Middle East

Is Syria Becoming Our Black Hole?

By Andrej Mrevlje |

In searching for an image that could help to illustrate the dreadful, complex and totally out-of-control situation in Syria, I stumbled upon an article in the Marginal Revolution that compares the events in Syria to the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. Since Yugoslavia and Syria were both multinational countries, and were both kept together by strong leaders like Tito and Assad, while their strategic geographical positions helped them to secure their international status, the comparison of the two countries is legitimate. And yet, even as we are all alarmed by the immense tragedy in Syria and enraged by the callousness of the world’s superpowers, I am also shocked by how short the human memory is. In only 25 years, we have already forgotten the bloodshed and the endless victims that human cruelty created. We’ve forgotten the huge waves of Croats, Bosnians, Serbians and other refugees who flooded Europe in the early ‘90s.

The cause of the civil war in Yugoslavia was clear from the beginning: it was the extreme nationalism proposed as the remedy for the country’s social and economic problems. It was a domestic war, fought locally while the international community stood aside as a passive observer. At least, this was the case during the first few years, when everyone from Brussels, Washington and Moscow were hoping that the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milošević, would become a new strongman who could keep the Balkan powder keg unexploded. But they picked the wrong  man, because Milošević was the cause of the growing tensions among the various ethnicities whose interests were jeopardized by his one-sided decisions – something that was never the case in post-WWII Yugoslavia. Then the NATO bombing came at the end of the long and bloody war, which concluded with the terrible massacre of Muslims in Srebrenica under the watch of the U.N. peace forces.

But the story of the violent partition of Yugoslavia does not provide a complete image of the current, highly explosive situation in Syria, where multiple international forces and interests are directly involved. They provide financial aid, arms and military assistance that escalated into air raids, bombings and the presence of special forces. Syria is becoming a black hole – it sucks everyone in, and it will, in the end, explode in our faces.

Because of the presence of such a wide variety of forces and interests, the Syrian story reminds me of the 1978 kidnapping of Aldo Moro on the Via Fani in Rome. Moro was the former prime minister of Italy and was kidnapped while on his way to parliament to announce an agreement between his own Christian Democratic Party and the Italian Communist Party (CPI) to form a coalition government. In the aftermath of heavy blows by left- and right-wing terrorist groups, Italy was in permanent political crisis, and the country’s two major parties had agreed to end hostilities and run the country together. In other words, the Christian Democrats and the Communists were ready to end their cold war. If they had succeeded, Italy would have put aside their post-war ideologies two decades before the fall of the Berlin Wall!

But it was too early. The forces that dictated the real Cold War policies were against it, even before Moro’s kidnapping. Five years earlier, when Enrico Berlinguer – then secretary of the CPI, who had just started to promote his idea of “compromesso storico,” the alliance with the Christian Democrats – visited Bulgaria, the KGB tried to kill him. Berlinguer escaped this attempted assassination, but did not want news of the attempt to spread. It wasn’t until many years after Berlinguer’s death that Corrado Incerti, then-journalist from Panorama, was able to publish a little book on the failed attempt on Berlinguer’s life. What the KGB failed to do, somebody else did with Aldo Moro. But whoever arranged the kidnapping on that beautiful spring day in Rome was not alone.

Just as Via Fani was crowded with secret servicemen, manipulated terrorists, politicians, generals and policemen, professional killers and fake prophets, so is today’s Syria. The way it ended in Via Fani made us understand that the kidnapping and killing of Aldo Moro was a masterpiece by the forces that wanted to stop Italy from becoming politically stronger and more independent. It took them two months to negotiate, and when they finally agreed, they gave the order to kill the man.

It was in their best interest to maintain their equilibrium. Moro and Berlinguer were doing something that would put them off balance – they boycotted the superpowers and their way of reasoning. Syria is the Via Fani of today, except that in Syria, there are no rules left.

You can see this chaos just by reading the dispatches, reports and analyses coming from Syria. You don’t have to look at many sources to understand that media has no clue on what is going on or who is doing what. All the writers , who cannot afford to report on location, are pulling out dusty encyclopedias, history books, old stories, political friends, using unchecked rumors and wild fantasies. Freedom of speech at its maximum.

Take, for example, Mark Fischetti’s article for the Scientific American in March, a few months before the wave of Syrian refugees hit Europe:

Drying and drought in Syria from 2006 to 2011—the worst on record there—destroyed agriculture, causing many farm families to migrate to cities. The influx added to social stresses already created by refugees pouring in from the war in Iraq, explains Richard Seager, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who co-authored the study. The drought also pushed up food prices, aggravating poverty. “We’re not saying the drought caused the war,” Seager said. “We’re saying that added to all the other stressors, it helped kick things over the threshold into open conflict. And a drought of that severity was made much more likely by the ongoing human-driven drying of that region.

Here’s the question: would he write this – and would the magazine publish anything like this – if hundreds of thousands of refugees had already landed in Greece? The poor people we see crossing Europe are not escaping from heat and drought yet. They’re running away from terror, toxic gas, bombings, ISIS’s cold-hearted killing…

Fischetti’s article is not just any news piece, but a story that, in “normal times,” would be a completely plausible scenario. But in the present moment, with the refugees from Syria flooding Europe, Fischetti’s piece becomes obsolete and gets buried by more urgent stories of phobia and tragedy, by incredible dramatic images of the refugees occupying the otherwise pastoral European landscape.

But if we are honest, this exodus from the Middle East towards northern Europe does make us wonder how this planet might look when rising oceans begin to cover more and more land and the climate becomes less suitable for human survival.     

As for the first million Syrians, Iraqis and Afghanis who arrived in Europe via Turkey and Lesbos, we should remember that they are educated, organized and motivated to integrate with their new homelands. They may represent a potential new socio-political force in Europe, but they are not terrorists. They are a well-qualified workforce that Europe has received for free. Europe has not had to spend a dime for their education, so building fences to stop them is pathetic and narrow-minded. We got their best people, while those who stayed behind – and who will have to rebuild their country from scratch – are probably less capable than those who fled. It happened in Serbia and Croatia, after their educated population – who did not want to fight an unjust war – fled their respective countries.

Turkey’s shutting down of the SU-24, the Russian military plane, prompted an explosion of fantasies and speculations about what is to become of Syria and whether the world is really at the doorstep of World War III.

While panicked discussions and wild speculations about why the Turks shot down the SU-24 still dominate the news, I prefer the peaceful and smooth approach that Foreign Policy proposed. The reason for the conflict between Czar and Sultan (i.e. Putin and Erdogan) goes back to 1783, when the Russians annexed Crimea for the first time, writes Foreign Policy’s Julia Ioffe. It was after six years of war against the Ottoman Empire that Christians first conquered the Muslims – the Tatars. It was the turning point of the relationship between Europe and the Middle East, with effects that have lasted to this day. As Ioffe writes:

It is about two empires, the Russian and the Ottoman, that continue to violently disintegrate to this day, decades after they have formally ceased to exist. Look at Ukraine and Moldova, look at Syria and Iraq. These are the death throes of empire, the long tails of their legacies, shaking themselves out as the rest of the world tries to contain and smooth the convulsions of transition.

And it is about two men, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who, without much irony, see themselves as heirs to the two mantles of these two long-gone empires. They, in turn, have revived those empires in the minds of their subjects, constantly dangling before their eyes the holograms of greatness past. It is no surprise, then, that, as the number of actors and the potential for conflict has grown in Syria, that the first flash of it would happen between two men who feel so keenly their countries’ phantom limbs.

Ioffe’s writing – which suggests an image of Putin and Erdogan clad in their traditional outfits, sipping tea and playing endless games of chess – does not stop the much more warlike pieces that largely come from the other camp of the present battle. That is, from the incredibly fast-growing media apparatus that supports Russia. This pro-Russian camp started years ago with RT and the Russia Insider. And more recently, the increasingly aggressive Sputnik and Information Clearing House, now more or less associated with Counterpunch, have joined in. Not all the information coming from these media sources is pure propaganda. They are getting more sophisticated: they are wrapping their propaganda around the news. There are writers like Pepe Escobar, a well-informed Brazilian journalist based in Hong Kong, whose only defect is that he hates Americans as much as he loves Putin. His most recent piece, for instance, is full of useful information about the little territory north of Syria, populated by the Turkmens, that Ankara now wants to protect. This is one of the areas that the Russians are bombing hard – probably the reason why the Turks shut down the SU-24. Escobar writes that the area is full of terrorists hosted by Turkmens. Is Escobar’s interpretation correct? You be his judge.


The prevailing reports from the pro-Russian media in the days after the SU-24 was largely focused on the potential that Turkey was making a pro-ISIS statement. Finian Cunningham of the Strategic Culture Foundation reports that:

Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian fighter jet this week was likely aimed at a bigger political target – to deal a blow to the proposal of a grand anti-terror coalition between the West and Russia for fighting the Islamic State extremist network in Syria.

Such a coalition might seem reasonable, even desirable, to most people. But it is profoundly unacceptable, tacitly, to Washington because it would further expose the criminal nature of the Western-sponsored regime-change operation in Syria.

Washington and its allies do not want Russia to participate in an effective military coalition that would accelerate the destruction of the mercenary terror army that the Western powers have covertly invested in.

The tone of these kinds of stories might vary a bit. The person who pulled the trigger on that missile might have a different face. But once you’ve read one of these stories, you’ve read them all.

And here is the thing: while this kind of interpretation is rarely mentioned in western media, the pro-Russian media has hammered out these stories every day, non-stop. In this way, the pro-Russian news slowly penetrates public opinion, much the same way that CNN hammers its own version of the story ad nauseam for an American audience. This polarization of the media contributes to an overall sensation that we are at the doorstep of World War III – that a large conflict is unavoidable.

A few days ago, I was invited to a panel discussion that surprised me. It was not the usual crazy talk about the new cold war or the meanness of the Russians and the Chinese that we hear from the 2016 Election campaign stage. The speakers at this NYU panel were retired, somewhat elderly American specialists on Russia. Yet their names – Jack Matlock (former ambassador to the USSR), Stephen F. Cohen and Duke University Professor Emeritus Bill Bradley (a former US senator and presidential candidate) – still attract big crowds. All the speakers in the panel belong to the East-Ward Accord Committee, a proactive advising body for more constructive politics toward Russia. Its non-militant actions and public discussions mean that people like Cohen get called “Putin fans.” During two hours of discussion – the organizers promised to post the entire recording of the panel on their website –  I did not hear anything extremely pro-Russian. The truth is that this lobby of Russia experts is trying hard to convince Washington to sit at the negotiation table with Moscow. The analysis that the panelists offered is actually already part of common knowledge. The United States government did not respect the promise they gave to Russia when the latter consented the unification of the two Germanies. According to ambassador Matlock, NATO did not keep its promise that it wouldn’t expand towards the East.

“Why would we expand towards the East, at all?” Matlock asked during the panel, adding that it was President Bill Clinton – expanding NATO membership to the Baltics, and then to the Balkans – who broke the promise that America gave to Russia after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Among the American government’s other mistakes, the speakers also mentioned disrespect towards Russians after Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the historic agreement. “We behaved like we achieved victory in a war and not a partner with whom we could resolve the problems of the world security,” said Matlock.

However, Russia only reacted in 2007, during the International Conference on Globalization in Munich, when Putin accused America of creating a unipolar world.

And it only got worse. Stephen Cohen described the situation in an interview for the Huffington Post:

If you ask who began the aggression in Ukraine … the reality is that Putin has been mostly reactive. … If we had the time, I could explain to you why the reportedly benign European Union offer to Kiev in 2013 was not benign at all. No Ukrainian who wanted to survive could have accepted that. …

Ukraine had been on Washington’s agenda for a very, very long time; it is a matter of public record. It was to that that Putin reacted. It was to the fear that the new government in Kiev, which overthrew the elected government, had NATO backing and its next move would be toward Crimea and the Russian naval base there. … But he was reacting, and as Kiev began an all-out war against the East, calling it the “anti-terrorist operation,” with Washington’s blessing. …

This was clearly meant to be a war of destruction. … Meanwhile, NATO began escalating its military presence. In each of these stages … Putin has been primarily reactive. Now maybe his reactions have been wrong-headed. Maybe they’ve been too aggressive. That’s something that could be discussed. …

But this notion that this is all Putin’s aggression, or Russia’s aggression, is, if not 100-percent false, let us say, for the sake of being balanced and ecumenical, it’s 50-percent false. And if Washington would admit that its narrative is 50-percent false, which means Russia’s narrative is 50-percent correct, that’s where negotiations begin and succeed.

If you ask me, Cohen and the other panelists who appeared with him at NYU are quite reasonable. They were discussing the effort that the U.S. and Russia have to make in order to resolve the mess they’ve created in the Middle East. But there is something that tells me that this might be very difficult to achieve. Even if people like Cohen prevail in America, and Washington accepts Putin as a partner (something that, in my mind, he never completely ceased to be), then the two sides will have to find a new language and a new set of rules. It will not happen overnight. And it will not be easy, even if America ditches Saudi Arabia, a country that – like Turkey, Qatar and other Gulf countries – finances ISIS. Would Iran, replacing the Saudis as an ally and therefore as a new regional policeman, be acceptable for all the partners of the new alliance? Acceptable for Israel, Turkey? Would the Russians go for it?  

I will not join the speculation about the next geopolitical moves in the Middle East. But let me say just two things.

First, the U.S. no longer depends on Saudi oil. The Bushes, longtime friends with the Saudi royal family, are no longer the reigning family in the U.S. It is long past time to make some new moves and redo the constellations of politics.

And second, for which I hope I will not be called a racist; my secret speculation is that, as much as Putin acts macho and touts his history as a policeman, he is uncomfortable with a black American president. That makes me think that the Republicans, who hate Obama for similar reasons, might have more success in resetting the dialogue with Russia. More so even than Clinton, perhaps. Because if there is one difference between Americans and Russians, it is their memory. Russians do not forget.

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