(AP/Mark Lennihan/Photo montage by Salon)

"Cruel bastards hang together: All you need to know": The world according to the New York Times

American media covers the world through American eyes. Let's look at Syria the way the rest of the world does


Patrick L. Smith
January 28, 2016 5:00AM (UTC)

The long-anticipated all-parties conference on Syria was scheduled to open in Geneva Monday, but of course it did not. Now it is set to start Friday, except that it may not. Staffan de Mistura, the perspicacious U.N. diplomat trying to make this very large event happen, is now holding proximity talks with those who may or may not attend, meaning he shuttles daily between one group and another and another because some are not yet prepared to sit in the same room with counterparts.

Meaning, in turn, that a peace-and-politics conference might begin later this week or it might begin next summer. Whatever the interim, be assured you will find it difficult to follow what progress there may be toward a resolution of the Syria crisis. This, of course, is by design. There are “narratives” and there is reality, and you, American reader, are by and large offered access only to the former.

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I just noticed, in this connection, how much of what I have to say in this column derives from non-American sources. One example will make the point plain.

On the American side of the Atlantic we are still reading that Russia’s intent in Syria rests on its commitment to the Assad government in Damascus. This is the bedrock position, as we get it: Assad is Vladimir Putin’s man and must stay. “Russia and Iran, allies of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, are not eager to see a united opposition bloc,” the government-supervised New York Times advised in a long “explainer” published last Sunday.

There are two dishonest parts to that sentence, but let us stay with “allies of Syria’s president” for the time being.

Two days before the Times report, I read this: Sometime in December, Putin dispatched Colonel-General Igor Sergun, director of Russia’s military intelligence, to Damascus. Sergun, an old-line Syria hand from Soviet days, had a suggestion for the ophthalmologist who haplessly stumbled into the Syrian presidency: “The Kremlin…believed it was time for him to step aside.”

This news was conveyed to the Financial Times, that English rag staffed with rapid Putinophiles, by “two senior Western intelligence officials.” It is an interesting report, and you can read it here. You cannot and will not ever read it in an American media outlet.

The FT merely added detail to what the rest of the world already knew. Putin and his policy people have no particular regard for Assad. When I was in Moscow last month I heard repeatedly that the Kremlin finds him more or less as off-putting as the White House and the State Department. Russia fears another Libya were Assad to be forced out; its position, stated boringly often, is that it is for Syrians to decide their political future—and therefore Assad’s. The Assad question has no place in negotiations convened by greater powers, unless you think self-determination is passé.

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It is not a complicated distinction. I will not insult the Times by suggesting its foreign staff is too stupid to grasp it. The distinction is not made because it runs counter to house ideology—the narrative as we must have it. Assad is a cruel bastard and Putin another one. Cruel bastards hang together: all you need to know.

*

When the thought of an all-parties convention emerged late last year, it looked from the first like a spit-and-baling-wire proposition. Two questions weighed heavily, and it is these de Mistura, who issued his invitations late Tuesday, has yet to resolve.

One, who is qualified to attend such a conference? By what criteria is this determined?

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Two, who is a “terrorist” and who sits among the “legitimate” “opposition”—two separate ideas—in Syria? This is the crux of it, plainly, and it proves a nearly intractable matter.

Fifteen years after the September 11 attacks, the term “terrorist” is nothing more than an instrument anyone can wield for whatever reason. Hamas, elected to govern in Gaza, can be reduced to a “terrorist” organization. The Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt is “terrorist.” The Russian-speaking rebels in eastern Ukraine—my favorite example—are nothing more than terrorists.

Emptied of meaning, in the Syrian context the term is nearly 100 percent a tool in the service of strategic, political and ideological agendas. Let us look at these and see if we can figure out what is what, who is worth taking seriously and who is up to no good.

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The U.S. position. The Obama administration set out in 2012 to ride a wave of civil unrest that had erupted in Syria the previous year, the object of policy being another “regime change,” as C.I.A.-backed coups are now politely known. If you want to talk about quagmires, what has emerged from this objective looks awfully like one.

The Obama administration continues to insist, against voluminous evidence—and the advice of its generals at the Pentagon—that there are “moderates” among the militias fighting the Assad regime when they are not fighting among themselves. Just who these moderates are has never been properly explained. But, thinking historically, whether or not those backed in these kinds of operations are moderate has never much mattered at the agency and among the policy cliques.

In my read, the music stopped for the Obama administration with the swift, aggressive rise of the Islamic State in mid-2014. At that moment the U.S. should have been smart enough to drop the coup plot in the face of a superseding danger; instead, it continued on as if the orchestra were still playing “God Bless America.”

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Last October, you will recall, the Pentagon shut down a $500 million program to train and equip “moderates,” having fielded all of five after a year’s effort. The rest of the training and most of the weaponry purchased ended up fortifying radical Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra.

Two days later U.S. cargo planes airdropped 50 tons of munitions to the Syrian Democratic Forces, the formation of which had been announced a few hours earlier. At the time, Pentagon officials acknowledged there was no way of knowing in whose hands these weapons would finally be fired, which was decently honest of them. The SDF is a grab bag of militias; the best to be said about it is that it includes the YPG, the Peoples’ Protection Units comprised of Syrian Kurds, which have proven an effective ground force in the fight against the Islamic State.

Note the timing of these two events. I will return to it.

Ever so gradually so as to avoid embarrassment, the State Department has stepped back from its reckless insistence that Assad’s ouster is a precondition of any settlement. At this point, the U.S. position going into the Geneva conference, assuming it takes place, is a blur—as intended.

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Who does the Obama administration want to see show up in Geneva? We have no list, which is not very surprising at this moment. Washington has been notably obliging to its principal allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and these nations back armed extremists of the kind commonly known as “terrorists.”

The Saudi position. As is widely understood, the Saudis view the Syrian conflict as one between Sunni Islam in its Wahhabist form and Shia Islam. Reflecting this, Riyadh is single-minded in its desire to unseat Assad. Until it was destroyed, Assad presided over a secular state. But he is Alawite, a branch of Shiite Islam, and Iran supports him.

In consequence, the Saudis’ role in the coalition Washington formed against the Islamic State was a duplicitous contradiction from the start: Their bombing raids against ISIS positions never amounted to more than gestures—and ended as soon as hostilities erupted in Yemen—while Riyadh’s ideological and material support for the Islamic State and other Sunni extremists has been and remains just short of overt.

Positioning for the Geneva conference, the Saudis have formed what they grandly call a High Negotiations Committee comprised of those groups they think should represent the Syrian opposition in Geneva. This committee met in Riyadh Tuesday to confirm the willingness of members to attend the talks and, presumably, start strategizing.

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You can guess what sort of people are on the High Negotiations Committee. But beyond its composition, two other problems.

One, Riyadh insists that no one who supports the Assad government can attend. This thought speaks for itself. (Reminder: Saudis do not participate in Syria’s political process.)

Two, the Saudis assert that its High Negotiations Committee is to be the one, the only, the sum total of opposition representation.

The thought that the Saudis are fighting for a free and democratic Syria has always been a touch too much to take. But this is beyond a touch. Where do the Saudis get off claiming the authority to declare illegitimate all who may back Assad for whatever reason and then to define the universe of Syria’s opposition? (It is another question why Washington is silent as its client and ally acts in this fashion.)

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The Turkish position. What you need to know about the doings of the Erdoğan government in Syria is captured neatly enough in events last week.

Turkish media reported Tuesday that “a large number of Turkish forces” crossed the border and entered the Syrian town of Jarablus. This was the first such commitment of Turkish troops on Syrian soil and reflects 1) Erdoğan’s effort to position himself prior to the Geneva talks and 2) the recent battlefield successes of Syrian Kurds in northern regions of the country.

“Eyewitnesses to the incursion,” according to an account in the Jerusalem Post, “reported that the Turkish forces have not encountered any resistance from ISIS fighters in the area. These reports once again raise the question of possible collaboration between Turkey and ISIS aimed at halting the advance of the Kurdish militias in north Syria.”

This is Erdoğan. This is Turkey’s contribution to resolving the Syria crisis as Washington’s other major ally. The country’s support for the Islamic State has long been understood and grows ever balder, as explored at length in previous columns; reports that ISIS units shrug at the sight of arriving Turkish troops—as recounted in another report on this incident—should dispel all doubts even among the narrative’s true believers.

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Turkey stands with Saudi Arabia on the makeup of the Geneva conference, and Riyadh, in turn, with Ankara: Erdoğan enjoys Saudi support as he insists that any effort to include a Kurdish delegation is a deal-breaker. Saudi support and Washington’s silence, that is. Never mind the effectiveness of the Kurdish militias against the Islamic State, for this is not the first time Americans have betrayed the Kurds: There is a history of treachery extending back to the 1920s.

The Russian position. Moscow stated its case in an eight-point plan released last November. It calls for an 18-month process with three principal steps: a ceasefire and negotiations that would include “a united delegation of opposition groups,” constitutional reform and presidential elections. The last would determine Assad’s future. “The president of Syria,” the document adds, “will not chair the constitutional commission.”

So much for the second half of the sentence noted at the start of this column, to the effect that Russia and Iran “are not eager to see a united opposition bloc.” Don’t these people remember even a couple of months back? Then again, why read the documents when the narrative always takes precedence over reality?

Lately the Russians have insisted on none other than a Kurdish presence in Geneva. Forget the thought that Washington, if it had any integrity in its Syria policies, would have beaten Moscow to the punch long ago. The Russian position now ranks among the stumbling blocks on the road to Geneva, we are to understand.

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“Russia and Iran,” that explainer in the Times last Sunday noted, “want to add groups that they say represent a broader section of society, but that the Saudi-backed coalition sees as closer to Mr. Assad’s government.”

Will someone wake me when this is over? What is wrong with an all-parties conference that includes all parties other than the Islamic State and al-Nusra, the two groups de Mistura has so far excluded? If you are a supporter of the Assad government, does it follow that you cannot count as one “broader section of society”? These two are mutually exclusive?

*

It is interesting to watch as the official narrative evolves, as it always must when a collision with reality nears.

We used to read that Russia’s intervention in Syria was “an aggression,” the invitation of Damascus never getting a mention. We used to read that Syria was fated to become another Russian quagmire. That the bombing campaign it began on September 30 was ineffective, that Russian jets were too old to go the distance, that they were bombing civilians and targeting hospitals. That Russia was not serious about the Islamic State. Of the peace plan advanced by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov we read next to nothing—the narrative advanced in a negative field.

Now we read things like this, in Tuesday’s Times:

“The talks would come after months of effort, lead by the United States and Russia, to end a conflict that has killed more than 250,000 people….”

What moochers our foreign policy cliques have become, having lost all imagination and agility, and what indulgent chroniclers they enjoy in the media they so subtly supervise. Never mind: The better historians will drain this swamp, and all such creatures will not survive the process.

Things have changed, you see. We can date the process to September 30, when Russian planes began flying sorties over Syrian territory in support of the uniformed army. Now you know why the Pentagon dropped its $500 million training-and-equipping folly 10 days later and started to get serious.

It is no longer possible now to pretend that the Russian air campaign is anything other than highly effective. The narrative of Russian cruelty and indifference to Syrian civilians, children, hospital dwellers and all other helpless people caved when Russia began airlifts of humanitarian aid to two towns Syrian troops took from the Islamic State a couple of weeks ago. (The aid drops were reported in German media; a day later the Times gave them a grudging line at the end of a story.)

A blog called Sic Semper Tyrannis, published by a retired Army officer and former Middle East intelligence officer named Patrick Lang, tells the story. You find a healthy addiction to reality on it. The recent entry by Patrick Bahzad—a lot of Patricks at work here—explains in granular detail that Assad’s campaign against rebel militias is very near victory, first in Latakia province, which fronts on the Mediterranean and borders Turkey.

“There can be various phases in a ground operation stretching over a period of several months,” Bahzad writes. “Once the strategic breaking point is reached, though, the side having gained the upper hand usually pushes through, which results in the opponent`s posture crumbling under the pressure. This is what happened with Salma, a former mountain resort in North-East Latakia that was taken over by Free Syrian Army groups in mid-2012 and had been turned into the headquarters of various groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra elements.”

There are extraordinary ground-level specifics in Bahzad’s report, of the kind only the military-minded can manage. His conclusion:

 “The almost total defeat of rebel groups in North-East Latakia does not mean an end to the fighting, though; far from it. Battles are currently under way in several places in Syria… Be that as it may, the changing fortunes of war in Latakia province certainly increase the likelihood of the outcome that Sic Semper Tyrannis has been forecasting for over three months. Things are shaping up for a showdown between [the Syrian army and its allies] and the conglomerate of Salafi, Jihadi and ‘moderate’ rebels….”

Recommended reading, and you can find it here, under the January 25 posts. Thanks to Vladimir Signorelli, a reader and president of Bretton Woods Research, a firm that does what its name implies, for circulating the Sic Semper blog and drawing it to my attention.

Given how quickly the pre-Geneva scene is changing, it is hard to anticipate events even 24 hours out. We now awaitnews of just who De mistura deemed worth flying to Switzerland. One cannot now even forecast who accept one of his invitations.

Let us all read about it—but carefully.

Footnote: I am a regular guest on a Portsmouth, N.H., radio show called "Keeping Democracy Alive" with Burt Cohen. It is always a lively, informative hour, chiefly because Burt does his homework and asks good questions. Our most recent exchange took up this column’s topics; you can listen here .


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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