Obama did not enter into new territory with his UN speech as Putin did, but he did articulate at length the usual US talking points about Syria and Russia. He also reiterated the usual rationale for Assad’s supposed illegitimacy. However, by failing to be specific he effectively confirmed Kerry’s remarks in London last week that signaled an opening to Assad’s temporarily remaining in power. This tacit acceptance of the new status quo, also seems to permit Russia an active military presence in Syria, but the US will not give up its rights to grumble.
To recap events following the Monday speeches: Israel, left out in the cold, is lurching with bluster and accusation, its propaganda machines envisioning Iranians massing on “their” border at the Golan Heights (occupied Syrian territory), and of Russian generals bitch-slapping US generals aside in Syrian airspace. Saudi Arabia and Turkey are the other big losers with the new arrangement. Turkish PM Davutoglu, in his UN talk said “a pox on both your houses”, ISIS and Assad, perhaps implying the US and Russia. Turkey continues to address its Kurdish problem, and that of Iraq, by bombing. Saudi Arabia has unleashed threats of an invasion if Assad won’t step down. This seems so much show from America’s jilted coalition partners. As always, one may rightly fear Netanyahu’s capability of being a nut and a yahoo. However, geo-politically, it seems America already has lost the Middle East, and its allies will have to accommodate the new Russian-Iranian-Syrian axis.
Obama used his UN podium mainly to re-hash old positions, perhaps most for the benefit of a domestic audience not used to contemplating the dramatic changes underfoot. Obama leveled a barrage of unsubstantiated accusations at Syria’s Assad and at Putin as well, especially over the Ukraine. Putin replied in kind, as I will recount tomorrow. However, according to Putin, their private meeting afterwards “on the sidelines”, was “constructive and surprisingly frank.”
That is usually where the work gets done, — in backrooms– but this highly public international stage of the 70th UN General Assembly, with Russia about to take the rotating helm of the Security Council, offered a broad foreshadowing of coming events from the two poles of the new Lukewarm War between hemispheres in their central clashes in Syria and the Ukraine. Today’s Russian airstrikes of ISIS positions around Homs show the Russians are quite serious about ridding Syria of the extremists, and supporting Assad as representative of a legitimate government. The US still has not offered to join in this anti-ISIS effort, now legitimated by Syrian request for Russian troops. Again, this contrasts starkly with the extra-legal and frankly illegitimate US-led coalition’s activity in Syria.
Obviously, the range of comments offered by the two leaders at the UN was wider than the Syria situation that I want to focus upon. I will not cover these other subjects in any detail, but in particular, China loomed large in the talks, as it looms large as Russia’s ally in Syria. A Chinese aircraft carrier now docks at Tartus. Two thousand Chinese troops are also on the way, but sources that told us about Russian troops, have so far have not been confirmed one way or the other.
As after the Iran deal, when both sides, American and Iranian, engaged in harsh words and warnings to the other in order to appease their hardline domestic audiences, so the US has recently retrenched its rhetoric about Syria in the days since Kerry’s opening. Obama’s UN speech played true to this line. It was geared much more to the domestic audience than Putin’s. More specifically, it seemed directed at still-powerful neo-con factions in his own administration, in Congress, and in the US military and intelligence apparati.
The take-away from Obama’s UN talk, , is that the new chart, in particularly the new opening towards Assad and the Russian presence in Syria, has not been altered, despite the harsh rhetoric and repetition of, let’s face it, a bunch of lies about Assad and the Ukraine, that constituted the articulate nonsense of Obama’s talk. This has been confirmed by their frustrated responses to the initial Russian airstrikes in Syria. These chastise but allow. They accuse the Russians of not really fighting ISIS, more true of the US-led coalition, and of supporting Assad, which the Russians said they would do. They also mock the Russian strategy of actually bombing ISIS camps, instead of the oil industry infrastructure of Syria, the US strategy, because that supposedly cuts off their funding. (Not.)
Several jarring moments of cognitive dissonance came to me reading Obama’s UN remarks. As mentioned last post, with quite astounding hypocrisy he broached the subject of the Ukraine, even daring to say Russia infringed international law and national sovereignty. Later, Putin tried to refresh the West’s sclerotic memory about what sovereignty actually means. He also tried to refresh the institutional and legal function of the UN, a project he shares with the Pope on some level.
Perhaps it is worth mentioning what Obama’s speech did not say.
In his UN speech, Putin, like the Pope (but unlike Obama) referred to the UN’s importance as a guide and safeguard of international law that puts no one country above the rest (except for that little matter of the Security Council). Though no overt mention was made in his speech, Putin is clearly troubled by recent Western proposals to remove individual veto power from the Security Council, even though the US has used this veto for decades to block most of the world’s will in regard to Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
Obama, of course, is polite and celebratory about the ideals of the UN, but not so much about the constraints of its legal and institutional framework. For Obama, the UN is the forum where “the US works with allies …. to prevent a third world war”, to support “the emergence of strong democracies accountable to their people instead of any foreign power” (sic) and to build “an international system that imposes a cost on those who choose conflict over cooperation.”
The US operates farther outside UN and international sanction with every administration of the 21st century, almost with every year. Conveniently Obama neglects the institution’s basis in international law when it is convenient, but also seems ignorant of the institution’s basic principles of national sovereignty, even though he evokes the idea, in topsy-turvy fashion, in regard to the Ukraine. In a sense, the UN is reaping what it has sown, since its own dubious doctrine of “just war” laid the road to hell with, we’ll assume, good intentions. By contrast, the international institution’s legal basis and fundamental principles are what the Pope would like strengthened in defense of the broadly humanitarian projects he supports, and the more dubious monstrosity, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, he devoutly espouses.
A subject taken up in this regard is the refugee problem, which has now become a problem because white people in Europe have to deal with it. The Pope, and the Spirit of the 2030 Agenda, does not even attempt to address the problem of the refugees, only to solve it. Kill it with kindness, and lots of taxpayer money. The Pope does not seem minimally aware of where the refugees come from or why. He just wants to help. Bless his little heart and littler brain. Maybe its time to make good on that promise of a “poor Church” for “poor people.”
By the sound of Obama’s speech, the US politely prefers its own institutions to regulate global social and environmental affairs. Obama preened and prided himself, for instance, on how much money the US is spending to help out the refugees. Unlike the Pope, Obama addressed the cause of the problem, but by looking at talking points that could have been written by Dick Cheney or Paul Wolfowitz in the 1990s. He is not looking at Syrian reality, but in fact, at a domestic audience, perhaps ‘domesticated’ audience, and at his own neo-cons. As I mentioned several times, Obama subscribes to the narrative that Assad is the cause of it all, the refugee crisis, ISIS, you name it. The US believes that if we remove Assad, ISIS somehow would flounder, rather than flourish as most rational minds surmise, and that the refugees could return to … oh, right, they haven’t quite worked that out.
Of the three, Putin alone addressed the reality. He argued that if we want to stop the flow of refugees we need to support the legitimate state and legitimate army of the country they are coming from. That flies over the head of Western leaders and their docile media. At the UN, Putin only alluded to what he and Assad have addressed more directly elsewhere, best summed up by the Syrian leader: “If you want to stop the refugee problem, stop supporting terrorism!”
For the benefit of his domestic audience, and the neo-cons, Likudniks, Grey Wolves, and Salafists among his and his allies’ administrations, Obama’s UN talk continued to push the weary Western “refugee origin narrative” which places Assad as the causal center. Let us look more closely at Obama’s words.
” Let’s remember how this started.”
Already I must interrupt. Obama cannot seem remember further back than 2011 or 2012 (he was in a campaign until November, for god’s sake!). But “it” started as far back as 2006 when, as leaked documents show, the US was already pursuing plans to undermine Assad with contrived agitprop protests and proxy development of radical Salafist factions coming out of Iraq, especially Anbar province, and then taking root in the deserts of eastern Syria. Actually, one might say the plan has been operative in neo-con circles (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle) since the early 1990’s or early 2000s when General Wesley Clark first was told of their “7 countries in 5 years” plan to finish off its conquest of the Middle East and ex-Soviet allies, finishing off with Iran. Syria was mid-way along that list, after Iraq and Libya.
One might also point out Obama’s “history lesson” omits the fact that the US too, like Turkey and Israel, might have gotten a much better deal not so long ago. An ex-Finnish PM, head of a peace delegation in 2012, said Putin offered a deal whereby Assad would exit from power peacefully, a story which naturally Russia rejects. But the Finnish official, disgusted with American behaviour, said the US was so certain Assad was soon going down anyway that they refused to negotiate. That memory’s gotta sting now.
The following is Obama’s version, the usual US one, of “how this started” even though it starts several chapters into the story: “Assad reacted to peaceful protests by escalating repression and killing that, in turn, created the environment for the current strife.”
We should first of all remember that, however genuine the core of the “Arab spring” had been, these “peaceful protests” (not always) were early co-opted and commandeered by Western interests whose only intent was to undermine Assad’s rule. In fact, Assad may be held responsible for unnecessary civilian casualties, and perhaps it might be said he overreacted. As the 2006 intel document indicates, the Americans were hoping to play on Assad’s inexperience and what they noted as the young ruler’s tendency to overreact. Perhaps they managed.
One should keep in mind that Assad knew full well what the Americans were up to, but that his finger-pointing to the opposition’s foreign elements were tossed aside as the paranoia of a dictator by the US administration and the gullible US press. Knowing these uprisings were at least in part not genuine Syrian revolts, but foreign in funding and support, and destabilizing and ‘imperial’ in intent, might too may be a cause of ‘overreaction’.
This is how Obama’s little story continues: He “drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent children” (“innocent” children no less!) He is a “dictator” who “slaughters tens of thousands of his own people”. He tries but fails to “pacify the broad majority of a population” with “chemical weapons and indiscriminate bombing.”
The endless American refrains about Assad’s crimes, his “barrel bombing” and “chemical weapons” attacks have never have substantiated. Au contraire, most evidence points back to US-supported rebels. Besides its comic book aspects, most accusations defy strategic common sense and could only be devised to dupe the most politically illiterate of publics. Though he did not take the time to respond at the UN, Putin had already commented in his Charlie Rose interview that these never-substantiated claims about Assad are but rank nonsense and “active measure”, American propaganda.
As well as anyone possibly can, Obama articulates the internal contradictions of policies and actions of a fractious administration that the President does not seem to have a handle on. In the end, no matter what abuse of logic it takes, what counts is justifying US intervention, even if that seems an ever less likely a concrete possibility now in Syria with the Russian intervention. Here is where we see the “illogic” hard at work. It works something like the Vietnam-era policy of “destroying a village in order to save it.”
Because of the almost entirely-projected picture of Assad’s barbarity, which in truth pales before that of the US war machine, the Syrian situation, Obama may argue, ” is not just a matter of one nation’s internal affairs,” but instead requires outside intervention. That does not mean the UN for Obama, as it jokingly did for the Bushes. It means US. The US feels it has a moral duty to invade and destroy another nation and another society, when it (not that country’s people) feels a foreign ruler is illegitimate.
Obama half-admitted that the US has made some mistakes in Iraq in Libya, — this is an important concession — but his speech did not reflect a learning process. Syria is set up just like Iraq. Libya too. Gheddafi got the same propaganda treatment, and horrific physical treatment, from the American-led liberators. The Libyan “tyrant”, “despot” and “dictator” offered 50,000 dollars to each newly married couple, was spending lavishly to develop the infrastructure of Libya, and instituted a gold dinar that was no longer dollar-based. (That was the big ‘crime’.) Right now, in a Libya that has been utterly destroyed and is swarming with ISIS, tyranny looks pretty good next to this American import, “democracy”. As Putin asked the US about its biggest “export”: “Do you even realize what you have done?”
But Syria will not go the way of Iraq and Libya and Assad will not go the way of Gheddafi and Saddam Hussein. Russia, and now China, have drawn their red line, not just with military might but with the force of international law and by request of their assistance by a sovereign nation. Both have own internal concerns that have drawn them to Syria: Russia’s first air attacks today struck mainly at Cechnyan extremists and China aims to take out the Uyghur Turkic component of the terrorist cells which Turkey and US interests have used to undermine the western Turkish Chinese provinces in Xinjiang. The coalition and its proxies in Syria continues to crumble, now before a new coalition in formation, one we must hope will actually take terrorist-fighting seriously.