“Counterproductive”?: Russia and the Warring in
By Gary Leupp
September 21, 2015 "Information
Clearing House" -
The Pentagon and State Department,
echoed as usual by the corporate press, have expressed “concern”
about Russian deliveries of the most modern tanks, fighter aircraft,
surface-to-air missiles and other military equipment to Syria. They
call them “counterproductive,” although it’s not clear what sort of
productive cause they counter.
They say these shipments–which they’ve tried to thwart by
instructing NATO allies to deny delivery flights through their
airspace–are likely “to prolong the war” in that tragically
suffering country. Cable news anchors, with furrowed brows and
glaring eyes, warn their viewers that Moscow’s stepped-up support
for the Assad regime is a “worrisome development.”
Moscow responds blandly that Russia (and the Soviet Union before it)
have been allied to the Syrian government since the 1950s, when
(like the U.S., actually) it saw the secular Baathists as a
preferable alternative to Islamists throughout the region. Russia
has been Syria’s main arms supplier for decades, and is (according
to RT television) currently filling contracts with Damascus signed
(Moscow might add that it has maintained a naval base at Tartus on
the Syrian coast since 1971, and an airbase at Latakia. These are
among Russia’s foreign military basis, which you can count on one
hand. The U.S. in contrast has, as you know, well over 700 military
bases in over 135 countries where around 300,000 U.S. troops are
The Russian Foreign Ministry has repeatedly urged the establishment
of an international coalition to fight ISIL, which seems rational
enough on the face of it. While it has not yet killed as many people
as George W. Bush did, this well funded, growing organization,
rapidly evolving into a viable state, is as manifestly cruel as the
former U.S. president and his cabinet of amoral neocons hell-bent on
imposing their own sort of caliphate on Southwest Asia. It is surely
Pursuing a demented religious ideology, ISIL brutally enforces a
version of the Sharia, forces conversions on pain of death, enslaves
whole communities, sells women as sex-slaves, practices religiously
ritualized gang rape, beheads Christians and Shiites, teaches boys
to behead infidels, crucifies those who violate its edicts, burns
and buries people alive, blows up precious historical monuments,
burns priceless historical manuscripts. It is the evil genie that
popped up unexpectedly when Bush rubbed the magic lamp of Iraq.
Although the media downplays it, Washington probably realizes how
horrible the situation has become. It claims to have, for its own
part, organized a “coalition of over 60 nations” (pointedly
excluding Syria, Iran, and Russia and including mostly ghost members
who pay lip-service to the cause and maybe some cash but play no
military role) to fight and defeat ISIL. Yet it continues to insist
that Bashar al-Assad is “the (main) problem” and that the Syrian
president has to go before that defeat can occur. (It sometimes even
preposterously asserts that Assad and ISIL are somehow in cahoots,
which as the Russians note, just doesm’t make any sense.)
In July 2011 during the “Arab Spring” President Obama announced that
Assad had “lost his legitimacy” by firing upon his own people during
protests. In the same month he urged Yemen’s President Ali Saleh, a
longstanding ally, to step down. Four months earlier he’d ordered
Muammar Gaddafi in Libya to step down. In February he’d called
Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, another longtime ally, to give him
his marching orders.
Having been taken aback by the toppling of the Tunisian president in
January 2011 in the face of a mass uprising, and the surge of
region-wide anti-government protests that followed, Obama made the
strategic decision to posture as the champion of the Arab masses
protesting in the streets, and assert his authority as leader of the
world’s one “indispensable,” “exceptional” nation by instructing
various leaders, including erstwhile friends and allies, to resign
from their posts.
Obama reckoned that Assad like these other leaders was a goner, and
that he himself could curry favor with the Arab multitude, and help
shape regime change, by issuing his declaration. (Four years later,
we have seen the limited efficacy of the president’s pontifications.
Assad is still there.)
In fact, Washington had been seeking to topple the Syrian leadership
for years. This was a key goal of the neocons who controlled foreign
policy during the administration of George W. Bush (and retained
much influence thereafter). They’d seen Syria as “low hanging fruit”
ripe for the plucking.
Gen. Wesley Clark has often related how, days after 9/11, he visited
the Pentagon and was told by a former colleague about a memo
stating, “We’re going to take out seven countries in 5 years,
starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan
and, finishing off, Iran.” In 2005, the odious neocon and former
Defense Policy Board chair Richard Perle (nicknamed the “Prince of
Darkness,” presumably for his eagerness to use blatant lies to
promote war) was meeting with old friend Farid Ghadry, a
Syrian-American who headed something called the “Syrian Reform
(Recall how dual national Perle had co-authored the Israeli white
paper “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm” for
Binyamin Netanyahu, outlining a strategy for U.S.-Israeli
transformation of the Middle East, including the achievement of
regime change in Syria.)
Ghadry (a former employee of a U.S. defense contractor and failed
businessman, whose Syrian citizenship was revoked after he appeared
before Israel’s Knesset in 2007) had told the Wall Street Journal
that Ahmad Chalaby (the Iraqi charlatan and neocon darling who had
promoted some of the lies surrounding the U.S. invasion of Iraq) had
“paved the way in Iraq for what we want to do in Syria.” Perle & Co.
were then urging the bombing of Syria.
Israel itself conducted a massive airstrike on a suspected nuclear
reactor in Syria in 2007. But Bush during his term of office,
influenced by cooler heads, refrained from an overt attack. Syria
was, after all, cooperating with the U.S. in the “War on Terror,” in
2003 apprising Washington of an al-Qaeda plot against the Fifth
Fleet in Bahrain. It was a common destination of suspected
“terrorists” captured by U.S. forces in various countries and sent
to hidden sites for torture under the infamous “extraordinary
In 2010, during the Obama administration, a new U.S. ambassador was
sent to Damascus for the first time in five years. In March 2011,
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even declared Bashar al-Assad a
“reformer,” implying that the U.S. could work with him. But later
that year–during the “Arab Spring” and after Obama’s demand that the
Syrian president step down, which produced attacks on the U.S.
embassy by pro-Assad demonstrators incensed by that display of
hyper-power arrogance–he was withdrawn. The U.S. embassy in Damascus
One must ask what the mainstream media never asks. Why is the U.S.
been so hostile to the Damascus regime? Surely it’s not due to its
horrible human rights record. The U.S. is intimately friendly with
Saudi Arabia, which is arguably far worse.
(As we speak a young man who, at age 17 in 2012, attended an
anti-government demonstration in Qaif province, and arrested for
carrying a firearm–a charge never proved–is appealing a sentence
that includes his beheading and posthumous public crucifixion. About
100 people are judicially beheaded in Saudi Arabia every year,
including for such offenses as homosexuality and witchcraft. In
Syria, which has two-thirds the population of Saudi Arabia, there
are rarely more than 10 judicial executions.)
Surely no one can argue that Bashar al-Assad is worse than any among
the rogues’ gallery of U.S. clients and puppets, past and present,
including Park Chung-hee, Ferdinand Marcos, Suharto, the Shah of
Iran, Saddam Hussein (a U.S. friend for much of his career), Mobuto
Sese Seko, Francesco Franco, Augusto Pinochet, Anastasio Samoza,
Papa Doc Duvalier, Efraim Rios Montt, etc.
It’s very normal for the U.S. to be in bed with horrible human
rights abusers. When Washington embarks on a campaign to overthrow
them, it loudly exposes their crimes. But so long as they’re on the
same bed, it just whispers quietly–if at all–acknowledging the
abuses, perhaps noting some “progress” real or imagined and gently
urging more. Thus has it always been with Saudi Arabia.
The hostility doesn’t stem from the fact that Assad has fired on his
own people; current U.S. ally Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sessi
is responsible for the killing of hundreds of peaceful
demonstrators. Nor is it because Syria has willfully sought conflict
with the U.S. Indeed, as noted above, Damascus has in some ways
cooperated with the U.S. Assad’s father Hafez while Syrian president
joined George W. H. Bush’s coalition to drive Iraqi forces out of
Kuwait in 1991.
The placement of Syria on the State Department’s list of “state
sponsors of terror” (an arbitrary roster, from which countries
appear and disappear without any relationship to empirical reality)
results from Damascus’ limited support to Lebanese and Palestinian
militant movements opposed to Israel and its occupations. Those in
this country who vilify Syria, and insist that its president must
leave, are largely responding to Israeli propaganda broadcast
through the Israel Lobby.
Why is Russia for its part supporting the Syrian government? Along
with the longstanding relationship mentioned above, Russia is deeply
concerned with the spread of radical, violent Islamism. This was a
key factor in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979; the
prospect of jihadi mentality spreading into the Central Asian
republics of the USSR, such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, alarmed
Today Russia faces radical Islamism in the Russian Caucasus. Moscow
wants to curb it in Syria, a breeding-ground of religious fanaticism
all too close for comfort. Another issue is the affinity between the
Russian Orthodox Church and the Syriac Orthodox Church headquartered
in Damascus, a city full of ancient Christian sites.
(Hypothetical question, just for discussion: Which would you rather
have: Russian troops in Damascus, protecting Christian holy sites or
ISIL forces in the city, blowing them up?)
The U.S. position is this: Assad is the fundamental problem, and
we’re on record as demanding his departure. So we can’t align with
him, or appear to be doing so. But neither can we let ISIL keep
advancing, especially in Iraq so soon after we went in and
supposedly liberated it from Saddam’s tyranny. Having underestimated
ISIL’s strength as of last fall (when Obama stupidly compared it to
a “JV squad”) we now have to “defeat” it, as part of a grand
coalition including Arab states. Having ruled out both Assad and
ISIL as leaders of a future Syria, we have to train the “moderate
opposition” in Syria to fight them both (but especially Assad).
But this position is ludicrous. The fundamental conflict in Syria is
the secular regime and its historical allies (including religious
minorities and bazaar merchants) and Sunni Islamists who have joined
ISIL or the al-Nusra Front arm of al-Qaeda. The middle force
Washington wants to create out of whole cloth is not going to
Last year the Pentagon unveiled an ambitious plan to train 5000
Syrians for the “Free Syrian Army” (at the time a rag-tag,
unraveling, largely paper army) in Jordan. As of last month,
precisely 54 had actually been trained, and most of these when
deployed in Syria were immediately captured by al-Nusra (perhaps
assisted by Turkish intelligence). They’re apparently under
detention (that is, not beheaded) and may well wind up fighting
Assad alongside their captors.
CNN’s Barbara Starr reported this as a “near disaster for the U.S.
plan to train a rebel force that’s supposed to be the boots on the
ground in the fight against ISIL.” That’s an understatement. Central
Command (CENTCOM) commander, Gen. Lloyd Austin, then told the Senate
Armed Services Committee that “only four or five” of those trained
remained in the fight against ISIL.
Isn’t it clear? While jihadis flock to the Islamic State’s
battlegrounds, the U.S. cannot recruit Syrian “moderates” because so
few Syrian youth want to associate with the U.S. military, and
invite rejection from family and friends who are appalled by the
U.S. record of brutality throughout the region.
And has not the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford,
acknowledged that the U.S. knew while training Syrian “moderate”
opposition forces that they would likely be drawn to al-Nusra?
Doesn’t that confirm that at this point the fundamental
contradiction is between the regime and the Islamists–not the regime
and some imagined disparate “opposition” that can be molded by an
outside force, particularly one as discredited as the U.S.A.?
Do we not now know that the Pentagon’s inspector-general is
investigating charges by 50 intelligence analysts for CENTCOM that
their objective assessments of the U.S.-led campaign against ISIL
were deliberately altered and skewed to make Congress think a
faltering effort was in fact a success?
Isn’t it clear that the neocon strategy of consciously deploying
lies to win support for ongoing efforts towards Middle East regime
change has outlived the departure from government of the likes of
Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, John Bolton, Richard
Perle, Elliott Abrams, Scooter Libby, and David Frum? (Look no
further than the desk of Victoria Nuland to see the lingering shadow
of Dick Cheney in the State Department.)
It’s one thing to build public support for a regime change
operation, plan and sell a war, pull it off, slaughter masses of
people and beat your chest in triumph for a few weeks afterwards.
It’s another thing to build anything useful out of the rubble. U.S.
wars since 2001 have produced nothing–not even much for the oil
companies–other than more terror and more war such as we see in
In Afghanistan, the U.S. has spent billions to create (on paper, at
least) a force of some 300,000 soldiers and police. Plagued by a
staggering desertion rate, low morale, and frequent “green on blue”
incidents (in which Afghan troops shoot their U.S. trainers), it has
been unable to destroy the Taliban, whose strength is estimated at
This, despite reportedly killing (in 2014) an average of 12 Taliban
fighters every day. (In fairness, some of these are no doubt
civilians recorded as militants to conceal the extent of “collateral
damage.”) U.S. military leaders have long since concluded that the
war in Afghanistan cannot be won on the battlefield, but there must
be a political solution.
In other words, the U.S. has been defeated, as it was in Vietnam,
and its “withdrawal” leaving some 10,000 troops in place is really a
matter of slinking off with its tail between its legs.
In Iraq, the U.S. spent $25 billion to create an army with (on
paper) over 271,000 active frontline personnel, with half a million
reserve personnel. It buckled in its battles with ISIL, a force of
tens of thousands that easily took Fallujah, Mosul, Tikrit, and
Ramadi between January 2014 and May 2015. The U.S.-trained forces
deserted en masse. How embarrassing.
The moral of the story? The U.S. is not good at creating puppet
armies. It’s not going to create, and can’t create, an army of (what
Washington might consider) “moderates” to realize State Department
designs in the region.
So the Russian defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, called U.S.
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter last Friday to discuss the Russian
arms shipments to Syria, and the dispatch of Russian military
trainers. He no doubt repeated the appeal from Russian Foreign
Minister Sergei Lavrov for a joint Russian-U.S. effort to combat
ISIL, and urged him to recognize that—at least in the Syrian zone of
ISIL operations–the Syrian Army is the force most able to do this.
It’s hard to believe that–military man to military man–Carter would
tell Shoigu that he really believes otherwise. Or simply repeat
Obama’s bold statement that Russian efforts to aid Damascus against
the opposition are “doomed to failure.”
What other forces are there, standing between Damascus and the
abyss? The Kurdish peshmerga, who have managed to stave off ISIL in
Kurdish territory but are not interested in confronting them
elsewhere? The Turkish army, accountable to a regime that sees armed
Kurds (whether in Iraq or Syria or Turkey) as a bigger enemy than
ISIL or al-Nusra? The motley U.S.-led “coalition” whose airstrikes
have hardly slowed ISIL’s progress?
So let us suppose that the Russians’ provision of military hardware
to Syria (and even boots on the ground, which is at least
conceivable, since the Kremlin has announced that Russia would
“consider” a Syrian request for ground troops) were to roll back
ISIL and al-Nusra gains. What will Obama and Kerry say to that? That
it is “counterproductive”? Counterproductive to what? Their own plan
to remove Assad from power?
Counterproductive to their own plan to monopolize the right to
intervene all over the Middle East at any time, elbowing out the
massive country that actually looms north of the region, while the
U.S. is located an ocean and continents away? On what logical or
moral ground could they stand, before the UN General Assembly or
elsewhere, opposing assistance to an internationally recognized
government requesting it?
The U.S. has invaded two countries in recent history, totally
uninvited, and bombed another to bring down a regime, resulting in
total chaos. One aspect of this mayhem is the rise of ISIL which
terrorizes Syria and drives hundreds of thousands of refugees into
Europe, worsening the continental economic crisis. What possible
argument could Washington, responsible for this huge mess, adduce to
oppose Russian soldiers on the ground in Syria, alongside Assad’s
army, appearing (at least initially) to be defending civilization
Postscript: I now read that John Kerry is saying that while Assad
still has to go, the timing of that departure needs to be
“negotiated.” Another Lavrov victory, perhaps?
Gary Leupp is a Professor of History at Tufts
University, and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can
be reached at: email@example.com.