On Syria, Obama Alienates Allies and Strengthens Enemies
It took one Scotsman, in defense of the promiscuous virtues of another, to remark of his countrymen that there was “no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of itsperiodical fits of morality.” American morality has taken a rather harsh beating of late, but there’s still nothing so ridiculous as watching an entire media class in one of its periodical fits of blind optimism. No matter that mass murder continues unabated in the Middle East at the behest or prompting of dictatorial regimes whose histories for stalling, deceiving, and otherwise embarrassing the West are notorious. The new narrative this autumn is that America’s old enemies are just new friends waiting to be made. President Obama’s brief phone call with Iran’s clerical president and his inking of a disarmament deal with Vladimir Putin, both of which happened at the margins of the UN General Assembly meeting last week, elicited hearty self-congratulations for unprecedented “diplomatic breakthroughs.”
Yet unnoticed by those now competing to decide when exactly the gates of Imam Khomeini International Airport will open to American tourists is the unmistakable fact if any meaningful behind-the-scenes deal-making is currently underway, then it is between and among Moscow, Tehran, and Damascus. All three have only exploited the August 21 sarin attack on Ghouta by solidifying their pre-existing alliances with one another and coordinating a clever new propaganda campaign aimed directly at an antiwar American electorate, the importance of which they only accidentally discovered after the White House insisted on asking Congress to authorize airstrikes on Syria.
This strategic realignment, borne of a mass atrocity either carried out or excused by these same state actors, would be bad enough to witness if the Obama administration hadn’t mistaken it as a genuine opportunity for good-faith engagement and in the process alienated two of its most important allies, France and Saudi Arabia.
So let’s evaluate what’s actually happened in that timeframe apart from the warm smiles, bilateral Twitter flirtations, and cable news charm offensives by tyrants by which pundits seem more fascinated.
On September 2, Reuters reported that the number of Russian ships traveling to Syria from a Ukrainian port used by Rosoboronexport, Moscow’s state arms dealer, had “increased sharply since April.” Fourteen vessels in total journeyed from Oktyabrsk to Syria’s Tartous in the past year and a half, a time period which has also seen an uptick in Bashar al-Assad’s willingness to pay off his defense debts to Russia, including for S-300 anti-aircraft batteries, which so exercise the Israelis, and 36 Yak-130 trainer fighter jets, which so exercise Syrian civilians who’ll be bombed by them. Reuters further helpfully determined that major state-owned Russian banks – principally VTB, VEB, and Gazprombank – have been taking the regime’s deposits, while Assad’s uncle Mohammed Makhlouf, who lives in a Soviet-era hotel in Moscow, personally oversees the family’s finances in Russia. One Russian arms industry source said to the news agency: “About a year ago they put [some small arms deliveries] on hold. But after Putin got angry in the lead up to talks about Geneva II, the green light was given for limited small arms deliveries.”
High off their diplomatic “victory” in averting US war and yet still leery of long-term American designs, Moscow will proceed apace with this arming even if all the sarin and VX warheads in Syria are banjaxed – itself a far from certain prospect. But what is the likelihood that Assad’s non-compliance with the chemical disarmament agreement (about which more later) will ever even include international sanctions so long as Putin is acting as his personal banker and weapons vendor and has veto power at the Security Council? I think I know the answer.
9/11 as bully pulpit
September 11 was a day once known for commemorating an unprecedented terrorist attack on American soil. Now it’s seen as a fit occasion for our KGB partners in peace to humiliate the United States and not-so-obliquely threaten it with further terrorist attacks. First Putin published his notorious New York Times op-ed, in which, sniffing the isolationist sentiment on the shores, he reminded Americans of their recent messy entanglements in Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and closed by asking if they had the right to really feel all that “exceptional.” The same day, Alexei Pushkov, the head of the Duma’s foreign affairs committee, told his rubber-stamp parliament that if the US attacked the Assad regime, then Russia would not only increase arms sales to Iran but rethink its cooperation with the Pentagon’s grinding war effort in Afghanistan. To show that Pushkov meant business, Russia also leaked the news – again on September 11 – that its once high-profile plan to sell Iran S-300 missile batteries was back on. Originally brokered in 2007, then scuppered in 2010 in deference to strenuous US objections and the now obituarized “reset,” the cancelled deal caused the mullahs to file a $4 billion lawsuit against Russia for breach of contract. Well, apparently that’s all been settled out of court now to both parties’ mutual satisfaction and then some. Moscow will also help Iran construct another “civilian” nuclear reactor for an estimated $800 million.
So Putin’s way of remembering the 12th anniversary of al-Qaeda’s terrorist atrocity is to offer to sell more weapons to one of the world’s leading state sponsors of global terrorism and to suggest that he might further destabilize a country once overrun by Bin Ladenists and which he believes to be already unstable enough. Truly has he earned his Nobel Peace Prize.
On September 14, it was Hassan Rouhani’s turn to perform his role as public spokesman to America, this time in the pages of theWashington Post. For a “reformist” who denies the Holocaust so charmingly it’s missed by CNN’s Farsi translators, the goal was to reaffirm of one of the cornerstones of Barack Obama’s progressivism, that international politics had become “a multi-dimensional arena where cooperation and competition often occur simultaneously.” Improving slightly on Putin’s intervention in the Times, Rouhani did not assign blame for the Syrian chemical attack, “which we strongly condemn,” but he nonetheless reprehended the “zero-sum, Cold War mentality” which he implied motivates US internationalism. This is the mentality, it need hardly be said, that the Kremlin loves to trot out whenever it wants to pretend that it’s the victim of American bullying rather than the party that has just pulled America’s pants down on the playground. For Rouhani, common problems now bind all nations and they’re exactly the ones that Putin and his United Russia proxies always emphasize: “terrorism, extremism, foreign military interference, drug trafficking, cybercrime, and cultural encroachment.”
One would never know, according to this impressive litany, that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps is today constructing and training sectarian militias to fight for Assad or running weapons and elite military personnel into Syria. Or that it was responsible for murdering US soldiers in Iraq, about which IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani allegedly boasted to the US military in Baghdad. Or that it has planned and carried out terrorist attacks in Thailand, India, and Kenya, and plotted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington. Or that, as the ink was barely dry on Rouhani’s editorial, its agents were busy hacking into US naval computers (so much for cybercrime cooperation, then). Hezbollah, a wholly owned and operated subsidiary of Tehran, is also thus rendered a child daycare franchise in Lebanon.
Some might find it galling or abasing to have even a cuddly and soft-spoken functionary of a regime guilty of killing Americans condescend to Americans in a major American newspaper. But not the commander-in-chief of the United States who, in what can only have been intended as a direct response to Rouhani’s accusation, used the platform of his United Nations General Assembly address to reassure the mullahs and the world that America’s interests in Syria, a country which Iran considers its “35th province,” do not amount to “a zero-sum endeavor. We are no longer in a Cold War. There’s no Great Game to be won.”
Why is Barack Obama the only head of state who continues to persist in this illusion when even America’s socialist allies do not?
Angering the French
When Gerard Araud, the French ambassador to the UN, met with a Russian diplomat last spring to discuss France’s imminent disclosure of intelligence suggesting that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons, “[t]he Russian diplomat laughed, according to a source familiar with the meeting,” Reuters reported on September 17. “‘Gerard,’ [the Russian] told his counterpart, ‘don’t embarrass the Americans.'”
A charitable reading of this anecdote is that Russia knew all too well that Obama was reluctant to acknowledge that his own “red line” had been crossed long before the Ghouta massacre and was purposefully covering up evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria to avoid dealing with the consequences – this when WMDs are all the president seems fetishistically concerned with in the Middle East. A less charitable reading would be that the Russians knew that Obama was so wedded to avoiding direct military confrontation with Assad that he’d gladly act as the Kremlin’s helpmeet in seeing that commitment through, zero-sum, Cold War mentality notwithstanding. This is how the chemical bargain, shamelessly spun by the Oval Office as the whoopsy-daisy yield of a John Kerry “gaffe,” actually came to be introduced – by Russia, reading America’s clear signals.
The French government has for years been equally courted and subverted by the Kremlin and it took no small amount of geopolitical risk in advocating a principled posture against the Assad regime and expecting the US to follow suit. Eric Chevalier, the former French ambassador to Syria, was the first Western envoy to meet with Gen. Salim Idris, the now nearly-irrelevant head of the Supreme Military Command of the Free Syrian Army. The French also pushed for greater military support for the rebels in the summer and early fall of 2012, when Obama was still pushing for a “political solution.”
Not seeing eye-to-eye with an ally is different from sticking your finger in that ally’s eye. But Obama has form here, too. On May 27, Kerry and Lavrov were readying to meet in Paris to talk about their latest brainchild in Syria diplomacy, the Geneva II conference. It didn’t matter, however, that this event was taking place in France’s capital city; “the French were not initially invited to the talks, diplomatic sources said.” One such source, a European diplomat, said that America’s oldest ally had been treated like a “useful idiot” by Washington. It’s not hard to see why.
According to a report last Sunday in Le Nouvel Observateur, on August 31, Francois Hollande was forced to cancel an airstrike he’d been told was imminent and for which French warplanes were ready on the tarmac after receiving an 11th-hour phone call from Obama saying the strikes were off, at least for now, because Congress had to be consulted first. The French President was “shocked”; his cabinet had already prepared a press release announcing the strike at Kerry’s earlier instruction to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. “Everything led us to believe that the big day had arrived.” If only Russia, Iran, and Syria were this ad hoc and cavalier in coordinating their collective strategy, Washington’s blunders might not matter.
Yet even in diplomatic anticlimax, the US still managed to alienate and anger the French. When Kerry and Lavrov met in Geneva on September 10 to hammer out the nitty-gritty of their chemical deal, the French, who again had not been invited to an important conference, decided to ensure their skepticism was registered by advancing a draft UN resolution that authorized the use of force in the likely event of Syrian noncompliance. This infuriated US officials, while their French counterparts worried that Washington was so desperate for a resolution, any resolution, with the Security Council’s imprimatur that it would forfeit real enforcement mechanisms to hold Assad to account. The French were right.
The UN deal
It should have augured ill that it was Putin’s portrait which overhung the negotiating table at the UN where the resolution was ultimately finalized. As Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch deftly observed, the yield of the first resolution the Security Council has passed in almost three years of Syrian bloodshed represents a triumph of cynical bureaucratic expertise over international justice. The expertise belongs to Lavrov and Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, who used to be an employee there. Collectively, their talent has been to mire the United States in the pettifoggery of UN “procedure,” as one UN specialist at New York University told Lynch.
The resolution is a monument to procedure. Not only does it not guarantee penalties in the face of Syrian funny business, but even the definition of non-compliance is open to broad interpretation. Russia insists that violations be “indisputable and proved” and also of sufficient “gravity” to warrant another resolution that would impose penalties on the regime. Given that Russia has not backed down from blaming the August 21 sarin attack on rebels – a claim for which it has relied on an Iranian- and Russia-linked “news” outlet in Minnesota, a pro-Milosevic and 9/11 denial website in Canada, and the testimony of a pro-Assad Carmelite nun who was not present in Ghouta when the attacks took place – why should any thinking person expect the Kremlin to accede to any amount of “proven and indisputable” Western evidence proving “grave” regime shenanigans? Moreover, Washington caved to demanding in the text of the resolution that the International Criminal Court investigate the poison gas use in Damascus and prosecute the perpetrators – in effect, granting Assad legal immunity for gassing 1,400 people whether or not he now makes good on the international legitimacy the Security Council has just conferred on him by making him a guarantor of the disarmament protocol. As Lynch notes, Assad can theoretically wage another chemical attack in Syria and still not be legally held to account under the terms of this resolution and, as I argued above, even the threat of sanctions are unlikely to materialize with a veto-wielding Russia.
Alienating the Saudis
It’s no secret that Israel and Saudi Arabia are both exasperated by Obama’s revivified engagement strategy with Iran because neither wants the mullahs to build a nuclear bomb and both are now looking right through Bashar al-Assad and seeing only the IRGC and Hezbollah as the advance guard of Iranian hegemony in the Levant. While Israel’s realization of the wobbliness of its superpower patron to enforce limits on tolerate behavior may yet manifest in bomber planes flying over Qom and Netanz, the Saudi pivot away from the US has been more immediately discernible.
On September 29, the Wall Street Journal reported that Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal told the Friends of Syria coalition in New York, on the margins of the General Assembly, that Riyadh wants “intensification of political, economic, and military support to the Syrian opposition… to change the balance of powers on the ground.” According to one Saudi security analyst, Mustafa Alani, the goal now was to ignore the United States completely on Syria: “They are going to be upset – we can live with that. We are learning from our enemies now how to treat the United States.” The front-page of Asharq Al-Awsat, a leading Saudi-owned daily, greeted news of Obama and Rouhani’s phone call with a cartoon showing the latter bent double in laughter.
Riyadh registered a symbolic protest at Obama’s climb-down on attacking the regime by refusing to address the United Nations, but it’s also taken substantive measures to circumvent Washington altogether on Syria by activating a cadre of new clients in the form of hardline Salafist rebels who are now united the umbrella of Jaysh al-Islam (“the Army of Islam”), a Damascus-based military organization. Unamused by transformation of Aleppo and Raqqa into Kandahar, or the anti-Assad rebellion’s hijacking by transnational jihadists who want to export their ideology beyond Syria, and impatient with Obama’s diplomacy, the Saudis have lately enlisted “50 brigades” and some thousands of fighters under a new structure headed by Zahran Alloush, the head of Liwa al-Islam, the new group’s most powerful salafist brigade. Not only is Alloush’s father a cleric based in Saudi Arabia, but Zahran also studied Islamic theology there. In a video statement announcing the new Army, Alloush took a soft but dismissive attitude toward the Supreme Military Command, America’s only client on the ground, by saying that it had to be “serious and active” in aiding fighters in the field rather than relying on Western promises and heeding Western caveats for support. Saudi tribal figures, no doubt those who have long financed Islamist rebel groups in Syria, were seconded by Prince Bandar’s intelligence directorate to help isolate the extremists in the form of the Islamic State of Syria and al-Sham (ISIS), the hardline Zarqawist branch of al-Qaeda in Syria. “Their strategy is to offer financial backing in return for loyalty and staying away from al-Qaeda,” the commander of one such group told Reuters.
Saudi Arabia is trying to do two things at once. The first is to salvage what remains of the Syrian opposition, which, through the now Saudi-dominated National Council, has lost all credibility inside the country among the rebels fighting the regime for its perceived failure to sufficiently turn Western governments (read: the United States) against Assad. In reality, the Council is still hostage to the Geneva II track forced on it by Washington, which means further parlays with Damascus, Moscow, and possibly now Tehran. Not only has this been cited as a pretext for humiliating rebel defections, such as last week’s announced “Islamic Alliance” among a dozen rebel groups including Jabhat al-Nusra, the lesser al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, but it’s a pill that neither the Saudi hirelings nor the Qatari-backed Muslim Brothers on the National Council wish to swallow. The Saudi government’s insurance policy, then, is to effectively buy control of disaffected rebel groups before it loses total control of them, focusing on the most sensitive areas of Syria: the capital region and the less jihadist-riddled south.
The second Saudi objective is to foment sahwa, or a Sunni Awakening using salafists against al-Qaeda. As Hassan Hassan has argued, this may be the second-best alternative to absence of substantive US support for the Free Syrian Army, which has now been almost completely marginalized and will only be further marginalized in weeks and months to come.
Well-connected sources inform me that the State Department has plainly told the Supreme Military Command that it can expect no forthcoming alteration in the aid its been receiving thus far and that the US will make no further moves on Syria unless something “dramatic” happens. (What that means, post-Ghouta, is anyone’s guess.) Syrian rebels are now viewed by the White House as unattractive replicas of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, a rather stark reassessment from John Kerry’s more sanguine portrayal of them before Congress only three weeks ago.
The difficulty in judging foreign policy blunders is that, unlike a wrangle over the national budget which can result in an automatic government shutdown, the deleterious effects of those blunders can take months or years to be felt. Assad has been given a year to demonstrate a willingness to part with a weapon he never had to depend on for defeating the opposition to his grim rule, and even then, there is no guarantee anything bad will happen to him if he doesn’t accommodate. Iran is now being cultivated at the expense of those who think the US has been turned into a mug or mark overnight. And a country whose leader who openly regrets the collapse of the Soviet Union, murders, jails, and tortures dissidents he doesn’t like, and otherwise lives to make things unpleasant for the United States in Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia is now reinvented as a great-power statesman capable of beating back an arrogant empire in decline.
This is an impressive array of accomplishments for the United States to have earned in a little over a month.
October 07, 2013
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