From bad to worse to delusional: The real story about Syria that the New York Times won't tell you

The Times’ coverage of anything that challenges the mythology of American primacy just gets worse

Published December 23, 2015 12:02AM (EST)

  (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Richard Drew)
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Richard Drew)

Forgetting, not paying attention and feeling as opposed to thinking are, of course, acts of patriotism in our great nation. Let us, then, do the un-American thing together as we consider the just-agreed plan to end the violence in Syria and send its people into a post-crisis future.

The U.N. Security Council, as last weekend’s headlines announced, passed a resolution Friday providing for a settlement in Syria and—important to note—the sequence in which steps are to be taken. No one assumes these things can get done easily, and some of those involved doubt they ever will be. But there is a goal all agree on now, and this counts no matter the difficulties ahead.

In brief, the U.N. resolution calls for a cease-fire binding all parties to the conflict with the exceptions so far of the Islamic State and al Nusra, the Syrian offshoot of al-Qaida. By implication, these are now identified as the common enemies of all those to be bound by the peace pact. Following the cease-fire, there is to be what we used to call an all-parties conference—talks between the Assad government in Damascus and all its various adversaries—armed, unarmed, exiled, jailed. Jordan is now tasked with making a list of those groups deemed to be terrorists; once there is agreement on the list, they, too, will join the excluded.

Then come negotiations on a constitutional rewrite that addresses the sources of the current conflict. In my read it is to include new political provisions, possibly to decentralize power, and others to accommodate ethnic and religious divisions among Syria’s 23 million people. There will also be guarantees that Syria remains (as it is now) a secular state.

Last are national elections. Elections do not always certify democratic process as Americans pretend them to, but Syria’s are to be internationally supervised, and the scrutiny is certain to be extremely close.

Do not miss this, finally: The U.N. resolution makes no mention of President Assad. There is no stipulation that he is to step down, or aside, or do anything else as a precondition of a settlement. Syrians are left to determine for themselves what place, if any, Assad has in their future political formations.

Recognize any of this? Readers of this column should. These provisions vary little from a settlement plan Sergei Lavrov put on the table in Vienna last October, when a new round of talks among more than a dozen of the Russian foreign minister’s counterparts began.

On the other hand, readers of our corporate media, notably the New York Times, will be terribly confused at this point. They have been reading for some time that the U.N. resolution last Friday in New York was the consequence of Secretary of State Kerry’s arduous diplomacy. Facts being facts, the record the record, and history being history, this takes a lot of forgetting.

I have watched my favorite daily carefully in the weeks since the Vienna process, as the talks on Syria are termed, have proceeded. At the pace of crabgrass across a lawn, its correspondents have cautiously but stealthily corrupted the narrative. Washington’s reckless, anti-democratic insistence that Assad must be pushed from power in a coup before Syrians can have any say in their future leadership disappeared maybe two or three weeks ago. Now we get spongy writing such as this, from last Wednesday’s paper:

“The United States,” Mr. Kerry said, “was not seeking Mr. Assad’s ouster per se, but rather considers it unlikely that he can preside over a successful settlement.”

I love the “per se,” since ousting Assad per se has been explicit American policy for years. If you can explain in the comment box what the rest of the sentence means, please do. You are a better reader than I.

Ten days ago, the inimitable Michael Gordon, the Times’ State Department correspondent, broke the ice decisively, when he referred to “Mr. Kerry’s plan,” and then recited each of the provisions described above. That is to say, he described Lavrov’s plan.

With the U.N. resolution passed as of last Friday, David Sanger and Somini Sengupta gave us this over the weekend:

“Friday’s plan is the outcome of what Secretary of State John Kerry tells his administration colleagues was part of a three-month-long ‘force feeding’ of a diplomatic process.”

The Times’ coverage of anything that challenges the mythology of American primacy goes from bad to worse to delusional.

We have witnessed a force-feeding over the past three months all right, but forget about whatever Kerry has been telling colleagues—and you by way of correspondents who behave like clerks attending to the State Department’s bulletin board. Turning things upside down as one often must, Russia—with France’s assistance post-Paris—has patiently forced the U.S. to abandon its obsession with toppling Assad, accept settlement terms based on the principle of self-determination and put the threat of the Islamic State before great-power advantage, as it should have more than a year ago.

Referencing the shameful tragedies the U.S. has made of Iraq and Libya, Lavrov said this after the Security Council concluded its business last week: “We should try to avoid the mistakes we have made. Only the Syrian people are going to decide their own future. That also covers the future of the Syrian president.”

I want to know why the man standing next to Lavrov, my secretary of state, is incapable of saying such things. All I see in this is what I conclude may be a late-exceptionalist phenomenon: When Americans cannot lead, they pretend to by attempting to steal the statecraft of others. Then we read about the heroics of our diplomats and the wisdom of our policy cliques.

In fairness, Kerry appears to have come around last week, in better-late-than-never fashion. I was in Moscow when Kerry arrived for talks with Lavrov and President Putin. The visit was plainly intended to seal the terms to be tabled at the Security Council three days later.

“The United States and our partners are not seeking so-called ‘regime change,’ as it is known in Syria,” Kerry grandly declared. “What we have said is that we don’t believe that Assad himself has the ability to lead the future Syria.”

Well, “regime change, as we call American-backed coups at the State Department” is more like it, Mr. Secretary, and what we Americans have said comes to a very great deal more than your account of policy here.

Setting the sloppy gloss aside, splendid that Kerry was able to say this much at last, if pathetic that he had to. We promise that we are not fomenting a coup in another sovereign nation: Good but disgraceful, if you see what I mean.

The Russians received Kerry warmly. The television coverage, showing Kerry mingling with ordinary Russians and promising peace on earth and good will all around, was remarkable. As Mike Whitney put it in CounterPunch, “After nearly three years of nonstop belligerence and confrontation, the last thing Sergei Lavrov and Vladimir Putin expected was an ingratiating Kerry oozing brotherly love and carrying on like an old buddy from college.”

Nice observation, but possibly not altogether accurate. It is highly doubtful that Putin would have received Kerry were there not something substantive to get done. Remember, these three men gathered in Sochi last May, when, over seven hours, Kerry signaled that Washington would accept the terms of a ceasefire in Ukraine in the accords Russia and the Europeans subsequently negotiated and known since as Minsk II.

In my read, Moscow last Tuesday was the place and day Kerry capitulated to the Russians on the peace plan written into a U.N. resolution and passed unanimously later in the week. As in Sochi, Kerry seems to prefer smoking the peace pipe with Russians far from the madding crowd of Putinophobic hecklers back home.

In an interesting commentary published last Friday, two Financial Times correspondents suggested that Kerry was pushing the limits of American tolerance by making common cause with Putin on the Syria question. This is exactly right, in my view.

And it is one reason, surely, that Lavrov said what he did as he stood with Kerry before the bouquets of microphones in New York last Friday. “I am not too optimistic about what has been achieved today,” the ever-steady Russian diplomat flatly declared.

Nor am I, albeit with regret. It is fine for Kerry to outdistance his people at Foggy Bottom, warmongers such as Vice President Biden and many in the White House. But the reality is that Washington continues to speak with forked tongue on the Syria question, as with many others.

The coalition that the U.S. now purports to lead against the Islamic State is another cause for pessimism. So is the assembly of anti-Assad groups active in Syria that are to nominate representatives to attend settlement talks scheduled to start next month. These are motley gaggles—swamps of conflicting interests, as Lavrov must also understand.

In my next column we will wade into the murk together.

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

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John Kerry New York Times Putin Syria