All one needs to know about the intellectual caliber of the Obama administration is that it is still pondering whether to persist in “ignoring” Russian President Vladimir Putin, or invest in a real partnership to solve the Syrian geopolitical/humanitarian drama. After all, when in doubt between diplomacy or chaos, the Beltway weapon of choice still veers towards the simplistic group think uniting neocons and neoliberalcons: regime change.
And then there’s the non-stop The Russians Are Coming! hysteria — the Cold War 2.0 remix, now switching from the invasion/military occupation of Ukraine to the invasion/military occupation of Syria. The White House — which, same as the Pentagon, does not do irony — actually appealed to the Kremlin to behave in a “more constructive” way side-by-side with the spectacularly inefficient coalition of the dodgy opportunists which is in thesis fighting ISIS/ISIL/Daesh.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest clarified that when Obama decides that the Sisyphean task of picking up the phone and dialing K for Kremlin is actually in America’s interests, he will do it. The Shakespearean doubt may last days — even as Putin reaffirmed, via Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov, he was always open to dialogue.
The White House at least is mulling an offer from Moscow to actually discuss the Russian buildup in Syria via direct military-to-military talks. The Pentagon will do the talking, seeking the “clarity” that so eludes the Obama administration.
Ankara’s double game
Diplomacy, meanwhile, has been hectic. Turkish Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioglu went to Sochi to talk Syria – and Ukraine – with the Russians. Ankara’s position remains fossilized; any support for Bashar al-Assad equals more civilian casualties.
They also talked Pipelineistan – as in Turkish Stream; unlike apocalyptic US corporate media reports, the pipeline has not been ditched by Ankara; the problem is Ankara cannot even form a coherent government after the June elections.
Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)’s superstar commander Qasem Soleimani also went to Moscow this week to promote Damascus-Moscow cooperation. Wait; he didn’t, because Moscow flatly denied the visit. Soleimani was in Russia actually three months ago. The next important meeting to discuss Syria is actually on Monday, between Iranian deputy foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian and his Russian counterpart, Mikhail Bogdanov.
A quick recap is essential. The Syrian Arab Spring chapter was sponsored/financed/weaponized mostly by Ankara – totally reversing its previous “zero problems with our neighbors” geopolitical doctrine — with backing by Doha, substantial House of Saud involvement and full led-from-behind support by the Obama White House.
After over four and a half years and immeasurable tragedy, the real face of this “Assad must go” regime change operation is the refugee crisis. Over 2 million out of 4 million Syrians fled to Turkey; Ankara recently released them en masse from holding camps on their way to the Balkans and the Teutonic Promised Land.
So Ankara is right at the center of the largest refugee crisis in Europe in 70 years. And so is Ankara-supporting Washington; ISIS/ISIL/Daesh captured all the weapons delivered with CIA help to that pathetic “Free Syrian Army” – as well as tanks and Humvees from the disjointed US-trained Iraqi Army. Any possible solution for relieving the refugee crisis while fighting ISIS/ISIL/Daesh must include cutting off Ankara’s myriad direct and indirect forms of “support” for the fake “Caliphate.”
The problem is Ankara is part of the supremely inefficient US coalition. The glaring paradox at least has been identified by some adults in Washington. Yet the Obama administration is still besotted by a dominatrix Ankara playing wag the dog. Team Obama still believes “Assad must go” is responsible not only for the creation of the fake “Caliphate” — an absurdity gleefully repeated by David of Arabia Cameron and General Hollande — but he’s also responsible for the abysmal failure of the US coalition to smash it. It’s actually Ankara that rules what passes for a no-fly zone along the Turkish-Syrian border, and what Ankara wants to fight is Syrian Kurds or PKK Kurds, not al-Baghdadi’s goons.
Damn, where’s my ground intel?
Meanwhile the Pentagon machine, were they to focus on the “mission,” could shock and awe the “Caliphate” goons on a weekend binge. Yet considering how much they did not learn in Iraq, it’s unlikely the Pentagon has minimally decent ground intel.
It’s all about an over 400 kilometer-long desert strip alongside the Sykes-Picot-in-disarray Syrian-Iraqi border — between al-Baaj in northern Iraq and Rutba near the Jordanian border. Some call it the Iraqi Tora Bora; yes, it does look a bit like Afghanistan, only with more desert.
ISIS/ISIL/Daesh rules over the provinces of Ninive, Dijla, Ifrit and Al-Jazeera in Iraq, Abu Kamal and Deir ez-Zor in Syria, and most of all in Iraqi Furhat, around al-Baaj; that’s where the ISIS/ISIL/Daesh command and control center is located. If some Pentagon analyst took the trouble to contact Iraqi analyst Hisham al-Hashemi, he would tell him that al-Baghdadi himself is holed up in al-Baaj, along with his two wives. But who’s actually in command for the moment is the emir for Syria and Iraq, Abu Alaa al-Afari.
The US never managed to control these desolate lands – not to mention, previously, Saddam Hussein. Local tribes are extremely hardcore and excel in smuggling. “Caliphate” goons married tribal women and are totally integrated. All Shi’ites are derided as evil heretics, even worse than Christians. Guess who indoctrinated the tribals? Saudi Arabian imams.
Yet the coalition could easily bomb to smithereens five ISIS/ISIL/Daesh special batallions – up to 500 jihadis each, divided by nationality and specialization, and all concentrated locally; GCC and Maghreb nationals assure the protection of the commanders, for instance, while Eastern Europeans and Asians collect the loot, taxes and take care of weapons transportation. The key brigade is the one that “liberated” Mosul; 80% are Iraqis, and they are now fighting in Hassake, in Syria.
There may be up to 125,000 “Caliphate” goons in action, including up to 15,000 foreigners. But the hydra-like heads of the snake are in al-Baaj. Raze it to the ground, and we got Perseus Obama slaying the jihadi medusa.
Instead, we have the pitiful spectacle of four – I repeat, four – US-trained “moderate rebels” left to fight ISIS/ISIL/Daesh in Syria, as admitted by US General Lloyd Austin at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing this past Wednesday. Everyone remembers those “rebels” out of a hefty group of 54 who were attacked by Jabhat al-Nusra in July. That is, al-Qaeda in Syria – paraded as “moderate” by neocons and US corporate media — reduced the “moderate rebel” Obama administration chimera (15,000! Well trained and well equipped!) to … well, a chimera.
Aaaaand now, heeere’s Putin
The Obama administration – duly followed by the European minions – simply won’t listen. Already in 2014 former UN-Arab League representative for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, was saying the Russian analysis of the whole Syrian puzzle was right from the beginning.
Now, Nobel peace prize winner and former negotiator Martti Ahtisaari is saying that already in early 2012 a Russian proposal was floated that included Assad stepping out of power after peace negotiations with credible, non-jihadi opposition interlocutors.
What Moscow has done now is to step up the diplomatic game – trying to bridge the gap between Damascus and the credible opposition (not exactly a huge crowd) while cobbling up a real coalition to fight ISIS/ISIL/Daesh; as far as Moscow is concerned, this is a major national security threat, what with jihadis slouching towards “Syraq” from the Volga to the north Caucasus.
And here we find an important distinction; Russia’s national security interests do not necessarily converge with Iran’s national security interests (as in Syria offering a bridge to Hezbollah and also a Mediterranean projection for Iran.)
Still, Moscow’s is the only diplomatic game in town because Washington’s Plan A continues to be regime change, and there’s no coherent “Western” road map which simultaneously guarantees smashing ISIS/ISIL/Daesh while preventing the catastrophic dismemberment of the Syrian state.
Assad’s position, in detail, is here. Putin’s position, in detail, is here. It’s up to any informed, unbiased observer to draw the necessary conclusions. Meanwhile, the enormity of the refugee crisis is open to scrutiny practically next door to EU headquarters; no summit-addicted Eurocrat even bothered to go there and talk to the asylum seekers.
As it ramps up the diplomatic front, Moscow obviously pays attention to facts on the ground – as in the expanded infrastructure at Latakia’s air base where Russian advisers are stationed. US Think Tankland’s concerted hysteria denouncing the build up “greatly complicates” the US-led coalition campaign do not even qualify as a kindergarten prank.
There won’t be a “direct clash” between coalition F-16s and Russian jets – and the Pentagon knows it. What the Pentagon cannot possibly admit is that the Russian build up necessarily prevents funny ideas such as the coalition pulling a Turk – as in bombing Assad’s forces instead of ISIS/ISIL/Daesh. And by the way, Ankara’s clout in Washington continues to drop – as in the US not being part of a much-hyped no-fly zone to be established over northern Aleppo.
Turkey and GCC coalition members have been indirectly warned; forget about targeting Russian advisers opposing “moderate rebels” using lethal weapons supplied by Turkey, GCC and the US. “Complicating” the coalition “efforts”, in US Think Tankland newspeak, means one cannot bomb Assad’s forces with impunity. Damn, it’s tough to deliver regime change under so many constraints.
Back to pre-Bismarck?
The EU, meanwhile, pays the price for the regime change obsession, convulsed and torn apart by endless divisions provoked by the refugee crisis coupled with the specter of the eternal recurrence of jihad in the streets – and trains – linking major European capitals. But then, as the EU may desperately want a solution to the tragic Syrian puzzle, we have David of Arabia Cameron and General Hollande getting ready to deliver puny air strikes that will hardly cause “Caliphate” goons to shake in their designer desert boots.
No wonder pan-Europe public opinion is increasingly considering it’s actually the Obama administration which is perpetuating the Syrian tragedy — as long as it sticks to the mirages of regime change, a non-existent “Free Syrian Army,” “moderate rebels” (of the al-Qaeda in Syria kind), not to mention demonizing any support offered by Russia and Iran to Damascus.
Putin could not have been more crystal clear — and adults from Washington to Brussels did get the message; “Without an active participation of the Syrian authorities and the military, it would be impossible to expel the terrorists from that country and the region as a whole … Without Russia’s support for Syria, the situation in the country would have been worse than in Libya, and the flow of refugees even bigger.”
So if there’s any chance of a peace deal in Syria, it’s Putin’s fault.
But there’s another possible scenario being actively discussed for the near future. That would be the “surge’ of multiple microstates across the Middle East – as a counterpunch to internecine carnage. So we would have, among others, Allawistan, Kurdistan, Druzistan, Yazidistan, Houthistan – with borders that are already reasonably clear on the ground.
Talk about a 21st century remix of pre-Bismarck Europe princely states. The precedent is what the EU created in the Balkans; the break up of Yugoslavia across religious lines even as the bulk of the population is Slavic.
A Middle Eastern remix would only work if Turkey and Iran would agree to a Kurdistan. It won’t happen. Most Iraqis and Syrians, for their part, have also developed a strong national identity; 70% of Syrians, in a recent poll, oppose the partition of the country (while 82% view ISIS/ISIL/Daesh as a US and/or foreign made concoction.) Yet Syria arguably could still be split in three, depending on where the US-Russia power play will lead. But as we stand, the struggle for a unified, pacified, secular Syria is the only realpolitik game in town.
Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times/Hong Kong, an analyst for RT and TomDispatch, and a frequent contributor to websites and radio shows ranging from the US to East Asia. Born in Brazil, he’s been a foreign correspondent since 1985, and has lived in London, Paris, Milan, Los Angeles, Washington, Bangkok and Hong Kong. Even before 9/11 he specialized in covering the arc from the Middle East to Central and East Asia, with an emphasis on Big Power geopolitics and energy wars. He is the author of ‘Globalistan’ (Nimble Books, 2007), ‘Red Zone Blues’ (Nimble Books, 2007), ‘Obama does Globalistan’ (Nimble Books, 2009) and a contributing editor for a number of other books, including the upcoming ‘Crossroads of Leadership: Globalization and the New American Century in the Obama Presidency’ (Routledge). When not on the road, he alternates between Sao Paulo, New York, London, Bangkok and Hong Kong.