In light of the recent bloody chaos, it is legitimate to ask again: what is going on in Syria?
We have known from the beginning who the victim is in this war. Between 400 and 500 thousand people have been killed in Syria since 2011, while 4.8 million Syrians have fled the country and 6.6 million people are displaced internally, as of March 2016. Last year, just over a million Syrians escaped terror and death by fleeing to Europe. When they ran for their lives, they were deterred and humiliated by barbed wires that some small countries installed in their desperate attempts to protect their identity and defend their territory. Syrian refugees couldn’t care less about this last humiliation. They managed to escape from much worse — they were alive! They escaped a gruesome reality that Ben Taub has described in harshly vivid language. His words capture the Syria that we refuse to see. We pledged that Rwanda would never happen again, but here it is — happening again:
The horror of Syria’s war is in the millions of pictures that are too gruesome to circulate—charred limbs stacked outside hospital wards, bloated bodies rotting in sniper alleys, a toddler plucked from the rubble without a head. It is in a group of relatives trying to carry the sixty-pound corpse of a man who died of hunger—the boiled grass he’d been living on could no longer sustain him—but struggling under his weight, because they, too, are starving to death. It is in a generation of orphans, of children who never learned to read but can tell you the difference between the sounds of shelling and those of air strikes. It is in the intentional bombing of hospitals and clinics, the targeted assassinations of medical workers, the forced displacements, the chemical-weapons attacks. It is in a death toll so high, and so impossible to verify, that the U.N. stopped counting two years ago.
But we all — especially our governments — could not care less. We let this war go on for years.
And when Syrian refugees flooded Europe last year, the old continent found itself in despair and threatened by “barbarians” who invaded our cleanly white homes and cities. They ruined our landscape, spoiled our view, and shattered our image of an ideal world that we so jealously built and protected after we managed to stop our own wars — and rightly so.
But the panicked response belonged singularly to small countries, indicating that the body of the European Union does not exist. There was no proposal from Brussels for a long-term strategic solution. The smaller countries were left alone — or better, they were squashed under countries like Germany, which were the refugees’ real target.
Much like the EU, other international organizations like NATO, the Arab League, and the United Nations were missing in action in Syria. Eventually, the whole war escalated to the point of no return. Over the last five years, the forces intervening in Syria have been individual countries: the Syrian government in the front lines, the uncontrolled secret services of various other countries, armed ethnic groups, sponsors and weapons providers for the dubious anti-Assad rebel forces. They pounded and hammered cities like Homs and Aleppo, killing the innocent population mercilessly — a population that, freed from a dictator, completely lost its sense of direction and its capacity to get organized. Were they ever capable of doing it?
Thinking of that, one can’t avoid reflecting on the so-called Arab Spring that started in Tunisia and spread to Egypt, Libya and — in a small way — to Syria. In hopes that bad regimes could turn into something better, we supported and sympathized with these movements. Our media helped the genie come out of the bottle.
As we look back and consider where these countries stand now, we secretly wish that some of the “new democracies” would return to the way they once were. Like Egypt, where the embarrassment of the West in dealing with Al Sisi, the president of Egypt, is evident. And in Libya, where almost all of the international proponents of the downfall of Gaddafi are now turning their backs on the country, which is divided by tribes and armed factions.
It was on the eve of this year’s General Assembly of the United Nations that Russia and the the U.S. signed an agreement on how to coordinate their action in a way that would lead to the de-escalation of the conflict in Syria. Bashar al-Assad seems to have cast his shadow on this agreement. From the beginning, the agreement presupposed that somebody local would end up in authority in Syria. There is no one else but Assad to take that place, and with or without the Russians, he would have to be seated at the table — for some time to come, at least.
For how long? No more than a few days, since — for the first time during the war — the Americans bombed Syrian government forces and crushed the agreement, which was formally buried two days later, when Russia retaliated by bombing a U.N. humanitarian convoy.
Twenty-four hours after the United States bombed the Syrian military, killing 62 soldiers and injuring 100, the Pentagon apologized for the mistake. Really? One cannot help but ask if American pilots are so badly trained that they confused a military installation for an ISIS hangout. The apology seems to imply that American pilots flew out blindly without instruments, saw something on the ground and — without second thought — started shelling it wildly. As if they were living in the time of Columbus, when there were no satellites, drones or any such high-tech gadgets.
The last big blunder of this kind, I remember, happened in 1999, when American bombers who were part of NATO forces took out the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. They thought it was a military procurement building, they said, explaining that their maps of the city were not up-to-date. Columbus, again? Do these pilots read their maps with compasses in their hands while they fly supersonic stealth jets? But the story of Belgrade — a simple lie — somehow had a better plot than this recent tale.
The Chinese always backed Milosević, and they were taking risks to help his army with communications after an earlier NATO bombing erased all other similar facilities in town. As the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was the only building electronically illuminated in town on that day, the U.S. pilots bombed it. They were looking to retaliate after the Serbs took down one of their stealth bombers.
Beijing reacted violently. The government let the mob out on the road. They held the U.S. embassy under siege for days. In a matter of hours, China went from a reformist country to one full of murkiness and hatred.
The event was followed by a very long discussion between Washington and Beijing. In the end, President Clinton had to apologize, and things calmed down. But it was only some time later that then-Defense Secretary William Cohen came to Beijing and truly settled the problem. The two countries finally established their red phone line so that the American and Chinese militaries could talk to each other directly.
It seems to me that something similar happened this time. In 1999, some sources hinted that the military planned the bombing of the Chinese embassy as a form of disrespect towards Clinton. Today, the bombing of the Syrian army installation is creating similar echoes. Journalist Finnian Cunningham is very explicit about it:
It is well documented that both the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency have been running clandestine programs for arming and training anti-government militants in Syria since the outset of the war in March 2011. Officially, Washington claims to be only supporting «moderate, vetted opposition». However, on occasion, Western media reports allude to the deeper sinister connections between the US military and terrorist groups when it has been reported that American weaponry «accidentally» finds its way into the hands of extremist jihadist networks.
This pretense by the US – and its other NATO and Arab allies – of supporting «moderate rebels» and of having no involvement with recognized terror groups like Al Nusra and Daesh (ISIS) was being exposed by the latest ceasefire.
It is conceivable that the diplomatic corps of the Obama administration, including President Barack Obama and his foreign emissary John Kerry, may be benighted about the full extent of America’s dirty war in Syria and its systematic connections to the terrorist brigades. Perhaps, this Obama flank is gullible and venal enough to believe in Washington’s propaganda of a dichotomy between «moderate rebels» and «terrorists».
Thus, when Kerry announced the ceasefire plan with Lavrov in Geneva on September 9, the American diplomat’s calls for the US-backed «moderate rebels» to separate themselves from the terror groups may have been made out a naive notion that such a distinction might exist. How else could we explain such a futile public appeal?
Not so, though, the Pentagon and CIA. The covert warmongers in the Pentagon and at Langley know the vile truth all along. That is, that all the militant groups in Syria are integrated into a terrorist front, albeit with a plethora of different names and seeming differences in commitment to al Qaeda Wahhabi ideology. The masters of war know that Washington is a sponsor of this terrorist front, along with its NATO and Arab allies.
This interpretation seems rather naive, and it smells of the Russian cookbook. My impression is that such military behavior is much more cynical and pragmatic. As far as President Obama being benighted and gullible — I doubt that, too. He is one of the smartest presidents that the U.S. has ever had. Besides, I was reminded that Obama signs all his paperwork himself, and that he is well-informed. But I can’t help wondering: does he sometimes turn away, pretending not to see what his generals do?
However, the Pentagon and the CIA clearly have a different views than the State Department. It was obvious that even the very active Hillary Clinton had her hands tied when she was the head of the State Department. The Pentagon holds all its foreign policy cards close to its chest.
As for fact that there is more than one American policy on Syria, I am not surprised. But more than the Pentagon or the CIA, I wonder if the real impostor should be considered to be the diligent John Kerry, the present Secretary of State. Perhaps it was he who forced his will on the military officials who run America’s established foreign policy. As we can see from Robin Wright’s article in the New Yorker:
With startling candor, the director of the C.I.A., John Brennan, last week questioned a longstanding premise of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. “I don’t know whether or not Syria and Iraq can be put back together again,” he told the CTC Sentinel, which is published by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center. “There’s been so much bloodletting, so much destruction, so many continued, seething tensions and sectarian divisions. I question whether we will see, in my lifetime, the creation of a central government in both of those countries that’s going to have the ability to govern fairly.”
This is far from any diplomatic effort to resolve a problem that is not only tragic, but extremely explosive. The military solution, as Wright explains, is to divide Syria — to make it smaller and more governable.
But the real problem is that for too long, Syria was left alone. It became a place where everyone pursued their own vague ideas and greed. “The problem of Syria is that there are no good guys,” said one European high official, with whom I spent an evening trying to play out the different possible scenarios. There is no one way that would work. And then there is the fact that other former dictators — like Gaddafi, or even Saddam Hussein — looked good compared to today’s situation, and are even being missed.
We are now very near a tipping point that will lead to the collapse of a vast area in the Middle East. That is, if the world does not come together and become aware of the fact that “Syria is now everyone’s war,” as debated in a recent podcast on Foreign Policy. Hisham Melhem, a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel Washington, D.C., had the following opening remarks:
It is despair throughout the region. If you remember five years ago, Obama said that this, in Syria, is not the U.S.’s war. This is somebody else’s war — we are not getting involved in it. Today, this is everybody’s war. In the Middle East and in Europe — this is a war that is threatening not only the unity of Syria, but is threatening NATO power, Turkey — even Iraq. Definitely Lebanon, definitely Jordan. It is dragging Israel into the fight. Russia is already fighting there. You have a million and more refugees in Europe, Putin using the present situation to undermine the very existence of the EU. We have a situation in which the diplomatic approach of the United States is limited to a desperate appeal to the Russian president to lean on his ally Bashar al-Assad to relieve humanitarian aid to go to the besieged city of Aleppo. There, Assad has been using medieval tactics of siege and starvation against the civilians of his own country. We seem to have an enormous capacity to absorb Russian humiliation in Syria. I never saw the United States being treated like that.
The analysis and debate had some interesting highlights. There was a lot of talk about the mistakes of the outgoing president, who let the situation in Syria degenerate. According to the opinion of the panel, even the smallest presence of American boots on the ground — even 5,000 troops operating from the nearby Turkey — would have prevented the present situation.
Where do we go from here? Has Trump or Clinton read Macchiavelli? The panel of foreign policy specialists had no answer on this. Any possible changes in American policy towards Syria are in the hands of the new tenant of the White House. Hopefully there is enough time to make a difference.