Trying to understand what’s going on in Syria – and the continuing intervention there by the US and its allies is challenging. The mainstream press is uninformed and riddled with distorted propagandistic themes that reflect official US government position rather than serious analysis. Here is my take on the background that people need to know, based on wide reading of various sources and regular visits to the region, including to Syria a few years ago.
Bashar al-Assad is the authoritarian president of Syria, heading a government that is officially recognized by the UN and in embassies around the world – though not in the US and some other countries. Over the years, Assad has been “elected” in arguably undemocratic balloting, including earlier this year. Whatever one thinks about the legitimacy of voting under an authoritarian regime, there is little doubt that Assad retains substantial support within Syria and among Syrian refugees. It is not unlikely that Assad would win at least a plurality if free elections were to be held.
Assad’s regime – like the rule of his father Hafiz al-Assad — has been brutal in suppressing internal dissent and fighting ruthlessly to retain power against its armed adversaries. But that is not why the US and its allies have opposed him. The US has supported equally brutal rulers (or worse ones) in the Middle East and beyond – and was happy to accept Assad’s support during the 1991 Gulf War and, until recently, in the supposed “War on Terror.”
A commentator recently questioned how the US could fail to support Assad against his radical opponents, given that “ISIS is the Khmer Rouge of our time, holding to a similar objective of turning an entire nation into a cultural, human, and physical desert.” The writer apparently failed to remember that under Presidents Carter and Reagan the US officially recognized the Khmer Rouge regime and supported it diplomatically in the UN and elsewhere as a way of “punishing” Vietnam and appeasing China; with American backing the Pol Pot regime occupied Cambodia’s seat at the UN until 1993.
More recently, the US backed Saddam Hussein as he used poison gas on Kurdish towns and against Iranian soldiers defending against an unprovoked Iraqi invasion; the US provided diplomatic cover in blocking UN resolutions against these crimes. Today, our government is allied with and arms undemocratic Middle East regimes in Jordan and Egypt – and most particularly the oil-rich Gulf autocracies, where Saudi Arabia, arguably the worst regime in the region (if not the world), is waging a brutal war with US weaponry against neighboring Yemen.
Although there was ample cause in 2011 for the growth of active opposition to Assad during the Arab Spring and no doubt the regime used violence against protesters – a sustained drought was also a major factor in promoting social unrest – it is also true that Sunni Muslim religious extremists, armed and supported from outside Syria, were active from the beginning. (This prescient 2007 article by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh is still very much worth reading). Since then the civic democratic opposition to Assad, both inside and outside the country, has been swamped by armed Islamist groupings supported by a flood of money from the US and its allies in Turkey and the Gulf. The so-called “moderate” armed factions once touted by the Obama administration were always largely fictitious, while the few actually remaining “Free Syrian Army” units have largely gone over to the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front or other extremist/terrorist forces.
So far, the Assad regime has frustrated expectations of the US and its allies of a speedy collapse under international pressure and the militant opponents they have armed. However, the strained Syrian government armed forces have suffered a string of military reversals in recent months. As more territory falls to the regime enemies — and many young men among the majority of the population still under government control are fleeing to avoid conscription – the regime was possibly facing a real military debacle.
This is the context for the recent escalation of Russian military support for its embattled Syrian ally. The new Russian intervention is aimed at stabilizing the tactical situation and preventing a military collapse of the government rather than enabling large-scale offensive operations, which are probably beyond the regime’s current military resources in any case. Whatever we may think of the Russian intervention, it is at least technically legal under the UN and the international state system that we have, since it was invited by the recognized government of Syria. In contrast, the bombing within Syria by the US and its allies – along with their supplying and financing the armed opposition — is wholly illegitimate and contrary to the charter and principles of the UN. US political leaders are now hyperventilating that the Russians are striking “our” terrorists along with ISIS. (Despite the recent publicity about the Pentagon’s failed military training program, the CIA is continuing its multi-$billion effort since at least 2012 to equip and finance thousands of fighters who are mostly battling arm-in-arm – if not literally joining –with al-Qaeda/al-Nusra or other extremist religious formations.)
The Russians’ military support is coupled with a new diplomatic offensive to re-launch a political process in which the Assad regime will be a participant. The position of the armed opposition and its Gulf financiers that Assad must immediately step aside and his security structures be dismantled as a precondition to negotiations is a non-starter which, if implemented, would result in a bloody catastrophe inSyria and beyond. Recently there are signs that the US, Turkey and Germany, at least, are backing off from the demand that Assad must go immediately. And while most of the so-called “moderate” armed rebel groups have gone over (with their US-supplied weapons) to affiliate with al-Nusra/al-Qaeda, others are rejoining the government side as the lesser evil to battle brutal religious extremists.
(Speeches by Putin and Obama at the UN were both self-serving and hypocritical to various degrees, though at least Putin voiced support for addressing the Syrian problem through the UN and an international alliance; Obama brandished US military might and erased the long history of unilateral and illegal US military interventions.)
Meanwhile, US NATO ally Turkey is using the growing Syrian refugee crisis as a means of pressuring European countries to intervene more decisively against Assad (Is there any doubt that Turkish security forces could easily prevent the large-scale movement of people across its borders with Europe or the massive sea-born flight to Greece openly organized by Turkish smugglers/traffickers?) The constant assertion that the refugees are fleeing “Assad’s barrel bombs” — which are somehow more insidious than the hi-tech bombs and missiles we employ or the suicide bombings and beheadings of the armed extremists – is nothing more than naked propaganda on behalf of Neocon and Liberal interventionists. Unfortunately this narrative has influenced an unwary US public and its representatives in Congress of both parties. You have to read reports very closely to discern that the majority of refugees have been forced from their homes by the fighting in general or fear of the extremist opposition (along with avoidance of the military draft), but are not necessarily opposing the Assad regime. Down the memory hole is the fact that refugees in Lebanon and Jordan mobbed the polls in May 2014 to vote for Assad.
What to do now? It makes no sense to advocate explicit support for the Assad regime – despite the understanding that its enemies are mostly worse — either by the Left, the peace movement or obviously the US government. However, it is urgent for the US to stop backing and supplying armed rebel units in Syria and to press our allies to halt financing extremist groups there. We should join with Russia, Iran and other regional powers to press for an end to the fighting and a diplomatic process that will bring the war to a halt, while allowing Syrians to determine their own political future. Meanwhile, any unilateral US intervention in Syria should stop immediately unless coordinated with the Syrian government or through the UN.
There are heartening signs that the Obama administration, joined by some members of Congress, is reconsidering its approach to Syria and edging toward de facto cooperation with Syrian and Russian combat against ISIS and al-Qaeda (though the later seems still to be the Syrian partner preferred by Israel and its US Neocon supporters). Despite the inclusion of some gratuitous anti-Assad language, a recent House letter promoting a diplomatic process is a good step – and was supported by Reps. Capuano, Lynch, McGovern, Clark, and Moulton, a majority of our state’s delegation.
Fifty-Five House Democrats Tell Obama: Talk to Russia and Iran About Syria
On Sept. 29, Connecticut Democrat Jim Himes sent a letter to President Obama signed by 55 House Democrats (including himself) urging President Obama to engage in international talks to try to end the Syrian civil war, including with Russia and Iran… In the Beltway… dinner party of foreign policy punditry about Syria now, Russian President Putin is kicking sand in our face and stealing our lunch money, because President Obama is a wimp. If only President Obama would be tough! If only President Obama would lead! Then surely all our adversaries would run away and cower in fear… But if US military force were a magic wand for Syria, we should have seen some evidence for that in nearby Iraq in the last decade of war. If John McCain and Lindsey Graham think that Congress and the US people will support sending US ground troops to Syria, let them introduce an authorization for the use of military force for Syria that allows use of US ground troops for combat and see how many votes they can get. More
From the House letter (full text here):
“We write with urgency to request that you use the full authority of your office to convene international negotiations designed to stop the civil war in Syria, stabilize the country, effect the return to Syria of all refugees, provide for political change towards a popularly supported, accountable Syrian leadership, and develop a cohesive, international strategy for the defeat of ISIL… it is time to devote ourselves to a negotiated peace, and work with allies, including surrounding Arab states that have a vested interest in the security and stability of the region, moving forward with both a peace plan and a coordinated assault against ISIL… Russia and Iran [and] all parties to our proposed negotiations have certain long-term, common interests in the neutralization of ISIL and other violent extremists in the region, and in stopping the carnage and increasingly unmanageable refugee crisis.”