Ooo, see the fire is sweeping
My very street today;
Burns like a red-coal carpet:
Mad bull, lost its way
Oh, children; it’s just a shot away
It’s just a shot away…
The Rolling Stones, from, “Gimme Shelter”
Let me ask you something: if you had only recently wrapped up 24 years at the U.S. Army War College, finishing as Professor of National Security Studies; if you held a B.A. in Russian History from the University of Pennsylvania and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Russian History from the University of Chicago, and were a recognized expert in defense strategy, arms control and Russia and the post-Soviet space…wouldn’t you think you could be expected to actually know something about Russia?
Dr. Stephen Blank of the Atlantic Council comes admirably credentialed, and doesn’t look crazy in his picture. But his analysis of what Russia – which he at least does not refer to as “Putin”, as if Russia’s real name were “Putinland” or something – is really up to in Syria reads as if it were written by Masha Gessen on Psilocybin. The implication that we are all being hoodwinked – gadzooks! – by the devilishly-clever former KGB man from St Petersburg is so clear that Newsweek reprinted the article under the title, “The Real Reason Putin is Sending Troops to Syria”.
Newsweek – typically, I have to say – got it wrong before they got past the title: “Putin” is, in fact, not “sending troops to Syria” at all, and indeed ruled it out just last week: you would think a publication which considers itself a “newsmagazine” could manage to go more than a week without forgetting everything that happened the week before. I’m afraid this attempt just looks like stupid laziness. But Dr. Blank himself does not get much further before jumping the rails, characterizing something as both “predictable” and “a surprise” in the first sentence. Unless he meant Russia’s intervention in Syria was predictably a surprise to the west because it is so terminally dozy it is completely oblivious to everything going on around it, a sort of Buster Bluth nation. And if so, dash it all, that’s just unpatriotic.
The west cannot wait, Mr. Blank tells us, to address Russia’s larger strategy, even though the west does not know what it is. Just do something, damn it, and we’ll figure out the details later. Can you think of a time or two in the past where an approach like that got the United States in trouble? So can I.
Putin, we learn, intends to sustain Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for as long as possible. What does that mean, exactly? Until he dies? Because that interval was looking like months, maybe, before Russia stepped in. However, you would think an educated man like Mr. Blank might have figured out that Russia’s aim is merely to avert political transition achieved by a violent coup. I can kind of see how he missed that, since political transition by means of killing Assad or driving him out of the country so that a handpicked government could take over was exactly what the USA sought, and it was so close it could taste it. You could kind of guess, from the way the United States Air Force was energetically fighting Islamic State (IS) for almost a year, during which time IS gobbled up two-thirds of Syria and was scratching at the door in Damascus, while Russia sent them running with their hands over their ears in less than two weeks. Russia has been in Syria in force for less than a month, and the Syrian Army – according to Mr. Putin, the only force which can defeat IS on the ground – has gone from Last Stand At Maysaloun Street to an offensive to recapture territory lost to the Islamic militias. How stupid do you think people are?
As if to highlight how silly that analysis is, Assad was in Moscow just yesterday for a meeting with Putin, in which the Russian state offered to help with political transition – not to prop up Assad forever. Mind you, he is popular with his people and there is every chance it will be their will that he continue to lead and represent them. They call that “democracy” in countries in which the United States allows the people to elect their own leaders.
But our learning of new things about Russia is far from complete: Russia, apparently, has “long sought” naval bases in Cyprus and Montenegro. That so? News to me. Anybody? In fact, the only mention I could find of Russia pursuing naval bases in Cyprus and Montenegro was in an item from 2013, in which…Stephen Blank told us they were, at the stars-and-stripes-waving anti-Russian Washington think tank The Jamestown Foundation. His references were the same newspapers everyone else reads, but I didn’t see anyone else make that connection. I guess that’s what being a PHD brings to the party.
“Russia’s military escalation in Syria confirms and extends the strategic significance for Moscow of owning virtually the entire Black Sea and using it as a base to project power, maintain strategic influence, and enforce gunboat diplomacy throughout the Balkans and the Levant through a combination of arms and amphibious operations abroad.”
Ummm…what? Addled talk like this coming out of the War College explains a lot about why America hasn’t won a war since Korea, unless you count the First Gulf War. This is just a bunch of unrelated homilies strung together plus a gratuitous mention of Blank’s favourite phrase concerning Russia: “gunboat diplomacy”. It reminds me strongly of the peyote adventure that Sarah Palin’s senseless run-on sentences were. What does Russia’s involvement in Syria – which owns a tiny segment of Mediterranean frontage; 120 miles, to be exact – have to do with Russia “owning virtually the entire Black Sea”? The Black Sea is 1000 miles from the Mediterranean (unless you go through Turkey), in a different region influenced by entirely different power players. The entrance to the Black Sea is still controlled by a NATO power which is studded with American and NATO military bases ; the same country, incidentally, has at least double the Black Sea frontage Russia has even if you include Crimea as Russian. In all its recent military actions in the region of the Black Sea, Russia has relied most heavily on the Army, which does not travel by gunboat. Amphibious operations played a very small part in the conflict with Georgia, none at all in Crimea and none in Syria. Who has a reputation for meddling in the Balkans, Pinocchio? The objective of Washington’s Balkan policy is aptly described by Srdja Trifkovic as an ambition toward “a U.S.-dominated post-national world based on propositional abstractions”, generously seasoned with pandering to the military-industrial complex and isolating Russia.
Did I say Blank did not look crazy? Perhaps I spoke too soon. He rants that Russia is trying to create a bloc of pro-Russian Shiite or anti-Sunni states with which to confront the United States and its allies.
Let me summarize what America knows about the Muslim faith in the Middle East; two months before launching the invasion of Iraq, George W. Bush did not know Islam was divided into two sects, and believed the people he intended to invade and subjugate (although he would doubtless have preferred “liberate”) were simply “Muslims”. If Putin is planning to create an anti-Sunni bloc using Syria as a chesspiece, he had better spit on his hands and bear down – more than 70% of the population is Sunni. Assad’s Foreign Minister, Vice-President and the head of his National Security Bureau are all Sunnis. Sunnis among the rebels vowed to hunt down the Sunnis who support Assad – back when all the momentum was on the rebel side, thanks largely to the United States Air Force – wherever they fled. I am pretty confident that Syria would not be easily turned into a pro-Russian anti-Sunni bloc.
However, it matters less – from the standpoint of creating or reversing power blocs – what Russia does in the region when compared with what Washington has already done. It wrecked Iraq, causing hundreds of thousands of needless deaths through its invasion of the country, actions such as the “disciplining” of Fallujah, and the shoot-em-up attitudes of its mercenary civilian contractors. Its horrifying practices in Abu Ghraib prison have made the name of the United States a foulness in the Iraqi mouth that makes them want to spit on the ground when they hear it, until at least this generation is gone from the earth. American sanctions in Iraq caused the deaths of half a million children, and Madeleine Albright famously said it was worth it. The CIA overthrew democratically-elected Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran, and imposed another 26 years of the hated Shah Reza Pahlavi upon the Iranians. The United States government propped up Hosni Mubarek for 30 years, although in that period his people tried six times to assassinate him. Technically Egypt is in Africa and not the Middle East, but it exercises significant regional influence. The USA has vetoed every UN resolution which sought to censure Israel for its construction of illegal Jews-only settlements in Palestinian territory. I think it’s safe to say all Russia needs do in the Middle East to grow its influence is to not be the kind of neon strobe-light revolving exhibition of sheer assholery the United States has been in the region. More to the point, Washington’s bumbling and thrashing about in the Middle East knocked over all the secular states in the region – Libya (yes, I know, Africa) and Iraq were both secular states which were tolerant of religion and in which religious denominations intermingled with little tension – and energetically applied itself to ruining the last one; Syria. It squawks without letup about the American obligation to bring democracy and freedom to the Middle East, even as its strongest regional allies are monarchies.
“The partnership that Moscow is cementing with Iran in the face of Washington’s nuclear deal aims to extend the concept of a frozen conflict familiar to us from Eurasia to the Middle East.” Only if you don’t know what a frozen conflict is. A frozen conflict exists when a province or region of a state rebels against the central government, and declares autonomy and self-rule, resulting in an unresolved dispute over national borders. This constrains certain international partnerships and alliances. Russia has undeniably benefited from such conflicts in the past, notably in that such disputes prevented Georgia and Ukraine from being gobbled up by NATO; however, in what international meddler’s toolbox does partition of target nations feature most prominently? Washington planned from the outset to partition Iraq into “semi-autonomous regions”, and it still hasn’t given up on that dream. It gloatingly planned the same fate for Syria. Washington has leaned on the Tatar minority in Crimea, hoping to stir up something there, and flatters the obsequious old fool Mustafa Jemilev that he is some sort of international pet in the hope the Crimean Tatars will “rise up” and cause problems which could spark an international intervention to “protect their rights” and perhaps restore the region to Ukrainian control. This although Kiev cared diddly for anything the Tatars said or did for a decade and would go right back to ignoring them – with Washington’s blessing – just as soon as Kiev got Crimea back under its thumb. It should be pretty clear that the politics of divide and conquer are not a tried and true Washington regime-change template by coincidence.
“Russia’s current policy of building bases and housing for thousands of troops represents the Kremlin’s determination to keep Assad in power. But it’s not really an operation against the Islamic State, since Putin has already said Russian troops won’t fight ISIS; rather, they’ll fight Assad’s other enemies.” Putin did not ever say that, not anywhere in any language. Mr. Blank would have been better off to just leave it at saying “Putin has already said Russian troops won’t fight ISIS“, because Putin has said he was not sending in ground troops to fight anyone, and the appropriate force to liberate Syria from terrorists is the Syrian Army. Putin, nor any other representative of the Russian state, has not ever said Russian troops would fight Assad’s other enemies to the exclusion of ISIS, and the Russian Air Force is getting its targeting coordinates from the Syrian Army. And there is no evidence at all that Russia has constructed housing for “thousands of troops” – show me. It’s bad enough when you have to twist the truth to sway opinion, but when you have to outright lie, you have failed in every way that matters.
“Putin’s plan for a coalition is that essentially all the Sunni states fight Sunni extremists for the benefit of Iran and its terrorist allies, Assad and Hezbollah. Russian and Western sources have revealed that Moscow facilitates the movement of terrorists from the North Caucasus to Syria and Iraq so that they do not fight in Russia—hardly a sign of Putin’s commitment to battle terrorism. In fact, Moscow continues to supply weapons through Syria and Iran to Hezbollah even as it trades with Israel and insists on helping bring Hamas into power in the West Bank—alongside the Palestinian Authority—and denies that Hamas is a terrorist organization.”
Who benefits when states fight religious extremists? Everybody. How does Putin plan to rig it so that wiping out religious extremists – which as recently as 2007-ish, Washington didn’t care much for, either, it’s only in the last two years that official America has discovered just how cuddly and loveable Islamic extremists are (when they are progressing your agenda for you) – only benefits Iran and Assad? Blank’s western source which “revealed” that Moscow facilitates the movement of terrorists from the North Cauasus is The Daily Beast. Seriously, this business of government officials and American academics citing gossip magazines and social media has got to stop. You fucking snoop on everybody, read their mail and listen in on their phone calls – if, after all that, you are still citing The Daily Beast and Twitter, you haven’t got shit and you know it.
Is Hamas a terrorist organization? There can be no argument that it was democratically elected in an election western observers agreed was free and fair. A debate on that very subject took place in 2006, the same year Hamas assumed elected power in the Palestinian territories. The group agreed Hamas, although an elected government, was still a terrorist organization, according to the Canadian definition of “terrorist”; to wit, “…[A] man who murders indiscriminately, distinguishing neither between innocent and guilty nor soldier and civilian.” We can stipulate here that the term “man” is not intended to convey a gender bias, and means “human”.
Oh, dear – the Ukrainian government is a terrorist organization!! Who knew?? I’m being sarcastic, of course; a lot of people knew. Not only does the Kiev government murder indiscriminately in practice, without distinguishing between civilian and military, guilty and innocent, its Prime Minister publicly championed that practice and referred to the eastern Ukrainians as “subhumans”. Who supports that? Her Majesty’s government, the United States government, the Canadian government, the Australian government, the governments of Poland, France, Italy, Germany…I could go on, but I consider the point made. John O’ Sullivan, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the participant in the debate who advocated the application of that definition for “terrorist”, argued that an organization which met those criteria should be treated as international pariahs. For those who don’t know what that means, it means stop giving them money. And the semantics of who is a terrorist are less important to sanctimonious Washington than who is a useful terrorist – taking the Mujaheddin Khalq (MEK) off the terrorist list was as simple as asking them to confirm they have renounced violence, and will only agitate peacefully for the overthrow of the Iranian government. Those assurances were quickly accepted by the same government which is currently airdropping pallets of ammunition into the Syrian desert without any serious regard at all for who might pick it up, the only stipulation being that it is dropped in areas which are under rebel control. Voice Of America credits the sudden reversal of ISIS’s fortunes in Syria to “tens of thousands of coalition-supported Syrian rebels”, although ISIS was steadily advancing (under Washington’s complacent and paternal gaze) until the intervention by the Russian Federation, and Washington has admitted it has only managed to train and equip “four or five” trustworthy rebels. Meanwhile, what once was labeled the “Free Syrian Army” collapsed last spring and its remnants merged with Jabbat al-Nusra, which is al Qaeda in Syria, and I be go to hell if they are not a terrorist organization which kills indiscriminately. They should be regarded as international pariahs, not running around the desert picking up ammunition pinatas from Uncle Sam.
“Turkey, a NATO ally, is also feeling the Russian squeeze. Once Russia finishes building its bases in Syria, its overwhelming dominance in the Black Sea and air and naval capabilities to the south will sandwich Turkey between them. Even as bilateral energy talks sputter and that relationship has soured, Moscow is now bringing into play new ways of pressuring Turkey. A look at Turkish defense procurements and plans for importing weapons suggests that Ankara has begun to grasp the threat. But no one wants to discuss this pressure on a fellow NATO member.”
For the love of God, please stop speaking of Turkey as if it were some sort of raft adrift on a hostile ocean. As mentioned earlier, Turkey has more than twice the coastline on the Black Sea that Russia has, three times as much if you are from the camp which stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that Crimea is a part of Russia. It is stiff with NATO and American military facilities, and has the entire might of NATO behind it. If NATO is afraid of Russia, say so – but if you say that, then stop with the smirking jibes about its “rustbucket navy” and its dysfunctional conscript army. Turkey has been offered an opportunity to become a profitable energy hub for Europe, dispensing Russian oil and gas, and if the USA was able to do the same thing it would congratulate itself on a smart piece of brinksmanship. If Turkey accepts the overtures, it will be because it wants to make money, not because it is being “squeezed”.
This entire ream of crybaby rubbish boils down to a petulant splutter-fit because the beautiful and surpassingly-clever Beltway plan to have Assad driven from power by Islamist militias – didn’t really matter which one got there first – and then for American forces to swoop in just moments too late to save him, whereupon a hand-picked government of exiles would be brought to power by the usual kingmakers, was all spoiled by that horrible pipsqueak Vladimir Putin. It is no good to now pretend to lofty altruistic principles for the good of all mankind. As a pungent aphorism has it, don’t piss in my pocket and tell me it’s raining.