Ending the Suffering in Syria?

by Helena Cobban

August 26 saw the failure of yet another attempt by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to negotiate the terms of a new cessation of hostilities in the now 64-month-long civil war in Syria. These two great power diplomats did, however, say they and their teams would continue the effort to reach a cessation.

According to that Reuters report, Sec. Kerry defined the two main obstacles to reaching a cessation as “the regime violations and the increasing influence of the al-Nusra Front.” His accusation against the Syrian government is not surprising– given that Washington has dedicatedly pursued a policy of regime change in Syria continuously since the presidency of George W. Bush, and has been providing active military help to at least two different portions of the anti-government (aka “Contra”) forces in the country for the past two years.

Kerry’s admission that the al-Nusra Front has been growing stronger is more interesting. The al-Nusra Front, whose recent attempt to rebrand itself seems to have fooled neither Sec. Kerry nor anyone else, is the portion of the Syria Contra forces that is deeply affiliated with Al-Qaeda. During the earlier, slightly effective cessation of hostilities negotiated between Kerry and Lavrov in February, Lavrov tried to insist that the Syrian government and Russia and other government supporters should continue to be able to strike at the Nusra forces but would refrain from attacking the non-Nusra parts of the Contras if the United States could identify which (and where) these were.

Washington– followed by most of the mainstream media in the U.S.– has long tried to maintain that significant portions of the Contra forces are not affiliated with Nusra and its hateful Wahhabist ideology. But Washington has not been able to provide clear information to the Russians or Syrians regarding where the Nusra units are and where the non-Nusra units are, claiming that the Nusra units have been “marbled” among the non-Nusra portions of the Contra forces, and hard to disentangle from them.

I and a number of other analysts have argued that far from the Nusra units being “marbled” amongst the non-Nusra units, it is much more likely that it’s the non-Nusra (“democratic”) units who are in the minority in the Contra-force line-up, and who thus, inasmuch as they have any operational capability at all (which has never really been demonstrated), are to be found “marbled” amongst the much more numerous and capable Nusra units.

Indeed, throughout the past two-plus years, on numerous occasions when the U.S. military or its allies have tried to send weapons, other materiel, or trained reinforcement in to the non-Nusra forces–especially in Northern Syria– these assets have speedily ended up under the control of the Nusra forces… which gives a very clear indication of which of the two wings of the Contra movement is actually stronger on the ground.

Now, with his public admission that the influence of the Nusra-related units has been “increasing”, Sec. Kerry seems to have brought to an end the pretense that the non-Nusra units are capable and growing.

So now, what is to be done to bring to an end this lengthy story of the suffering of Syria’s people?

As a citizen of this still-democratic republic of the United States of America, I see my primary responsibility as being to examine and where possible correct the actions and decisions of my own government. And indeed, though there is plenty of blame to go around for the suffering the Syrian people, it strikes me that the actions and decisions of Pres. Obama and his administration have played a disproportionately massive role in perpetuating the terrible conflict in Syria.

The root cause of these bad actions on Washington’s behalf has been its insistence, ever since August 2011, that Syrian President Bashar al-Asad “must step down” as a precursor to any other moves for political reform in Syria. And from that policy flowed the decisions first of all to allow the CIA to work with shadowy allies to expedite the transfer of weapons to portions of the nascent Contra forces with which it chose to work (though without ever knowing very much about them and the strength of the Wahhabists amongst them), and later, the policy of having the Pentagon join in more explicitly, with its policy of providing more formal training and larger, more regular conduits for arms transfers to the Contras.

I guess the people in Obama’s White House (and, at the time, Hillary Clinton’s State Department, since she was an active advocate of the whole “Asad must go” agenda) must have bought the arguments of those in Washington whose arguments, back in 2011, ran roughly along the following lines:

  1. “President Asad is demonstrably authoritarian, is loathed by his people, and runs a sectarian-minority regime to boot. Therefore, it should be even easier in Syria than in Egypt, Libya, or Tunisia (in none of which sectarian-minority regimes had been in power pre-2011) to foresee the toppling of his government by the popular forces unleashed by the ‘Arab Spring’.”
  2. “What is needed– bearing in mind the lessons from the disastrous dismantlement of the state apparatus in Iraq under Pres. George W. Bush– is a policy of ‘controlled regime collapse’, whereby successive layers of the state apparatus are peeled away from the regime’s Asad-family-dominated core through their defection and their integration into the new ‘Contra’ movement– which (these regime-change advocates all solidly tried to argue) is dominated by committed democrats.”
  3. “And since– as was already clear before August 2011– it didn’t seem that the street-based popular movement that had erupted sporadically throughout Syria’s cities over the preceding five months would itself be capable of toppling the government through nonviolent mass organizing, in the way the demonstrators in Egypt or Tunisia had done, then it would be helpful to provide (or connive in the provision by others of) arms to pro-Contra fighting units that could ‘tip the balance’ in Syria.”

As it happened– and as I argued publicly to the very best of my ability back in 2011– the very first of those premises proved to be false. Pres. Asad was (and remains) demonstrably authoritarian; but he was not nearly as widely loathed by his people as the advocates for the “Asad must go” agenda argued. And though it is indubitably true that members of his own Alawi-Muslim minority enjoy a privileged position at the pinnacle of Syria’s political/military apparatus it is also indubitably true that the relations among members of the country’s different religious and ethnic groups are far more complex than just the caricature of the Alawite minority endlessly repressing the country’s large majority of Sunni Muslims that is presented by most of the western MSM. Indeed, a majority of the members of the Syrian armed forces (including much of the officer corps) is still made up of Sunni Muslims; Sunni traders and professional people have been part of the Baath Party economic apparatus throughout the nearly five decades of Baathist rule; and during the ongoing conflict, the majority of the people displaced by the fighting in various parts of the country have fled to (and received refuge in) the government-held areas of the country, rather than by fleeing to the opposition-held areas or other countries altogether.

You wouldn’t learn any of those facts about the country from most of the U.S. mainstream media, which continues to peddle simple, uninformed pictures of “Asad bad; opposition good”, which have ended up buttressing the case the administration continues to make– though with some welcome “wobbliness” over the past year– that “Asad must go” as a precondition to anything else happening in Syria.

The opposition to the Syrian Baathists has very deep roots in the U.S. political elite, fed to some degree by the opposition to Syrian capabilities that has long been strong in Israel and among its many allies in Washington, and to some degree (especially in the MSM) by intellectual laziness and a reluctance to ever see the point of trying to learn something real about the country in question.

Syria has been the target of U.S. economic sanctions continuously since 1979; and since at least 2006 U.S. diplomats have worked actively to stoke up Sunni movements against Pres. Asad’s government.

When Pres. Obama was inaugurated in January 2009, some of us hoped he would put an end to these pro-regime-change machinations. I was a member of a small team of U.S. experts that was working on “Track Two” diplomacy between Washington and Damascus at the time; and we hoped that there would be some initial confidence-building steps that both governments– which did at least still have formal diplomatic relations with each other– could take to build a more solid relationship with each other.

Obama, however, stonewalled those efforts, deciding instead to continue the funding and other support to various Syrian-based opposition groups that Pres. Bush had provided under the so-called “MEPI” program.

Oh yes, “Asad must go” has deep roots in the U.S. policy and intellectual elite.

As a Quaker, I don’t actually believe that there is any such thing as a “just war”. However, the ancient church fathers, dating back to St. Augustine, who inaugurated that innovation in what had previously been a pacifist doctrine in the early Christian church, did at least have some direct knowledge of, and a deep understanding of, the suffering that wars can bring. Hence their insistence on strictures such as that: before you launch any war you should do so on the basis of an analysis that you have a strong chance of winning, and doing so quickly and cleanly; or, that only “duly constituted public authorities” can launch a war…  (If the latter stricture is not observed, as it has not been by the U.S. in Syria, then any war can rapidly fractalize into an uncontrolled war of all against all…)

Read the whole list of the “Just War” strictures here. Yes, there is much wisdom there.

Regarding the “Probability of Success” of the escalatory military actions Washington has taken in Syria since 2011, the relevant decisionmakers there must have been (and this is the most charitable possible explanation) convinced that “just the little” military/paramilitary action they started taking then would “tip the balance” against the regime… And then, when that didn’t work, they thought that “just a little more” would do it instead; and thus down the slippery slop they swiftly strode.

(The uncharitable explanation is that they subscribed to the idea sometimes heard from Israeli leaders: that doing whatever it takes to keep Syria’s people mired in civil war is really the desired goal.)

There’s a lot more to be said, and I hope to say it soon, about the ease with which the handsomely NED-paid spinmeisters of the various Syrian Contra forces have been able to spin the frequently (but not always) members of the U.S. MSM.

Like Ahmed Chalabi back in the day, some of these Syrian regime-change-niks have learned well how to “create” and disseminate the kinds of stories that keep American journalists coming back for more, while using namecalling and other methods of marginalization to silence the voices trying to point out the many flaws in their arguments.

Back in 2011, I made several attempts to point out the flaws in the arguments of the “Asad must go” brigade. I did so in many posts on my “Just World News” blog— and also in two public forums  held by think-tanks in Washington, DC.

The first of these was a panel discussion organized by the Middle East Institute in late May, 2011, on the theme: “Uprising in Syria: Implications for US and Regional Policy”. The fellow-panelists were the practised Syria Contra spokesman Ammar Abdulhamid and Steve Heydemann, an American expert on Syria whose expertise and views I had until then generally respected, but who had already, in May 2011, come down basically in favor of the “regime change first” doctrine. Soon thereafter, Heydemann moved to the (horribly misnamed) U.S. Institute of “Peace”, where he pursued a whole range of “Asad must go” policies with a lot more (Congressionally mandated) funding and institutional backing.

The audio/podcast version of that panel discussion is no longer easily available; but I recently reviewed most of the video version of it, which is available in no fewer than eleven sequential Youtube videos that are cut at fairly arbitrary points. If you go to the first of the segments, then the other ten are also linked to down the right sidebar. I was the second of the speakers. My main presentation runs from Segment 3, at 4:27, through Segment 5, 6:00.

There wasn’t much time for interaction among the three of us. But in Segment 8, starting at 2:30, we all addressed a question from the audience about how to formulate an “exit strategy” for President Asad; and the answers that came were fairly interesting.

Ammar Abdulhamid stated baldly that the exit strategy “has to be acceptable to everyone– except the Asads! They have to go!” In Segment 9, near the beginning, I made the point that the negotiation most needed would not be one over an “exit strategy”, but rather one over how to build a new, democratic constitutional order in Syria— and that the Asads “need to be part of this because they will also need to bring their followers along into the process.”

There and elsewhere, one of my major points of comparison was the process by which, through broad, all-inclusive negotiations, South Africa was transformed in the early 1990s from a viciously authoritarian minority-controlled regime into a much more inclusive and accountable democracy.

… But the advocates of regime change and/or conflict in Syria continued their campaign, apparently little impeded by what I had had to say; and as we know by August 2011, Pres. Obama had come out openly and wholeheartedly in support of the regime change agenda.

In November 2011, I made another attempt to influence the discourse in Washington on the issue, this time by participating in a panel discussion on Syria that the Turkish-American think-tank “SETA” was organizing on the topic of “The Future of Syria”. SETA was better organized for videotaping their event, which you can find in three longer segments on Youtube. The first is here. They also produced a transcript of the whole event. That is no longer available on their website, but you can find the portion relating to my main presentation here.

In retrospect it seems clear to me that I was far too naive at that point, not understanding the degree to which the government of Turkish Pres. Erdogan was already deeply involved in supporting the Syrian Contras. I was still trying to argue at that point that Erdogan/Turkey were uniquely well positioned (along with, perhaps, the government of South Africa– but with a lot more of their own interests at stake in the matter) to “midwife” the kind of all- (Syria-)party political negotiation over the means and modalities of a transition to a democratic, constitutional order that I still saw as both necessary and possible. But by November 2011, as I came to understand only later, the Turkish government was already deeply involved in providing not only political support to the Syrian Contras but also the many kinds of vital logistical support without which the armed Contra movement would never have been able to grow as fast and dangerously as it did.

Turkey, after all, has a very long land border with Syria, across which the Contras were able to ship in their money, their arms, and the armed Wahhabi supporters from all around the world. None of the other four countries with which Syria shares a border were anything like as accommodating to the Syrian Contras.

In November 2011, I still hadn’t understood how strongly Erdogan’s government was committed to the Contras– how deeply, that is, he had broken with Pres. Asad, a leader with whom for several years prior to 2011 he had enjoyed very cordial relations.

That naivete about Erdogan’s position was, I think, the only significant flaw in the analysis I was providing back in 2011. On the crucial question of whether “just a little bit” or “just a little bit more” of U.S. aid to the Syrian oppositionists/Contras would cause the Asad regime to topple, I was right. The support Pres. Asad enjoyed from the Syrian citizenry was always much broader than the pro-regime-change people were prepared to admit.

A year later, in September 2012, I wrote a post on “Just World News” in which I reflected on that whole sorry record. The title was one that I could still use today– “Yes, I was right on Syria. (And what now?)” But I take zero pleasure in being able to prove, today, that I was right.

I do still, however, stand by the conclusions I reached in that earlier blog post:

So, as promised in the headline here: What now?

Actually, from me on Syria, nothing new. Nothing different from what I’ve been saying almost nonstop for the past 18 months: Syria’s people need a negotiated end to their terrible current tragedy. Violence and continuing escalation or maintenance of tensions in Syria are not going to do anything to improve the currently terrible situation of the country’s people.

People! UNHCR is telling us today that “There are 294,000 Syrian refugees registered or awaiting registration in neighbouring countries, compared to 41,500 Syrians in March.” [That was in 2012. Of course the situation has deteriorated shockingly ever since.] And that is only those who are registering for refugee status in other countries. It doesn’t count (as UNRWA’s basic 1950 census didn’t count, for the Palestinians) the large numbers of cross-border refugees who for whatever didn’t even seek to register as refugees. And it doesn’t count the far larger number of Syrians who have been displaced within their own country…

The proud nation of Syria is becoming– like Mozambique or Nicaragua in the 1980s– a country torn apart, rent asunder, torn limb from limb. And for largely the same reason: the deliberately anti-humane and anti-infrastructure activities of brutal, western-backed insurgent forces. The Contras and Renamo… Okay, in the case of Syria, the regime itself is much more violent than either of those other governments. But as an American citizen I am not in any way responsible for the violence of the Damascus regime (though I dearly wish there were more that I could do to stop it.) I am in some way responsible for the violence of my government: Both the violence that it engages in directly, and the violence undertaken by others that it supports. Plus, the longstanding and also harmful violence– in the case of Syria, as of Iran and, earlier, Iraq– of punitive economic sanctions wielded for more than three decades now against Syria’s people by a U.S. Congress acting at the behest of the pro-Israel lobby.

All those forms of violence, from all parties, need to end. Our government should join all the other governments and non-governmental bodies in the world who are searching for a negotiated end to the impasse in Syria. The principal parties in and to the negotiation should be the representatives of Syria’s people– all of them, absolutely not excluding the current regime. But to get to the negotiation they need, they need to see wise leadership from all the important outside parties. Turkey turned out to be, from my point of view, a weak and unwilling reed on which to build a negotiations-based strategy. Now, I guess that the mission of Lakhdar al-Ibrahimi is the best hope we have. But he can only ever be as effective as the Security Council allows him to be. We need to add our voices to those raised by so many people (of all political stripes) inside Syria: An end to the violence; let the real negotiations over how to build a better Syria and heal the wounds of the past begin.

So yes, in the four years since then, the suffering of the Syrian people has continued and gotten worse; there was a brutal, Saudi-backed counter-revolution in Egypt; ISIS emerged as a significant, terrain-controlling presence in the north of both Syria and Iraq; the Russians (and Iranians) have become more deeply involved inside Syria at the military level– as has the U.S. military; there have been various forms of Syria-related instability in Turkey; Saudi Arabia and other GCC supporters of the Syrian Contras have also started and pursued a ghastly parallel war in Yemen… and there seems no end in sight to any of these sufferings.

It is not too late to still be working to end this cascade of violence.

It is good– if still far from sufficient– that Sec. Kerry and Minister Lavrov are at least talking about how to plan their efforts jointly. But what is needed now, from official Washington and from the rest of the American political elite is a lot more clarity and understanding about the true nature of Contra forces so many American pundits still want to support. “No more coddling of the Wahhabis” is surely a slogan and goal that every decent person can get behind?

Also: “Ceasefire now!” (“Cessation of hostilities” being only a slightly weaselly, half-hearted version of the same…)

And then, after that, how about returning to the concept of an internationally sponsored, all-(Syrian-) party negotiation over how to build a democratic constitutional order in the country? Wasn’t that what this conflict was all about, in the first place?

When did the whole goal– as defined by so many in the western commentatoriat– become one solely of “punishing Asad”?

Of course, demobilizing all the Wahhabist forces now gathered (from all around the world) in Syria– in the ranks of both Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS– won’t be an easy task. But trying to figure out how to get to that point is surely a better way forward then continuing the vindictive, propaganda-driven, and completely lawless campaign to topple the man who is, after all, the head of state of Syria.

Veteran Middle East analyst and author Helena Cobban is the CEO of both Just World Books and the new nonprofit Just World Educational. One of JWE’s key projects is to make freely available to the public via its website Justworldeducational.org a variety of resources on war, peace, justice, and the Middle East. On September 22, 2016 JWE is sponsoring a discussion in Washington DC on Syria’s rich cultural heritage: Details are at http://bit.ly/Syr-Heritage.

This piece was originally published by Just World Educational and is reprinted here with permission. Copyright Just World Educational and Helena Cobban

Helena Cobban

Veteran Middle East analyst and author Helena Cobban is a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy and the CEO of both Just World Books and the nonprofit Just World Educational. JWE’s website Justworldeducational.org makes freely available to the public a variety of resources on war, peace, justice, and the Middle East. The views she expresses here are her own.