Steve Weissman / Reader Supported News – 2015-10-07 23:21:55
Is Bombing Syria Any Better if Putin Drops the Bombs?
Steve Weissman / Reader Supported News
(October 6, 2015) — History will perhaps remember, God forbid, that the Third World War quietly began on Wednesday the 30th of September 2015,” wrote the left-leaning French magazine L’Obs.
Claims, counter-claims, and denials abound, but the outline is clear. In the Arabian Gulf off the coast of Oman on or around last Wednesday, the American Navy’s USS Forest Sherman claims to have seized a cargo of arms from a fishing dhow sailing from Iran. The arms were ostensibly intended for Yemen’s Shia rebels, the Houthi, who are fighting Sunni forces led by Saudi Arabia.
Also last Wednesday, Russia began bombing Syria, reportedly hitting Free Syrian Army rebels that the CIA trained and armed. We’ll look at the targeting reports in a moment.
Like the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo that led to World War I, Wednesday’s events could well lead to the ultimate catastrophe, whether by accident or intent. In any case, they dramatize how the passions of the Islamic holy war between Saudi-led Sunni and Iranian-led Shia now intersect with the new Cold War, a nuclear-tinged conflict that pits Putin’s Russia against the United States and its NATO allies.
The questions are obvious. Bombing by the US and its allies has proved bloody, largely ineffective, and often counter-productive against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Why should Russian airstrikes prove any different? Will the Iranians and their allies from Lebanon’s Hezbollah provide the missing boots on the ground?
Will Chinese aircraft and soldiers enter the fray, as news reports now suggest? Will Putin feel compelled to deploy large number of his own troops? Will all the new bombing slow down or speed up the flow of refugees into Europe? Or, could Putin’s new escalation lead to a rapprochement that enables Russia, the US, and Iran to clean up the inhuman mess they helped create in Syria?
Much of the mess grew out of George W. Bush’s classically imperial conquest of Iraq, one of the worst blunders ever in US foreign policy. Barack Obama then followed up in Syria with his personal brand of hesitant half measures, poorly thought out, ineptly executed, and widely misunderstood by critics and supporters alike.
The initial insurgency against Syrian president Bashir al-Assad in 2011 was part of the Arab Spring, which the Obama administration promoted through the National Endowment for Democracy and the State’s Department’s “Democracy Bureaucracy.”
Regime change remained the goal, as it had under Bush and his neo-con advisers. Obama then fanned the flames of Islam’s holy war by having the CIA covertly arm the rebels backed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who wanted to overthrow both Assad and his Alawite Shia supporters.
Wisely, Obama held back from any major assault on Assad, as a large majority of Americans opposed deploying the needed ground troops. This made regime change impossible, and left the administration with a de facto policy of doing just enough to keep any side from winning.
As the Israeli-American analyst Edward Luttwak explained, “By tying down Mr. Assad’s army and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies in a war against Al Qaeda-aligned extremist fighters, four of Washington’s enemies will be engaged in war among themselves and prevented from attacking Americans or America’s allies.”
“Keep the lid on, but keep the pot boiling” has been a murderous strategy, shaming the Obama administration. But regime change it was not. And now for all of John Kerry’s harsh words against Assad, Washington still does far less than needed to pry the Syrian despot out of office.
Enter Putin, who continues to defend Assad as the country’s only legitimate ruler, enabling the Syrian regime to match and even exceed the Americans in creating the single largest identifiable group of refugees streaming into Europe. But, for all his legalistic rhetoric about national sovereignty, the Russian leader is less than committed to keep Assad in power.
As far back as 2012, his UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, proposed a peace plan toformer Finnish president and Nobel peace prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari. As the Finn recently told the Guardian, Churkin’s plan included finding “an elegant way for Assad to step aside.”
Putin’s escalation makes an elegant exit even more likely. Whatever his many other motives for upping the ante, Putin has gone out of his way to reassure the Syrian Alawites that he will protect them whatever happens to Assad, in whom they appear to have lost confidence.
He is building two new military facilities near Latakia, in the heart of the Alawite region, giving people there the feeling that Russia will defend them against their Sunni foes. Bombing the Free Syrian Army carries the same message, since the Sunni group holds territory close to Alawite population centers.
So, did the Russian warplanes target these anti-Assad rebels in their opening sortie last Wednesday, as Western sources insist? Or did they target the Islamic States, as Russia sources say. I would not trust either side. They both specialize in strategic communication, psychological warfare, and outright lies.
But Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Thursday that the Russians would target both Islamic State and “a list” of other groups fighting Assad, all of whom Moscow and Damascus consider “terrorists.” And Western sources confirmed that the Russians did attack Islamic State on Thursday.
Putin clearly sees the Islamic State militants as a growing threat to Muslim regions in Russia’s southern underbelly. But short of using ground troops, he has no reason to believe that his airstrikes will be any more effective than Obama’s. And even with a victorious ground offensive, the Russians or Iranians would have to stay in Syria forever to keep the Islamic State or other militant jihadis from coming back, just as the Taliban appear to be coming back in Afghanistan.
Outside military force will never defeat militant “fools of God,” especially those who believe they are helping to usher in the apocalypse, as the Islamic State ideologues do. Whether led from Washington, Moscow, or Tehran, imperial interventions will only build support for Islamic State and strengthen their appeal.
Defeating them is a problem that the Arabs, Shia and Sunni together, and the Kurds in their homelands, need to solve for themselves.
A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he is researching a new book, “Big Money and the Corporate State: How Global Banks, Corporations, and Speculators Rule and How to Nonviolently Break Their Hold.”
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