Putin might be right on Syria: The actual strategy behind his Middle East push -- and why the New York Times keeps obscuring it

There's actually common sense and historical vision behind the Putin plan. Not that our media covers it honestly

Published October 14, 2015 11:01PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Anatoly Maltsev)
(Reuters/Anatoly Maltsev)

One sentence in a news report the other day on Russia’s assertive new campaign to subdue Islamic extremists in Syria simply will not leave my mind. It was written by Michael Gordon, the State Department correspondent at the government-supervised New York Times. American officials, Gordon reported, are “confident” that Moscow will fail as it tries to return some semblance of order to what is now the world’s most tragic nation. This failure would be a good thing, we are to understand.

Will you think this through with me, please? We want a big-picture look, from the altitude of, say, a Russian jet now flying sorties against one or another terrorist formation operating against the Assad government in Damascus. And we strip out all the names so our minds are free of the limitless propaganda Washington buries us in by way of clerks and gofers such as Gordon.

What are we looking at? What is the thought buried in that sentence?

Very simply, we have one secular nation helping to defend what remains of another, by invitation, against a radical Islamist insurgency that, were it to succeed, would condemn those Syrians who cannot escape to a tyranny of disorder rooted in sectarian religious animosities. And we have the great power heretofore dominant in the region hoping that the insurgency prevails. Its policy across the region, indeed, appears to rest on leveraging these very animosities.

Now we can add the names back in.

In the past week Russia has further advanced its support of Bashar al-Assad with intensified bombing runs and cruise missiles launched from warships in the Caspian Sea. Not yet but possibly, Russian troops will deploy to back the Syrian army and its assorted allies on the ground. This has enabled government troops to begin an apparently spirited new offensive against the messy stew of Islamist militias arrayed against Damascus.

It was a big week for Washington, too. First it pulled the plug on its $500 million program to train a “moderate opposition” in Syria—admittedly a tough one given that Islamists with guns in their hands tend to be immoderate. Instantly it then begins to send weapons to the militias it failed to train, the CIA having “lightly vetted” them—as it did for a time in 2013, until that proved a self-defeating mistake.

The fiction that moderates lurk somewhere continues. Out of the blue, they are now called “the Syrian Arab Coalition,” a moniker that reeks of the corridors in Langley, Virginia, if you ask me.

In Turkey, meantime, the Pentagon’s new alliance with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan government starts to play out just as the Turkish prime minister intended. All the persuasive signs are that the government was responsible for bombs that killed more than 120 people in Ankara last weekend as they protested Erdoğan’s renewed violence against Turkey’s Kurdish minority. The Middle East’s crisis has just spread into another country.


Since Russia reinvigorated its decades-old support for Damascus last month, the vogue among the Washington story-spinners has been to question Putin’s motives. What does Putin—not “Russia” or even “Moscow,” but Putin—want? This was never an interesting question, since the answer seemed clear, but now we have one that truly does warrant consideration.

What does the U.S. want? Why, after four years of effort on the part of the world’s most powerful military and most extensive intelligence apparatus, is Syria a catastrophe beyond anything one could imagine when anti-Assad protests began in the spring of 2011?

After four years of war—never truly civil and now on the way to proxy—Assad’s Syria is a mangled mess, almost certainly beyond retrieval in its current form. Everyone appears to agree on this point, including Putin and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian leader’s foreign minister. There is no putting this humpty-dumpty back on any wall: The Russians readily acknowledge this, acres of groundless journalism to the contrary notwithstanding.

In the meantime, certain realities are essential to recognize. The Assad government is a sovereign entity. Damascus has the beleaguered bones of a national administration, all the things one does not readily think of as wars unfold: a transport ministry, an education ministry, embassies around the world, a seat at the U.N. In these things are the makings of postwar Syria—which, by definition, means Syria after the threat of Islamic terror is eliminated.

Anyone who doubts this is Russia’s reasoning should consider the Putin-Lavrov proposal for a negotiated transition into a post-Assad national structure. They argue for a federation of autonomous regions representing Sunni, Kurdish and Alawite-Christian populations. Putin made this plain when he met President Obama at the U.N. last month, my sources in Moscow tell me. Lavrov has made it plain during his numerous exchanges with Secretary of State Kerry.

Why would Russia’s president and senior diplomat put this on the table if they were not serious? Their proposed design for post-Assad Syria, incidentally, is a close variant of what Russia and the Europeans favor in Ukraine. In both cases it has the virtue of addressing facts on the ground. These are nations whose internal distinctions and diversity must be accommodated—not denied, not erased, but also not exacerbated—if they are to become truly modern. Russians understand the complexities of becoming truly modern: This has been the Russian project since the 18th century.

In the past week Washington has effectively elected not to support Russia’s new effort to address the Syria crisis decisively. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s latest phrase of the moment is “fatally flawed.” If he said it once he said it a dozen times: The Russian strategy is fatally flawed. We heard you the third time, Ash.

As to Obama, he rejects any notion that Washington has effectively ceded leadership on the Syria question—with potentially wider implications—to Moscow. In his much-noted interview with 60 Minutes last weekend, he found Putin foolhardy for risking the lives of Russian soldiers and “spending money he doesn’t have.”

Say what?

Whose strategy in Syria is fatally flawed, Mr. Carter? I assume there is no need to do more than pose the question. (Memo to SecDef: Get a new scriptwriter, someone who allots you more than one assigned phrase a week.)

As to Obama’s remarks, one wishes he were joking. We are $5 trillion into the mess that began with the invasion of Iraq a dozen years ago, and we are counting the fatalities one side or the other of a million. There are roughly 4 million Syrian refugees by the latest count. And Putin’s at fault for risking lives and blowing money? Who puts a smart guy like you up to this, Mr. President?

A lot of interesting people, hailing from unexpected quarters, now come out against the Obama administration’s fateful choice in Syria. One is Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired colonel who served as Colin Powell’s chief of staff when the latter was secretary of state. Earlier this month Wilkerson delivered a speech entitled “The Travails of Empire,” in which he listed all the signs that the U.S. is an imperial power in rapid decline: an insistence on the primacy of military power, overreliance on mercenaries, disproportionate spending on perceived threats, ethical and moral bankruptcy.

It is a moment, surely, when someone such as Wilkerson, who now lectures on government at William and Mary, starts to sound like the late and great Chalmers Johnson. Watch the video of Wilkerson’s presentation here.

Tuesday’s Times carried a remarkable piece called “A Road to Damascus, via Moscow” on the opinion page—remarkable, not least, for appearing in the Times. “Moscow’s intervention in Syria may offer the first glimmer of hope for ending the quagmire,” argue Gordon Adams and Stephen Walt, two noted professors of international affairs. “American officials must end their table-thumping about Russian intrusion, recognize that we are passed the Cold War, and get down to the business of statecraft.”

Clear-eyed, rational, devoid of ideology. Read the piece here. I would remind the two professors of Boutros-Ghali’s mot in the memoir he wrote after Washington bullied him out of the secretary-general’s office at the U.N.: Diplomacy is for weak nations, he wrote. The strong have no need of it.

Here is another way to put our question: Why will the views of insiders such as Wilkerson and smart heads such as Adams and Walt go unheeded? As they will, that is. I see two answers.

One, the world has just been advised that any kind of post-Manichean, straight-ahead rapprochement with Russia, as Kerry and a few others at State plainly advocate, is out of the question. We are beyond Bush II’s biblical references to Gog and Magog and the end-times battle with evil, but only by way of vocabulary.

I will resort to the New Testament myself on this point: He is not defiled who is offended by others. It is our offenses of others that defile us. That is Matthew 15:11. Translation: We can demonize Putin, Russia, Iran, Assad or anyone else we like. We lose in the end, because we destroy our capacity to see and think clearly. What we are doing in Syria today is Exhibit A.

Russia and its leader as Beelzebub is an old story. Obama, after his fashion, has simply bought into it. This is now irreducibly so, and the implications refract all over the place: Ukraine and the prospects for a negotiated settlement, Washington’s long-running effort to disrupt Europe’s extensive and complex interdependence with Russia. The unfolding events in the Middle East weigh heavily against any constructive turn in American policy on such questions.


The second explanation as to why Washington holds to a patently destructive course in the Middle East is more sinister than our practice of modeling foreign policy on the plot of a John Wayne movie. The argument here is that turning the Middle East into a violent anarchy of ethnic and religious rivalries renders the nations wherein these occur weak and incapable of serious political action—in effect, no longer nations. The chaos before us is exactly Washington’s intended outcome.

I do not know where I stand on this theory. It is not new but is now emerging into the light, and there is considerable documentation in support of it. Thomas Harrington, a cultural studies professor (Trinity College) and a frequent political commentator, cites policy papers going back to the 1980s. These include this document from 1996, which argues (among much else) the strategic use of deposing Saddam Hussein and destabilizing Syria; Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, intellectual poseurs during the Bush II administration, are among the co-authors.

“The U.S. strategic goal in Syria is not, as your faithful mainstream media servants … might have you believe, to save the Syrian people from the ravages of the longstanding Assad dictatorship,” Harrington wrote in a comment CounterPunch published Monday, “but rather to heighten the level of internecine conflict in that country to the point where it will not be able to serve as a bulwark against Israeli regional hegemony for at least a generation.”

It is a teleological argument to say the strategy worked and is therefore authentic. But Syria is as we have it, and it is impossible to say how long it will be before Damascus is able enough to advance such ordinary things as a foreign policy, or a position on the Palestine question. We do have reports now, it must be noted, that Israel is rushing to fill the Golan Heights with settlers, West Bank-style, to take advantage of Syria’s near-total incapacitation.

This line of thinking causes me to reflect on two other questions arising from the Syria conflict.

One concerns the migration crisis combined with incessant insistence that there is, somewhere and the CIA will find it yet, a moderate opposition in Syria. It is time to reconcile these two phenomena.

Were there refugees in any number before the rise of the Islamist anti-Assad formations? Where are the refugees going now that they number in the millions?

Answers: No. As Gary Leupp, a historian at Tufts, argues in a superb piece of commentary CounterPunch also published recently, “The bulk of peaceful protesters in the Syrian Arab Spring want nothing to do with the U.S.-supported armed opposition but are instead receptive to calls from Damascus, Moscow and Tehran for dialogue towards a power-sharing arrangement…. What pro-democracy student activists and their allies fear most is the radical Islamists who have burgeoned in large part due to foreign intervention since 2011.”

Thank you, professor. Now we know why the flow of refugees runs toward secular, democratic Europe and not areas of the nation Assad has lost to rebel militias. The former represents the refugees’ shared aspirations, while the latter fight not as Syrians but as religious fanatics and/or CIA clients. As a friend wrote the other day, “There are likely moderate Syrian forces, but you will I think find them mostly in the coffee shops of Istanbul.”

This brings us to Turkey, a newly significant factor in the Syrian crisis. I cannot help viewing the eruption of sectarian and communal violence since the Erdoğan government signed a cooperation agreement with the U.S. last July in the light of the above-suggested American strategy: Make a mess and keep it messy.

Erdoğan is heir to a singular tradition in Middle Eastern politics. Ataturk, faced with the same religious, ethnic and historic fractiousness as Syria and much of the region today, countered it with a modern notion of citizenship and belonging. It held for three-quarters of a century and its mark remains, obviously. Erdoğan comes along and sees political advantage exactly where Washington sees strategic advantage: in social, religious and cultural division.

Another dimension to the Middle East’s many-sided tragedy. This is Erdoğan’s Turkey, and he has our blessing. I would say Erdoğan is a strange bedfellow except that he does not seem to be.

I am with Lawrence Wilkerson on the nature of our moment: The veil is pulled back, and we witness decline in progress, real time. What is supposed to be “fatally flawed” is the only “glimmer of hope,” and what is supposed to be considered and humane is reckless and cynical.

We all live through history, always. This is by definition. But there are not many passages as fraught as this one. Our leadership thrashes about in desperation. It is dangerous—this by definition, too.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is patricklawrence.us.

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