In my first two posts, I’ve touched on the global dimensions of the conflicts raging in Syria. In the last days, the State Department has been weighing Russia’s proposals to engage in a joint effort against ISIS, in effect to become a part of the coalition (should we say ‘club?) assembled by the US, Turkey and other allies. As of this writing, Secretary Kerry’s response mostly has consisted of hemming and hawing, a mixture of welcoming and warning. Yesterday, Kerry told reporters in London after meeting with British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond that Putin’s proposal to take down ISIS but buttress Assad was “illogical,” since in his view Assad is the reason for ISIS. That may strike one as counterintuitive to say the least.
Today’s AP report on Kerry’s London remarks offered the following specification:
“Kerry … said the U.S. considered Assad “a magnet” for foreign fighters who are filling the Islamic State group’s ranks. “So there’s a lack of logic,” Kerry said, for the Russians to say “they are bringing in more equipment, shoring up Assad, at the same time they say they’re going after” IS militants.”
This conclusion seems to reflect some laws of electro-magnetics that are unknown to most readers. A less esoteric analysis would suggest it is Assad’s weakness that has caused ISIS to flourish.
Though the headlines do not reflect it, the most important part of the story, and of Kerry’s announcement, came with a buried admission that “While Kerry stressed the U.S. demand that Assad must go, he stated explicitly that an acceptable resolution to the Syrian war would allow Assad to remain in place for a time before departing”.
As the AP goes on:
“We’re not being doctrinaire about the specific date or time — we’re open,” Kerry said. “But right now, Assad has refused to have a serious discussion and Russia has refused to bring him to the table in order to do that. So that’s why we’re where we are.”… “We’re prepared to negotiate. Is Assad prepared to negotiate, really negotiate? Is Russia prepared to bring him to the table and actually find the solution to this violence?… About the timetable, Kerry said “it doesn’t have to be on day one or month one or whatever,” but in context of negotiations.”
In fact, Assad and Russia have been asking the West for a serious discussion for a long time, but we’ll leave that aside for the time being. In today’s London announcement, Kerry also said he has “serious concerns” about reports of Russia’s “movement of tactical aircraft and surface-to-air missiles to Syria.” This may suggest why the offers of collaboration made to Kerry by his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, which one way or the other have been reiterated for months, have now becoming more pressing concerns.
Following a series of Russian proposals, the US has now decided to entertain the very practical idea of exchanging military-to-military information and coordination. On Friday, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter talked with Russia Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in the first military contacts between the two countries since regular discussions were halted in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.
If the State Department seems to be moving in this direction only in the last few days, the offer had been on the table for weeks. In this area too, perhaps, it took the reputed build-up to bring the US to the table.
Nearly two weeks ago Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded to to US unwillingness to even engage on this level of basic safety precautions with an exasperated “suit yourself“. Already, on that occasion, Sept 10, Lavrov anticipated Kerry’s “logical” critique, but more credibly, when he said:
“Kerry was also pushing the very strange idea that supporting Bashar Assad in his anti-terror fight only strengthens the positions of ISIS, because the sponsors of ISIS would pump even more arms and money into it,”… “It’s an absolutely upside-down logic and yet another attempt to appease those who use terrorists to fight dissenting regimes.”
Well, at least Kerry learned something in that exchange: next time around he’d call Lavrov illogical!
The reported Russian buildup in Syria, which began around the same time, must have precipitated this military-to-military opening on the part of the Americans. The reports about the buildup itself are various, and variously reliable. Worried accounts in the Western press assert that Russia is now putting troops on the ground in Syria, sending fighter jets and fighter pilots, securing its port at Tartous and Assad’s position at Lattakia, and beefing up the Syrian Army’s heavy munitions with new types of weaponry and related advisors and trainers. The initial report in what became a fusillade, purported to show Russian fighter jets in Syrian space. This was from the Israeli news agency YNet and offered but dubious evidence since Syria has always flown Russian jets. However, in the last days, photos have surfaced of construction activity, and the reports are widespread of the landing of huge cargo planes from Russia, reportedly carrying tanks and spare parts for Syria’s depleted army. Over the course of the last weeks as these reports have surfaced the State Department, in cautious tones, repeatedly has intoned that all these reports are being taken seriously and investigated diligently by the US. Little is forthcoming from our own alphabet intelligence services or military intelligence. Lacking much evidence, no public official affirmation or denial of the validity of the more extreme claims has been officially put forth. Kerry’s announcement yesterday about the movement of small numbers of aircraft and artillery is fairly mild in comparison to the press reports.
Despite the poor reliability of the initial Israeli mouthpiece, and most of the subsequent rumors, there may be fire where there is smoke. In fact, it should not be a surprise. Russia and Iran have been saying for weeks and months, if anyone in the West would listen, that ISIS, and its brand of “takfiri” (holier than thou) fundamentalism of the Salafi/Wahhabi Sunni extremist stripe (that’s stripes of the whip) threatens everybody who is not that. They have consistently (and logically) pressed for more involvement in the effort and more concerted effort all around. (Earlier this year, Iranian troops under General Suleiman did take the field quite successfully, if in limited engagements, in Iraq.)
There is, therefore, no reason to doubt that Russia would, sooner or later, step in to help its ally. As the US has kept Russia’s phone call on-hold for three months running, it would not be a surprise that indeed, a real anti-ISIS endeavor is now underway, a coalition of truly willing partners. Of course, this includes Assad.
Russia has quite publically proposed a next step which in fact brings Russian boots to the ground. It only awaits the word of Bashar al-Assad, which, at least publically, has not been given. The official press of both sides (e.g. RT, SANA) is entirely concurrent on the message however: Russia has offered; Assad has gratefully accepted, but has not decided. Assad’s own lengthy interview on Russian media, on September 15?, was a considerably more “logical” presentation of the situation than Kerry or his spokesmen have managed to articulate. His strongest statement perhaps, was “If you are worried about [refugees], stop supporting terrorists. That’s what we think regarding the crisis. This is the core of the whole issue of refugees.” Assad spelled out his own entirely cogent assessments that the Syrian Army is and can be the only effective main defense for Syria, and thus must head any coalition against ISIS and the extremist groups whose numbers, he says, come from dozens of foreign countries. He held out offers of collaborative efforts, but none that preempt Syrian sovereignty. He argued that in fact the US and its coalition allies are the forces of instability in the region, and the ultimate cause of ISIS, and that ISIS is the cause of the refugees.
It is extraordinary that State Department officials can stand before the press and argue otherwise, indeed argue a direct causal link between Assad’s rule and the rise of ISIS. It was when Assad’s rule was undermined by forces with secret sympathizers in the US officialdom and Western intel communities, that the breeding ground for the malignancy was sown. Reading through most of the official briefings given by State Department spokesmen Toner and Kirby over the last weeks, I have found only a few instances where the esteemed reporters have ventured there, into the realm of logic. Usually these are from the foreign press, and are inevitably cut off as broaching a question that does not warrant the dignity to answer.
To an extent, Putin is playing coy, no doubt. The rumors about the buildup serve him as much as the facts. There well may be covert Russian operations and arms-supplying that goes beyond the terms of the traditional alliance and long-term contracts. Assad and Putin may have come already to a plan to launch all-out war on ISIS, whether the US-led coalition of more nations than soldiers wants to join in or not. Or they may be willing to ramp up pressure on ISIS and the US slowly and simultaneously. All we know presently is that despite the crescendo of rumors of ever more active Russo-Syrian collaboration, no official call for Russian troops has yet been made public. For the moment, the diplomatic field is being prepared. Kerry’s slight opening regarding Assad’s future may be the first sprout to poke its nose up from the ground.
But it might be said that the present meager level of diplomatic activity itself never would have happened without the reports of the build-up. They lend credibility, street cred really, to Putin’s offer. He has been saying, “let us concentrate on ISIS, then we will let Syria work out whether it wants Assad or not. This is not for any anti-ISIS coalition to decide. Let us get to work”. He is now saying, “put up or shut up”.
The State Department says, well, yes, but. It says it welcomes — but provisionally and in theory only — Russia’s good intent to take up the coalition’s battle against ISIS. But not so quick there, Mr Bear! Assad still must go, in the end. After a period of time when he is stll there, as Kerry said in London, very logically. The State Department argues repeatedly, with a nervous tic, that it is still attempting to ascertain what Putin is really up to. It says it welcomes the offer but is still trying to interpret Russia’s “full intentions”, and not taking anything at “face value”. But Putin’s plans in Syria are no mystery. Kerry and his spokesfolks Toner and Kirby are like interviewers who haven’t read the book of the author they are interviewing, haven’t even guessed at the most obvious plotline of the book.
Kerry’s principle line of contention is that in combatting ISIS, Russia must under no conditions support the Assad regime, which, the US asserts ad nauseum in order to fill up the looming void of evidence, is behind all the trouble in Syria, maybe even behind all the trouble in the Middle East. (A State Department spokesman was forced to retreat from this larger assertion in last week’s briefing.) Who exactly is being illogical here?
The assertion that Assad is responsible for ISIS is patently absurd. It is a wonder it can pass muster at State Department Press Briefings. Many of US officialdom’s most contorted positions derive from the fact that most of the US public still swallows the neo-con storyline (if they care at all: the refugee crisis hasn’t really hit our shores yet); but the State Department has to project its position to the world, and Russians, and many others, know better.
Russia has so far not publically admitted that supplies or advisors beyond ongoing contractual obligations are reaching Syria but they have quite publically proclaimed that if Assad asks for them, they are ready to send troops or aerial support. Even as the US contemplates the same –but without invitation or any legitimate reason — it is shocked by Russia’s presumption in regard to its long-time ally. For the West, this is just more of Putin’s neo-Soviet “expansionism”. Tell me again, Secretary Kerry, who is illogical? Such a request is within the rights of any and every sovereign nation of course, and shouldn’t even be a matter for discussion. The question of foreign sovereignty seems quant to the US unless it comes to Ukrainian oligarchs’ sovereign rights over Crimea. By and large, the Western press is also not so swift when it comes to the niceties of international law, or for that matter, common decency.
In the next post, I will say something about the role of ideas in this Cold and Hot World War III of feint and dissimulation, this charade of ideals in which “sovereignty”, “democracy”, and “justice” all come to mean their opposites in the heat of war, just as Thucydides told us words did in Athens, as they brutally tried to extend their shining empire over rulers they called despotic and populations they sought to enslave.