The real story about Syria and Libya: Behind a new agreement with Moscow, and the insidious way the New York Times protects Hillary

A new accord with Moscow on Syria clears up little. And a new Times series on Clinton and Libya has a messy agenda

Published March 1, 2016 11:58PM (EST)

John Kerry, Hillary Clinton   (Reuters/Carlo Allegri/Brian Snyder/Photo montage by Salon)
John Kerry, Hillary Clinton (Reuters/Carlo Allegri/Brian Snyder/Photo montage by Salon)

Hardly does the Syria accord announced jointly in Washington and Moscow last week clarify the swamp of complications, divided loyalties and treachery that have defined the crisis for years. It does not. We do not know yet even if the “cessation of hostilities” will hold, to say nothing of whether it will open any door to political negotiation and a settlement. It is fragile; the predictable interests—notably Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Washington’s principle allies—are already trying to tip the deal over.

But the doubters overdo it, in my view. They judge the agreement as if they were making book on it: No previous attempt to halt the violence has succeeded, so the odds are this one will collapse, too.

Shallow thinking—the kind one gets from the pack animals that staff our newspapers. You have to look carefully at this agreement and the circumstances that led to its conclusion last week. A lot has changed since the previous attempt at a ceasefire, in 2014, failed in less than a day. At close range, I see grounds for optimism—O.K., tempered, attenuated optimism. And I mean this two ways.

One, there is the question of motivation.

This accord has just two signatures on it—Washington’s and Moscow’s. That is a strength, not a weakness, as some commentators have suggested, for they are the parties to this conflict who will determine the outcome. When a Russian warplane flew its first bombing sortie over Syrian soil last September 30, this conflict was confirmed as a theater of great-power rivalry. And the Americans and Russians now have good reasons—very different reasons, of course—to make this agreement hold and go somewhere. They did not a matter of weeks ago.

Two, Syria now begins to take its place in post-Cold War history. It is a prominent place, and we should be clear about this, difficult as it always is to see one’s moment in historical context.

Remember the summer of 2008, when the Bush administration thoughtlessly encouraged Mikheil Saakashvili, the irresponsible Georgian who is now Kiev’s appointee in Odessa even as he flees international warrants on criminal charges, to provoke a confrontation with the Russians? I was in East Asia, my mind on other things, but I recall friends writing to say, “Don’t miss this: American power has just reached its limit.”

It had not, plainly, but the thought looks more credible now. Taking Ukraine and Syria together—and there are plenty of reasons to do so—they define an historical moment. We watch as American power and prerogative are turned decisively back.

The history of American foreign policy in the last century and the first years of this one is littered with failures, of course. But these two suggest a turn in the story. In the most specific terms, it looks as if we witness the passing of the “regime change” phenomenon. At the very least, Moscow has put Washington on notice that there will be no more of it without serious, open-ended resistance. Ukraine and Syria, after all, are two very sizable failures in this line.

Point of clarification. The U.S. has been in the business of covert coup operations the whole of the postwar era, and one seriously doubts the C.I.A., which operates ever more independently of civilian control, has plans to change its habits. The Clintonians coined “regime change” in the 1990s, when the coup function went from covert to overt. We were all then invited to partake of their liberal righteousness as they made destroying other governments—elected or otherwise, it never matters—an apple-pie aspect of what America does.

Already we find that the policy and the term sanitizing it, once a point to boast upon, subtly become a political liability. I will return to the thought later on.


Here is the text of the agreement Washington and Moscow announced jointly last week, putting it in effect last Friday at midnight. It is not complicated as these things go. There is provision for the “cessation of hostilities,” which is not (somehow) the same as a formal ceasefire. The clearest explanation of the current state of play is in the first sentence:

The United States of America and the Russian Federation, as co-chairs of the International Syria Support Group … are fully determined to provide their strongest support to end the Syrian conflict and establish conditions for a successful Syrian-led political transition process, facilitated by the U.N.,…”

The sentence goes on to list various resolutions and communiqués pertinent to the present undertaking.

There are a couple of things worth noting.

One, the phrasing marks a large step in Washington’s reluctant and reluctantly acknowledged acceptance that working with Russia is not merely the best way to resolve the Syria crisis: It is the only way. Behind this, the Russians have a facility in Latakia monitoring the ceasefire, the Americans have one in Amman, and the two are in regular communication. This is something new.  

I truly do not want to think about how many dead or displaced Syrians would not be dead or displaced had the Obama administration reached this point a year or so ago, when the Russians began to moot a blueprint for a Syrian settlement that looks very like the one to be taken up once the halt in hostilities is consolidated. Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. official who diligently stage-directed the agreement, expects talks to begin as early as March 25.

Once again, in failure we find success.

Two, by now you have surely noted what is not in the cited sentence, and you will not find it anywhere else in the accord, either. There is no mention of removing President Assad in Damascus as a precondition of political talks. This is huge: It  makes official Washington’s surrender of its “regime change” ambitions in Syria, which were the very foundation of American policy from its (covert) entry into the Syrian conflict in 2012.

It has been good family fun to watch Secretary of State Kerry and his staff climb ever so gradually down from their reckless insistence on another Middle Eastern coup—a policy framework Hillary Clinton shaped during her time as secretary of state. It has been even more entertaining as the New York Times accommodated this unadmitted admission of stupidity and failure. We may read little or no more about it, but these past months are distinguished among the Times’ many say-it-without-saying-it interims.

Now it is on paper: Syria for Syrians, and they will determine Assad’s future as they determine their own.

Many responsibilities now fall to the Russians and Americans. Meet them and “Syria for Syrians” will not sound so angelic a thought. It will be essential to scrutinize and assign any failure in the weeks and months to come, because as many have already remarked, this is the best chance we have had to end the Syrian catastrophe since protest tipped into violence four years ago.

For the Russians, the tasks these:

* Moscow’s biggest responsibility is political. Directly or indirectly, amicably or coercively, it must keep the Assad government—which has accepted the accord but has not signed it—in line. This should not be difficult: As other commentators have observed, the cessation of hostilities is likely to serve Assad’s interest, not least because of dramatic gains on the ground the Syrian Arab Army made just prior to the agreement.

“The pause in fighting may have the unintended consequence of consolidating President Assad’s hold on power over Syria for at least the next few years,” David Sanger wrote in the Times last weekend. “It may also begin to freeze in place what already amounts to an informal partition of the country, even though the stated objective of the West is to keep the country whole.”

I do not know where “the next few years” comes from, given the intent of political talks now in the planning stage. And “an informal partition” seems to be another term for federalization, which may be no bad thing if the artificial creation known as Syria is to remain a unified nation.

The important point here is this: Russia has secured Damascus for the time being and now must make sure Assad does not act self-destructively. The ultimate goal is to avoid another Libya-like scene, wherein Assad is chased down a sewer pipe, gruesomely executed and the chaos that follows makes him look pretty good in retrospect (as Saddam Hussein came to look O.K. in the face of Bush II’s war and its consequences).

* More immediately, Russian warplanes will continue bombing Islamic State and al-Nusra targets—neither is covered in the accord—as well as other terrorist militias. They must be pinpoint careful not to give those opposed to the agreement and what political progress may follow any excuse for resuming hostilities. I do not see this as anything more than a logistical task well within the Russian Defense Ministry’s capabilities, but the stakes are rather high: The Saudis, in particular, are ready to pounce at the very slightest hint of an infraction on Russia’s part.

I see Russia staying with this. To an extent I have never found appealing, post-Soviet Russian leaders are eager to please the West—the sotted Yeltsin was craven in this regard—and in Putin’s case this comes over as a desire to achieve some kind of parity or partnership status with the Americans. I do not know why leaders in the non-West think this continues to matter as much as it once did. In Russia’s case there is nearly two centuries of history behind this cast of mind, not much of it very good.  

Be this as it may, Syria is Putin’s chance. He has trumped the Americans on the ground, but that is only half his loaf. If Russia plays a prominent role in a Syrian settlement that at all resembles its role in the Iran nuclear agreement, he will have made his point twice (and twice more than he needs to make it, in my view).

The Americans, unfortunately, have more to do:

* While they have abandoned the thought of ousting Assad in contravention of international law, this is so far only on paper. There are plenty of signs that the game of strategic ambiguity—if it is not sheer incompetence and rivalry within the policy cliques—remains on the table in Washington. The first task is to recognize that there is no more room to play it.

* Over the weekend U.S. officials sent Russia’s monitoring office in Latakia a list of 69 groups of armed rebels that accept the accord halting violence. This list has to be as clear as a Dick-and-Jane reader if it is to be effective. It has not yet been made public; we all stand to learn a lot if it ever is, since the composition of the “moderate opposition,” such as it may exist, has always been a purposeful blur.  

* Turkey and Saudi Arabia present a still-larger task. If Washington continues to insist that they are allies in the fight against the Islamic State, they must be brought in line but quick. The alternative is isolation, which I would favor.  

Within hours of the joint announcement of the accord in Washington and Moscow the Saudis were already howling that Damascus and the Russians were violating the accord. Given Riyadh’s record in such matters, the assumption must be: Nonsense until evidence (of which none so far) proves otherwise. The Saudis never had much of a foreign policy until the ideologically animated Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud assumed the throne a year ago. Their idea of external relations is very crude, especially in the region.  

As to the Turks, as of Monday they were reported shelling Syrian Kurd positions well inside Syrian territory. Refreshingly, U.S. warplanes countered with missions in support of the Kurdish militias. Washington should indeed stand against the crypto-fascist Recip Tayyip Erdoğan, but it is a spectacle nonetheless when the U.S. is effectively fighting opposite a NATO ally.  

* There is an oddly symmetrical contradiction between Washington’s and Russia’s interests in Syria. Given that extremists in Syria have received thousands of Russian Muslims and sent some home as trained terrorists, Russia’s principal concern is security, with strategic considerations attaching. Strategic gains remain prevalent in Washington’s thinking on Syria, and it faces no serious national security threat.

It is the Obama administration’s responsibility to sort this out. To put the point another way, it has run out of time and room to finesse its intentions in Syria: It is there either to advance strategic objectives against an ally of Russia, or it is there to help secure the Syrian quadrant in an altogether inflamed Middle East.

Believe it or not, I think there is a good chance Washington will stay with the peace process, too, now that its first, very preliminary step has been taken. Two reasons.

One, it has no alternative, either on the ground or at the negotiating table, given that the Russians have handily shown the Americans up as flatfooted and ineffective in both venues. As a few of the smarter officials in Washington now acknowledge, Moscow proved Obama dead wrong in his rote assertion that there is no military solution in Syria. There most certainly is, and the Russians have lately demonstrated that they will impose it if the new peace process does not bear fruit.

Two, we watch as history catches up with the United States, as earlier suggested. And so far as I can make out, this appears to be at last dawning on at least some in the policy cliques. It is useful to recall Churchill’s noted mot in this connection: “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing—after they’ve tried everything else.” Everyone has heard this by now, and for good reason: It is precisely how Washington has proceeded in Syria and Ukraine both.

When Putin went on national television last week and proclaimed, “The joint actions agreed with the American side are able to radically transform the crisis situation in Syria,” I think he was right. It could, providing. But do not miss the larger point, the history—that is, the transformative marker this agreement could prove in the story of American conduct abroad.  


This last point reminds me of the sprawling two-part series the Times ran Sunday (here) and Monday (here) on the American-led intervention in Libya in 2011, which began as an effort to protect civilians and ended with the sadistically administered assassination of Muammar Qaddafi. Make that Hillary-led intervention, for Clinton’s role in this adventure—she was secretary of state at the time—is the hook these thousands of words are hung upon.

I urge readers to wade in—to wade in warily, that is. You are being sold something.

It is curious that the pieces appear now, given events in Syria, but this is probably sheer coincidence. The Times had two correspondents on the project for months, and others in the bureaus contributed along the way.

Many interesting passages in the long tale are included. There is Clinton’s famous (and atrocious) gloat on receiving news that Qaddafi was dead: “We came, we saw, he died.” I love the implicit Roman reference our Democratic aspirant thought was right. There was her extravagant claim to all credit immediately after the Qaddafi regime was “changed”—to chaos and bloodshed, of course. Jake Sullivan, Clinton’s policy adviser, wrote of the secretary’s “leadership/ownership/stewardship of this country’s Libya policy from start to finish.”

Then there is the belly-crawl back as things “went south,” as Clinton’s people put it. When she appeared before a House committee to defend her record on Libya last autumn, Clinton had the nerve to assert, “At the end of the day, this was the president’s decision.”

Excellent material superbly reported, I have to say. Among my favorite passages was the first part’s account of just how Clinton’s State Department explained the slide from protecting civilians to a full-dress coup—betraying an explicit promise made to the Russians to secure their vote in the Security Council.

“Once you get into a fight where we basically say, ‘We have to stop a madman from killing tens of thousands of people in his own country,’ how do you stop?” said Jeremy Shapiro, the Libya man on Clinton’s policy staff. “Ultimately the logic becomes, Jesus, the Qaddafi regime is a real threat to civilians. It required nothing to escalate…. It would have required an amazing force of will not to.”

An amazing force of will? They simply could not help themselves—the clear implication being no one in their position would have been able to do differently? I do not think I have ever read a flimsier bit of self-justification anywhere. These are the righteous liberals in action—one part entitlement, one part muddle and one part dishonesty after the fact. Clarity of purpose, integrity and respect for international law would have kept things to the stated task, Mr. Shapiro.

Hillary does not come over admirably in these pieces. The preening and posing, the extravagant claims to success, the hypocrisy and the dodged responsibilities—it is all there. I am confirmed in my judgment that she is without question the most contemptible presidential aspirant in either party, including Donald Trump, and possibly the most dangerous.

The fires had not gone out in Libyan cities before Clinton was urging a similarly aggressive intervention into Syria. This was 2012. In recounting this shift in interest the Times correspondents observe, “The lessons of the Libya experience have not tempered her more aggressive approach to international crises.”

Now we come to the true subject of these well-crafted pieces. It is not at bottom Secretary of State Clinton’s recklessness in Libya. It is the redemption of Candidate Clinton, whom the Times endorses, as criticism of her record at State mounts. Yes, yes, a person of many faults. But we must understand: Things could not be helped. She tried. She was “boxed in.” It was not all her fault.

This is the intended take-home, at least as I read it. The “hard choices” theme, in short. If you cannot bury the record, bury readers in thick-as-a-brick apologias wherein all is morally gray: This is the strategy. Buy it if you like; I do not.

There is one layer deeper in the anthropology of these two pieces, so to say: Regime change evolves into nothing to boast of anymore. Too many of us are aware of the messes that always follow. It is unlikely Clinton, and maybe any other candidate or cabinet member, will again lunge to claim “leadership/ownership/stewardship” in these kind of cases—if, indeed, there are any.

I take this as a sign our thinking is changing, if too slowly. And since policy will not change until our fundamental thinking about ourselves and others does, we can call this a tiny bit of progress. Let us see how the thought plays out in Syria these next weeks and months.


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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