Judy Miller's ghost lingers: Putin, Syria and how the New York Times cheers on a new Cold War

The propagandists have turned on the fog machine. Let's try and sort out myth vs. reality with Russia, Middle East

Published November 4, 2015 11:59PM (EST)


We reach a moment in the four-year-old Syria crisis when it is vital for anyone who has not succumbed to our hobbling republic’s induced apathy to pay very close attention. And we reach a moment when this will be ever more difficult, as it has been in the Ukraine case for exactly two years this month. Events now come at us in a rush. So does the mis- and disinformation.

No coincidence, of course. And nothing at all new. When the intent and conduct of American foreign policy are objectionable (as so often) and rise close to the surface (as they do occasionally), the fog machine switches on (automatically and always). There is a seven-decade record of the phenomenon.

This is our moment in Syria. Two very consequential developments last week bring us to it.

On Thursday Secretary of State Kerry convened in Vienna with his counterparts from Russia, Iran, several European powers, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf monarchies, and Turkey. Altogether, roughly a dozen foreign ministers took seats at the mahogany table.

What emerged after seven hours of reportedly arduous negotiation the next day stands as the most promising proposal to date for a just settlement in Syria. Its main features have been widely published. A nationwide ceasefire is to be followed by a U.N.-supervised revision of the Syrian constitution, almost certainly focused on accommodating Syria’s ethnic and religious divisions, Yugoslavia-style, while keeping the nation intact and—far from least—secular. Closely monitored national elections are to be held under the new constitution.

It is a sequence. Note it, for it tells you what you need to know.

At the moment the Vienna talks have given us nothing more than a hand-drawn pencil sketch, and there is no great optimism as to the prospect for success. Nonetheless, we must take what is now on the table with unreserved seriousness for one simple reason. At this outline’s core is the principle of self-determination, and no outcome that does not feature this as beyond all compromise is worth pursuing. Hence the order of battle: The guns go silent, the polity is redefined and Syrians decide upon their future within it.

The negotiating ministers are to reconvene in two weeks, at which time the work of putting flesh on the figure is supposed to begin. Do not take your eyes off the ball in the meantime, readers. It will be revelatory to see who backs this plan and who is intent on throwing wrenches into it, covertly or otherwise.

The Russians are on board, plainly. Something like this has been Moscow’s stated goal since at least 2012. So are the Iranians. Both prefer stability to religiously charged chaos on or near their borders. Neither distinguishes one armed Islamic militia from another in a fight to keep Syria from disintegrating. And neither insists that Bashar al-Assad remain as president, contrary to what you can read in any Western newspaper you pick up.

What you read is that Iran and Russia have activated in Syria to preserve Assad in power. It is a half-truth that amounts to a whole lie—a perfect case of what I call the power of leaving out. Here is Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2012, a year after the political crisis deteriorated into war:

“Russia’s position is not for the retention of Assad and his regime in power at any cost, but that the people … would come to an agreement on how they would live in the future, how their safety and participation in ruling the state would be provided for, and then start changing the current state of affairs in accordance with these agreements, and not vice versa.”

As then, so now. Sergei Lavrov, Putin’s foreign minister, makes the point very regularly. So does Mohammad Javad Zarif, Lavrov’s Iranian counterpart.

One can hear the skeptics, Russophobes and Iranophobes howling: This is only what they say. Nothing to do with their intentions, their agendas, which are always hidden from view. Whatever they say, the truth is something different.

A little immanent critique is in order. Let us accept the argument that Moscow’s and Tehran’s ambitions in post-crisis Syria are not as stated. At this moment whether or not this is so matters not a bit. We will see about the Russians and the Iranians in due course. What matters is that Secretary Kerry now has a question to answer, and he must do so explicitly: He either supports the principle of self-determination or he stands against it.

Even before Vienna the State Department acknowledged—finally, long after it should have—that it is imperative to prevent Syria from unraveling completely. Kerry reiterated this recognition during his talks last week. But he also held to the American position that Assad’s departure must be a precondition of any settlement.

Apart from the infighting between the Iranians and Saudis, which reportedly lent the talks a pugilistic air, this appears to stand as the main impediment to realizing the proposed goals.

Do you see the logical flaws here?

First, any such precondition on Washington’s part does not fit well into the self-determination file, does it? Where in hell does the bearer of democracy’s torch get off telling Syrians—or even some Syrians—that the president they chose last year (in an obviously problematic election) must get the gate before they can proceed into the state of citizenship. It is not a sound point of departure if the goal is a secular democracy.

Second, it is out of sequence. Either you want to keep Damascus as a functioning national government during an orderly transition into a post-crisis phase or you want what we commonly call regime change, but since I detest euphemisms I will call a negotiated coup.

It is one or the other, Mr. Secretary, and it looks to me as if you are running out of places to hide on this question.


Vienna thus pushed to the fore questions larger, far larger than any of the particulars foreign ministers discussed last week. Just what is Washington’s intent in Syria? Does it seek an outcome now that differs from what it has driven at for the past four years? What the strategy and what the tactics?

We come now to the second big event last week. This, of course, was the White House’s announcement that a few dozen American Special Forces are to deploy in Syria within a month. That is about the same number Truman sent into Vietnam in 1950, as the Military Assistance Advisory Group. Some readers will recall good old MAAG. Obama might just as well revive the moniker, given the soldiers soon to deploy will perform exactly the same tasks for different but equally awful clients.

There are numerous ways to look at this move. Was this in response to Russia’s month-long campaign against Islamic insurgents? Yes, of course. Washington is playing a humiliating game of catch-up. Is it the next good-money-after-bad effort to invent “moderate rebels” waging war against Assad—or is it against the Islamic State, or is it most of the time each other, or is it all of these? Yes, again.

Here is a question I simply cannot answer. I will pose it, but readers are on their own (which may fertilize the comment thread).

The White House announcement came Friday, literally as Kerry convened with his counterparts in a Vienna hotel. The New York Times report seemed to suggest fleetingly that he was blindsided. Was he? There is a lot riding on the answer to this.

If it is yes, Kerry was either surprised or knew the White House announcement was coming but could do nothing about it, then we are watching—real time and widescreen—an internecine fight between State and the Pentagon as to the very nature of American policy. Very crudely, this pits diplomats against generals and spooks. There is no imagination at work here. A split of this sort has been reported previously, not least in the government-supervised New York Times.

Two implications here.

One, Kerry announced even before he boarded a plane that he would bring back a full dossier of things to discuss with the president. In the best outcome, Kerry will capitulate, push beyond the irrationality of the U.S. negotiating stance and ease Americans into a deal wherein Assad stays until Syrians are given the opportunity to express themselves. We will have to see.

Two, if Kerry is indeed locked into a fight with those favoring the continued militarization of American policy, he had better get a lot done fast in his next few sessions with the foreign ministers of other involved states. With the deployment of troops and the associated airdrops of materiél—50 tons so far—he is in a policy war and in a race.

OK, the other way to look at this apparently mismatched pair of moves—negotiate at ministerial level, arm and advise militias fighting those opposed to negotiation—is to take Kerry as the ultimate in cynical diplomats. His presence in Vienna, in this view, was nothing more than his duty, and his duty is to obscure Washington’s true intentions in Syria. The mismatch is apparent, not real.

If this is the case, I doubt Kerry is fooling anyone other than a very great many Americans. The reality is that Washington must at least look as if it is negotiating a settlement in Syria, and this has not been true since the last attempt at talks nearly two years ago. Those talks failed when the most powerful anti-Assad groups refused to attend. Common Dreams, incidentally, has just published a useful history of the many attempts to resolve the Syria crisis. It is here.

As noted, I am uncertain as to which of these interpretations of the present American position holds. I view the Obama administration’s often-schizophrenic foreign policies as evidence that we have a transitional president who recognizes that the imperium (which he would never call it, of course) is unsustainable. This argues for Kerry’s sincerity at this point. He was, once long ago, a decorated veteran opposed to the Vietnam War.

But it is pretty difficult to call troops sent onto a battlefield anything other than a commitment to military action. This is doubly so given the prima facie senselessness of the weapons drops and the pending Special Forces deployments. And as Kerry negotiates with Lavrov and others, the Pentagon refuses to tell the Russian military where these troops will be. The risk is so obvious as to be invited.

A month ago in this space I suggested that the just-declared Syrian Arab Coalition was a CIA concoction, and Tuesday’s Times led with a story quoting “a senior United States military official” admitting the group is “an American invention.” The head on this story, which is well reported and (for once) carries a Syria dateline, is “New U.S. Alliance to Counter ISIS Falters in Syria.” That alone should be enough to draw you in. The piece is here.

What is the motivation here? There are no “moderate rebels” as a matter of record. There are no certainties as to where U.S.-supplied weapons will end up. We tried pretending there were “moderates” and training them, and it was a bust. The Special Forces units will face guns captured from these supposed moderates. There is a weird hollowness to the official explanations of what we are doing.

Some ugly possibilities arise. Is the Pentagon trying to turn Syria into Russia’s second Afghanistan by fueling a never-ending conflict from which it cannot withdraw? Think about what this suggests as to Washington’s concern for the Syrian population: An entire nation is rendered as collateral damage.

As bad or worse, does Washington’s primary objective remain “regime change” after all this tragedy, and its true intent even now is not to defeat the Islamic State until Damascus collapses? It is obvious that the coup the U.S. set out to cultivate did not come off as planned. Do we now favor sheer chaos to get it done?

I do not have answers on these points. But neither can one push them off the table, given the observable facts and the absence of a coherent explanation of U.S. strategy—which administration officials have recently come to acknowledge amounts to improvisation.

An extremely close critic of the American imperium took up these topics the other day in a harrowing interview with Sputnik, the Russian news agency. In gist, Eric Draitser argues “it is increasingly likely” that Washington’s intent in Syria is to induce collapse and then partition the country. Read the whole of the interview here.

“The U.S. knows perfectly well that it cannot openly arm terrorists,” Draitser asserts, “so it must do so under the guise of a counter-terrorism operation such as this. “We’ve seen such a strategy play out in Libya, as well as Afghanistan, and there’s no reason to believe the U.S. wouldn’t do the same in Syria.”

Challenged to think of such a reason, I could not. It is the historical precedent, the policy pattern, that brings me up short. Give this a moment’s thought. Go back over the record, past Libya and Afghanistan for as many decades as you like: There is a clear preference for transporting strategies and tactics from one circumstance to another. Induced mayhem is a prominent feature of many, if not most, covert coup operations.

A moment of truth may lie in the offing. When Washington tips its hand as to Assad’s fate, we are likely to know whether it is capable of creating a center of gravity with Moscow, an essential element in the restarted negotiation process, or if it is simply not up to it—ideologically and intellectually.


If you are at all like me you have read an unusual gush of propaganda from our media of late. And if you are truly like me, you know what you are reading but do so anyway, for it is always important to know what one is supposed to think. Then you can begin looking for the truth.

The objects of the exercise are not new. They are the Damascus government and Russia—highly personalized, per usual, in Assad and Putin. The Hitler comparison appears to have run its course, which is too bad because the silliness of it exposed the purpose and the paranoia, but the intensity of the barrage has intensified.

We have barrel bombs, chemical weapons, and hundreds of thousands displaced—we are counting now that the Russian air campaign is underway. We have casualty counts that are never broken down between Syrian army units, Islamic combatants, and actual civilians. Bombed hospitals are a new favorite. Assad, it seems, drops bombs on hospitals purposely, favoring them over bombing his armed adversaries, whom he leaves alone. Yes, indeed, I read this the other day.

Further afield, we read in the Times that “Russian submarines and spy ships are aggressively operating near the vital undersea cables that carry almost all global Internet communications.” This may appear unrelated to the Syria question, but the cultivation of mistrust and fear as to sinister motives needs no context. This piece came out just prior to the Vienna talks. And it is a doozy, so you may want a read. It is here.

Note that it is a single-source story dressed up as a multi-source story. The whole of it is reported from “inside the Pentagon and the nation’s spy agencies.” There is “worry,” there is “concern,” and there is “a growing wariness among senior American and allied military and intelligence officials.” But only one thing actually happens in this piece. A Russian ship en route to Cuba is said to have sailed recently near “where one major cable lands near the American naval station at Guantánimo Bay.” This is the big event.

No, the Times is not going to tell you whether said ship did anything other than sail or whether it is possible to sail to Cuba without going near said cable. Why in the world would you want to know these things? Have you now or have you ever been resistant to American paranoia?

Now you know why this column terms the Times “government-supervised.” This was a government-supervised story, nothing less. Judith Miller’s ghost lurks in every paragraph. And in this it is a template for much else now coming at us as the Syria crisis gathers momentum and American policy stands to be exposed for a good, hard look.

I urge extreme wariness. In truth we do not know about barrel bombing, hospital bombings, or any of the rest other than what sources with very poor records—and I include the U.N., of course—tell us. We do know that Assad was framed in the August 2013 gas attack, a very big propaganda moment and a disgustingly cynical ploy by those the Pentagon now arms and trains.

And we know that whatever the case proves to be in this horrific conflict, it is of little to no interest among our policy cliques. In a well-spotted, well-timed piece Salon published the other day, Ben Norton quoted Deputy Secretary Antony Blinken, a very senior diplomat, gushing on his arrival in Bahrain, “It is very good to be in Bahrain—a close, valued, and longstanding partner of the United States.” If you are at all like me your jaw hit the edge of your desk on reading this one.

Enough. The point is made but for one thing.

Nobody is immune to the onslaught I describe. Nobody can swim in a sea of murk and expect to stay clean without vigilance, clear thinking and a lot of effort. Much of the very questionable material I have read lately and cited here is to be found in the corporate media, of course, but also in media that count themselves honest—media right-thinking people rely upon, media customarily called “alternative” (a term I do not like). Otherwise it comes from people whose allegiances and affiliations are not clear.

I respect these writers and editors. And I think they should know better. This is not a defense of anybody or anything other than untainted accuracy. Until we have access to the truth about Syria from authentically reliable sources whose agenda is to tell it, one remains agnostic. A sound history of this tragedy will eventually get written, and we will wait for it.

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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