well.
In short order, Secretary of State John Kerry was on the phone to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warning him that intervention “could further escalate the conflict, lead to greater loss of innocent life, increase refugee flows and risk confrontation with the anti-ISIL Coalition operating in Syria.”
All the usual suspects then piled on. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg voiced concern over the alleged escalation, as did Israel, while NATO member Bulgaria quickly bowed to U.S. pressure to bar Russian aircraft from its airspace.
The New York Times’ Neil MacFarquhar sounded positively mournful in noting that Russia had blown yet another opportunity “to show that it could be a useful international partner and should not be subject to international sanctions over its role in the Ukraine conflict,” while fellow Times reporter Michael R. Gordon – notorious as co-author with the disgraced Judith Miller of a cooked-up 2002 article alleging that Saddam Hussein was seeking nuclear weapons – reminded readers that Russian denials were to be discounted from the start.
“Providing a benign explanation for the operations,” Gordon wrote, “the Russian news media has [sic] suggested that the planes were carrying humanitarian assistance. That is the same rationale Russia used to explain convoys that are believed to have delivered military supplies to Ukrainian separatists and that Iran has used to fly arms to Damascus to support the Assad government.”
Evidence was lacking, yet the verdict was in. At first glance, U.S. pique seemed difficult to understand. Since America has struggled to come up with allies willing to flout international law by bombing ISIS positions inside Syria without Syrian government permission, one would think that it would be grateful if Russia was indeed sending military equipment for the purpose of fighting the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh). Since ISIS and its sometime allies Al Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham are continuing to advance, Washington obviously needs help, so why turn up its nose at Russian aid?
But one would be wrong. The problem is not only that the Obama administration is at war with ISIS, but that it is at war at the same time with Islamic State’s archenemy, the Baathist government in Damascus. Therefore, it does not want help from anyone who does not feel the same.
Since Russia argues that Assad should be supported since he is the main force fighting ISIS at the moment, Russian presence is unwanted. Unless it agrees to oppose Assad and ISIS equally, it should take its military equipment and go.
But this approach has led to widespread confusion on a number of points, among them how to wage war against two armies that are simultaneously at one another’s throat. How to attack one without benefitting the other is a conundrum that even the White House can’t figure out.
According to the Times, for instance, U.S. policy is to bomb ISIS at every opportunity except when it is engaged in combat with Syrian government troops, in which case its policy is to hold off so as “to avoid the perception of aiding a leader whose ouster President Obama has called for.” But this has led to suspicion that Washington’s hostility to ISIS is at best qualified since it is happy to use it as a proxy against Assad.
The Times also reports that American-trained fighters inserted into Syria in late July were under strict instructions not to attack Assad but, rather, to go after ISIS alone. But this has led to charges that Washington is uninterested in defeating Assad because its real target is ISIS.
The Real Enemy?
So who’s the real enemy – ISIS, Assad, both, or neither? No one is sure, which is why non-Al Qaeda rebel groups were unwilling to come to the aid of U.S.-trained forces when they came under attack by Al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s official Syrian affiliate, in northern Syria on July 31.
Since the American-trained forces were only interested in attacking ISIS and not the Baathists, according to the Times, the other groups figured that their real purpose was to sow dissension within rebel ranks. So they held off while Al Nusra neatly rounded up the pro-U.S. fighters, killing some and capturing others.
Other observers are also unsure. Liberal interventionists like Times columnist Roger Cohen, a supporter of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and now a supporter of intervention in Syria, can’t understand why Assad is still in power, while the Saudis are losing patience, too. Where the U.S. had promised an easy win, the result is a disaster that is spreading far beyond the bounds of the Middle East.
Syria is in ruins with more than 200,000 people killed according to UN estimates, 7.6 million displaced, and another 3.3 million turned refugees. But the human tidal wave generated by U.S. intervention not only in Syria but in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan is now washing up in Europe, playing into the hands of the neo-fascist right and adding to a nationalist uproar that has been growing since the 2008 financial crisis and the civil war in the Ukraine.
Yet if reports are correct that ISIS is at the point of severing a vital north-south highway known as “the spinal column of the regime,” the problem may be getting even worse. Such a setback could leave millions of people stranded in ISIS territory and generate another surge of refugees that could conceivably spell the end of the European Union. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Madness of Blockading Syria’s Regime,”]
It’s a four-way head-on collision that “brilliant” foreign-policy experts have spent years devising. Two things as a result now seem clear. One is that the fuss over Russian military shipments looks even phonier than the manufactured crisis back in 2002 over aluminum tubes, yellow-cake uranium, and other ingredients that Saddam Hussein was supposedly seeking to build an atom bomb.
A few days after the Obama administration went public with the latest allegations, the Russian foreign ministry seemed genuinely perplexed.
“Russian military specialists help Syrians master Russian hardware, and we can’t understand the anti-Russian hysteria about this,” Maria V. Zakharova, the Russian foreign ministry’s spokeswoman, explained. “We have been supplying Syria with arms and military equipment for a long time. We are doing this in accordance with existing contracts and in full accordance with international law.”
Since Russia maintains that the shipments are both legal and routine, it is up to the United States to prove otherwise. Yet it has made no effort to do so, and neither has the press tried to hold it to account. (Under international law, it is not illegal to provide military assistance and advisers to a sovereign government, something the United States and other nations do routinely, such as currently in Iraq.)
The other thing that seems clear is that the confusion is entirely self-generated. Although the Obama administration claims to oppose ISIS and other Al Qaeda-type forces, it has spent years playing both sides of the fence.
In August 2012, a widely circulated report by the Defense Intelligence Agency noted that Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Salafists were the driving forces behind the anti-Assad revolt, that they were seeking to establish a “Salafist principality” in eastern Syria as part of a general anti-Shi‘ite jihad, and that their backers in the West, the Gulf states, and Turkey were all comfortable with such an outcome.
Last October, Vice President Joe Biden let slip at a talk at Harvard’s Kennedy School that “the Saudis, the emirates, etc. … were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war … [that] they 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” that eventually morphed into ISIS – and yet the U.S. did not object, at least not publicly.
Similarly, the White House kept mum last spring when U.S.-made TOW missiles, most likely supplied by the Saudis, enabled Al Nusra to mount a successful offensive in Syria’s northern Idlib province. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Climbing into Bed With Al Qaeda.”]
And prior to the debacle in northern Syria when U.S.-trained forces came under Al Qaeda attack, the U.S. disclosed that it had also reached out to Al Nusra to make sure that it did not object. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “How US Allies Aid Al Qaeda in Syria.”]
Indeed, when Al Nusra attacked the pro-U.S. unit instead, the group, known as Division 30, issued a statement calling on “the brothers in the Nusra Front” to “stop the bloodshed and preserve the unity.” If U.S.-backed forces regard Al Nusra as brothers, is it any surprise that people suspect that America’s hostility toward ISIS is less than total?
It’s the incoherence of the incoherence, as Ibn Rushd might say. So how did the U.S. arrive at such an amazing impasse? Theories abound – that Obama is by nature a ditherer; that he is embroiled in a clash between neocon hawks and more sensible foreign-policy “realists”; that he is unable to back down after committing himself to Assad’s overthrow during the so-called Arab Spring, and so forth.
But the best way to understand it is as unexpected blowback from the nuclear accord with Iran. Although liberals are counting on the agreement to defuse tensions in the Middle East, it is in fact doing the opposite. As the administration moves to assure its allies that it is not abandoning them, it is stepping up military aid and agreeing to their most extreme demands.
In mid-July, Obama offered to hold “intensive discussions” with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu concerning how to bolster Israeli defenses while at the same time promising to increase military aid to Saudi Arabia and other super-rich members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Just as the administration feels it has no choice but to offer Saudi Arabia military assistance in its growing assault on Yemen, it feels equally bound to go along with the kingdom’s increased support for Al Nusra in Syria.
Indeed, when Obama telephoned King Salman in early April, he made no mention of the successful advance that Al Qaeda had mounted in Idlib just a few days earlier thanks to Saudi largess. Instead, he steered the conversation around to a more congenial topic, i.e. Iran’s “destabilizing activities in the region.”
The U.S. bombs Al Qaeda and then fails to object when its allies supply it with U.S.-made high-tech weaponry. But what are a few optically-guided TOW missiles among friends?
Unlike the U.S., Saudi Arabia is crystal clear about priorities in Syria. They are to topple Assad rather than battle ISIS – and it is little short of paranoid concerning Russian or Iranian efforts aimed at thwarting such designs.
Conceivably, Obama could have reversed course and admitted that the Russians are of course right and that supporting Assad is preferable to the nightmare of seeing a black ISIS banner fluttering from the glorious Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. But that would have meant pulling the rug out from under Riyadh, America’s oldest ally in the Middle East, with unknown consequences for the future of the fragile Saudi monarchy.
It would have meant further alienating Israel, frightening even liberal supporters of the administration in the U.S., and entering into a tacit alliance with Iran, which also backs Assad and whose supreme leader on Thursday reiterated his call for destruction of the Jewish state. It also would have meant joining forces with Russia despite the deepening impasse over Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
The results would have made Nixon’s trip to China seem like a minor policy adjustment. For Obama, it would be a bridge too far, which is why Obama finds it easier to just say yes to Saudi Arabia’s destruction of Yemen and the ongoing rape of Syria despite the horrendous human costs. The U.S. has the wolf by the ears and can’t let go. The results are likely to be … interesting.
Daniel Lazare is the author of several books including The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace).