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Cole writes: "Obama wants al-Assad to stand down as a prerequisite for effective US action against Daesh in Syria (a few air sorties and even fewer air strikes are ineffectual). Putin thinks al-Assad is key to defeating Daesh and that everyone should ally with Damascus."

US president Barack Obama and Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin. (photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
US president Barack Obama and Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin. (photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Why Obama and Putin Are Both Wrong on Syria

By Juan Cole, Informed Comment

29 September 15


resident Obama seemed awfully defensive in his speech at the United Nations on Monday. The reason is not far to seek. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has surprised Washington by volunteering to get militarily involved in Syria and by arguing that only by enlisting the Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad can Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) be defeated.

Obama is defensive because a) his own plans for confronting Daesh have largely failed, and b) because Putin’s plans for doing so are concrete and involve trying to prop up dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Putin is arguing for a unified push against Daesh by a wide range of countries, and for allying in this effort with the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. He says only such a unified response has a hope of prevailing. He points to Libya as an example of the chaos that occurs in the wake of Washington’s insistence on going around overthrowing governments.

So ironically the Russian Federation and its ex-Communist president is taking a conservative position here, of trying to prop up the status quo, which the US views itself as a radical democratizer a ala Thomas Paine.

Obama, I think, tried to get the Libya comparison out of the way by apologizing for the way NATO abandoned that country after the successful intervention of 2011. He said,

In such efforts the United States will always do our part. We will do so, mindful of the lessons of the past. Not just the lessons of Iraq but also the example of Libya, where he joined an international coalition under a U.N. mandate to prevent a slaughter. Even as we helped the Libyan people bring an end to the reign of a tyrant, our coalition could have and should have done more to fill a vacuum left behind. We are grateful to the United Nations for its efforts to forge a unity government. We will help any legitimate Libyan government as it works to bring the country together. But we also have to recognize that we must work more effectively in the future as an international community to build capacity for states that are in distress before they collapse.

Obama is trying to say that the original sin was not intervention or the overthrow of a dictator but the absolute neglect of Libya in the aftermath.

By analogy, he is saying that a joint effort to remove Bashar al-Assad could work out fine if all the participating countries join together in rebuilding the Syrian army and state in the aftermath.

Obama is a smart man but this plan is completely unworkable. Daesh in Syria would likely take advantage of the fall of the Baath to Western forces, who, staying in the skies above Syria, could no more take them on efficiently then than they can do now.

Obama offered to work with Russia against Daesh, which has allied with the Baath regime of Al-Assad, but said, that “there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the prewar status quo.” This statement is true in both international law and in everyday practice. Al-Assad is too tainted by mass murder to continue as president. And, the third or so of his population who have seceded from his rule are heavily armed and don’t want him coming back.

Obama indicted al-Assad:

Let’s remember how this started. Assad reacted to peaceful protests by escalating repression and killing that in turn created the environment for the current strife. And so Assad and his allies can’t simply pacify the broad majority of a population who have been brutalized by chemical weapons and indiscriminate bombing.

Confirming what many of us have long suspected, that Obama is a fan of the Realists in political Science, he added, “Yes, realism dictates that compromise will be required to end the fighting and stomp out ISIL. But realism also requires a managed transition away from Assad into a new leader and an inclusive government that recognizes there must be an end to the chaos so that the Syrian people can begin to rebuild.”

Obama blamed al-Assad for the rise of Daesh, omitting mention of American responsibility via the destruction of Iraq.

How hopeless the situation is in Syria is clear from the speech of Vladimir Putin

Putin complained that the problems in Syria come from US and its allies back so-called moderate rebels, who the moment they can run off to join Daesh: “And now, the ranks of radicals are being joined by the members of the so-called moderate Syrian opposition supported by the Western countries. First, they are armed and trained and then they defect to the so-called Islamic State.”

Putin then went in for some conspiracy thinking, blaming the US and the West for creating Daesh (they did not) to overthrow secular regimes (which they don’t want to do). “Besides, the Islamic State itself did not just come from nowhere. It was also initially forged as a tool against undesirable secular regimes.”

Putin’s own fears about the possible spread of Daesh to Russian provinces such as Chechniya is palpable: “Having established a foothold in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has begun actively expanding to other regions. It is seeking dominance in the Islamic world. And not only there, and its plans go further than that. The situation is more than dangerous.”

Putin is alarmed in a way that Obama really never has been by Daesh. For the US security establishment, Daesh is bad but not near or all that big or all that urgent. The US approach to Daesh has seldom gone beyond aerial containment. Putin begs to differ.

The Russian president denounced the hypocrisy of denouncing terrorism but de facto supporting Salafi fighters in Syria.

Putin then got to his point:

“We think it is an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces, who are valiantly fighting terrorism face to face. We should finally acknowledge that no one but President Assad’s armed forces and Kurds (ph) militias are truly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria.”

But actually during the past two years long periods of time have passed in which the al-Assad regime seldom militarily engaged Daesh, leaving it to prey opportunistically on the other rebel groups. You couldn’t call that valiant.

So Obama wants al-Assad to stand down as a prerequisite for effective US action against Daesh in Syria (a few air sorties and even fewer air strikes are ineffectual). Putin thinks al-Assad is key to defeating Daesh and that everyone should ally with Damascus.

Putin is blind to the ways that al-Assad and his military brutality is prolonging the civil war. Backing his genocidal policies will just perpetuate that war. The Guardian says he showed more flexibility after his speech: “However, Putin showed more flexibility than he had in his general assembly speech, acknowledging that political reform in Damascus could be part of a solution, but indicated that Assad would be a willing participant in that change.”

Some sort of synthesis of the Putin and Obama plans is likely to emerge. Obama’s romance with drones and aerial bombardment blinds him to the poor progress the US has made against Daesh using those tools. His search for “moderate” forces to back seems also in Syria to be a pipe dream. If Putin ties himself too closely to the sinking ship of Bashar, he will go down with it.

As Obama said, though, Syria policy-making is the most complex problem the US has faced in over a decade. your social media marketing partner


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+11 # 2015-09-29 10:35
Assad is an evil dictator but by now we should have learned our lesson about ousting evil dictators -- after all, Assad is certainly less evil than Hussein or Kaddafi and those little adventures did not go all that well but caused civil war and civilian deaths for the citizens of Iraq and Libya. And Assad has done some very good things too: his consistent support for religious minorities has been a blessing for Shia and Christians and Jews as well as wayward Sunni sects.

At the same time, Americans should not be supporting Assad for exactly the reasons noted by the President.

Given the practical and ethical reasons for neither supporting nor ousting Assad, our optimal course of action is to butt out. We may reasonably attempt to rescue victims of Assad or ISIL as a humanitarian effort, but doing anything more is unlikely to produce any benefits either for Americans or for Syrians.

Lee Nason
New Bedford, Massachusetts
+21 # Archie1954 2015-09-29 10:42
The author's conclusions are suspect. Syria is a Shiite state with a large Sunni population. Assad has maintained relative peace in his nation for decades until the US decided he had to go, just as the US decided that Saddam had to go. Well, we all know what happened to Iraq after that fatal and foolish American decision. Putin is unwilling to see the same thing that happened to Iraq, happen to Syria. Libya was another American supported disaster. That country is now a failed state. Yes, Gaddafi was a tyrant but he was also the stabilizing influence in Libya and without him the nation is a basket case. The US has a lot to answer for with its constant deadly interventions in the Middle East and elsewhere. It is too bad that the great majority of Americans are so damned ignorant of their complicity in their own potential danger from so called "terrorists", most of which were created by Washington to begin with.
+13 # bardphile 2015-09-29 11:07
Lee, this is the most reasonable post of yours I've seen so far. The power politics of the region is insanely complex, but there is one very simple over-arching reality: The people there don't want outsiders encroaching on their land, and will die a martyr's death to prevent it. Let's concentrate on developing alternative sources of energy, and on being the peace-loving democracy we purport to be.
+10 # tm7devils 2015-09-29 12:57
IMO, the situation can be boiled down to this: The US government wants perpetual war, Putin doesn't.
+3 # warrior woman 2015-09-29 13:46
Another possibility: September 24, 2015

Underlying Reasons for the Raging Syrian War: Competing Natural Gas Pipelines

By michael payne
+7 # harleysch 2015-09-29 14:12
Sorry, Juan, but your analysis of Obama's crimes in Libya is wrong. Obama lied when he said we intervened to stop Qadaffi from preparing to massacre his citizens. In fact, Qadaffi was moving to crush Al Qaeda networks, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, in Derna and Benghazi. Thanks to Obama's intervention, those forces in Libya have been strengthened, and a relatively stable country has been turned into a hellhole.

The argument that we needed to conduct a "humanitarian" intervention to protect innocents was put forward by Samantha Power, who has openly supported regime change policies against Assad, as she did against Yanukovic and Qadaffi.

The beginnings of the civil war in Syria were stoked by the same kind of "color revolution" promises made by the combined forces of the neo-cons and the liberal imperialists, to take advantage of legitimate demands for reform, to overturn sovereign governments which were not favorable towards an imperial model of "democracy."

Obama is simply wrong, his account of history presented at the UN based on lies.
+3 # janie1893 2015-09-29 14:21
I wonder what would happen if the US president ordered all out-of-country military personnel (including those engaged in black ops in 135 countries)back to the US immediately.
Would the world end? Would all the wars end? Would all the bad guys (according to the American definition of bad) rush in to fill the vacuums? Would the Pentagon self-implode?
+2 # lfeuille 2015-09-29 15:49
From the article: Putin then went in for some conspiracy thinking, blaming the US and the West for creating Daesh (they did not) to overthrow secular regimes (which they don’t want to do). “Besides, the Islamic State itself did not just come from nowhere. It was also initially forged as a tool against undesirable secular regimes.”

The West didn't create Daesh directly, but they created the conditions that led to it's formation by meddling in Iraq. I can see how Putin might surmise that it was done intentionally, since the level of ineptitude involved is just mind boggling and hard to credit as just a series of fatal errors. I think it was a monumental fuckup, but others might reasonably assume it was on purpose. That they don't want to overthrow secular regimes is also hard to swallow: Iraq, Libya, Syria - all secular dictatorship. The idea the we just want to overthrow autocratic governments doesn't hold water either when we partner with the most repressive regime in the area: Saudi Arabia. Trying to overthrow a leader who has the support of 50% of the population like Assad did is just insanity. The other 50% was mostly jihadists with just a handful that really wanted democracy. You can force it down people's throats.

What Putin sees as a liking for theocrats I think is just pandering to Israel's current preference for the Saudi's.
+3 # Radscal 2015-09-29 18:51
How deliberately the U.S. created ISIL can be debated by people of good will. But that the Anglo-American shadow governments have supported and used Islamic Extremists is incontrovertible.

Even passing over the pre and post WW I English manipulations, in 1945, FDR guaranteed full support for the Saud Royal Family, including their plan to spread Wahhabism throughout the Muslim world, in exchange for control over Saudi oil.

In 1953, CIA and MI5 used Iranian Muslim Extremists under Ayatollah Khomeini to help them overthrow the democratic republic of Mossaddegh and return the Shah to rule. A quarter century later, the Reagan criminal organization once again provided cash and weapons to Ayatollah Khomeini to help the Islamic Extremists hijack the 1978-1979 Revolution.

And of course, the Baathist military leaders who went on to found ISIL were on the US payroll in their war against Iran.

Meanwhile, the US put Muslim Extremists on the payroll to topple the government of Afghanistan, and draw the USSR into invading in 1979. Of course, that led to the creation of both the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Then the US shipped al Qaeda fighters to Yugoslavia and later Chechnya.

Al Qaeda in Iraq helped complete the destruction of Iraq under the tutelage of John Negroponte and Robert Ford (who was then sent to Syria, where al Qaeda in Iraq followed him, only to morph into ISIL).
+3 # Radscal 2015-09-29 18:52
We used these same fiends as our “boots on the ground” to topple the Libyan government, split Sudan in two, render Somalia a failed state, etc. etc. etc.

So, whether any or all of these organizations were “created” by the US can be debated. But there can be no doubt that they would not have risen and become powerful without US influence through funding, arming and training, as well as providing air strikes and logistical assistance.
+2 # Activista 2015-09-29 19:29
Tank you RADSCAL - good substantiated facts - facts that are missing from the mass media.
0 # elizabethblock 2015-09-29 19:11
A friend reminded me this afternoon that Mosul, a city of 1.3 million people, was taken by ISIL with ... 800 men. If they didn't want ISIL they could have fought them off.
Of course, they didn't know what ISIL would be like. But I am reminded of an Arab saying that someone quoted, when W. first invaded Iraq: "Better forty years of tyranny than one day of chaos." We created the chaos.
0 # Charles3000 2015-10-01 13:24
When a country is invaded and occupied by a foreign military, the existing government overthrown and replaced by a puppet regime as the US did in Iraq then certain well defined groups of people in the occupied country emerge. They are defined as "collaborators" if they cooperate with the invading forces and take economic advantage of their coziness with the occupation forces. The other group which is always formed are called the "patriots" who seek to overthrow the puppet regime left behind by the occupying force and restore a governance more to their liking. The Shiites, who formed the present government after the US banned the Baathist, killed and jailed their leaders, are the "collaborators" and the Sunni dominated ISIS/ISIL/Daesh are the "patriots". The situation is text book standard.

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