Putin’s Consistency on Syria Has Washington Fuming

Whether it’s the latest neocon claim that the way to ‘help’ refugees is to drop more bombs and train more Al-Qaeda-linked rebels, or the conveniently-timed mass hysteria over Russia’s (never secret) support for Bashar Assad — or even the strange (and completely false) notion floating around that the West has ‘done nothing’ in Syria, all of this nonsense is becoming very difficult to take seriously.

It’s fairly easy to tell when Washington is scrambling to keep control of a story, because two things usually happen: firstly, the media coverage becomes muddled and frazzled, and secondly, the White House quickly looks for somewhere to offload the blame. These days the scapegoat is usually Russia, and hey, why fix what ain’t broken?

Obama’s fumbling vs. Putin’s consistency

On September 11, Barack Obama warned that Russia’s strategy of continued support for Assad was “doomed to fail” and a “big mistake.” In a patronizing little addendum, Obama said Putin was “going to have to start getting a little smarter.”

There’s more than a little irony in such statements, given that Obama’s own Syria strategy thus far has been an abject failure. However, the vaguely personal nature of his comments betrays a deeper frustration. While Obama continues to scratch his head over the mess that has unfolded in Syria, Putin has not wavered. Right or wrong, Russia’s Syria strategy has been consistent and clearly articulated, in stark contrast to Washington’s fumbling and bumbling.

While Russia still believes Assad needs to be an integral part of a broader coalition aimed at taking Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) out and that toppling his government would create further chaos and destruction, Washington still seems to believe that it can go after IS and Assad simultaneously. Little thought is given to the power vacuum such a strategy, if it was ‘successful’, would leave behind. Underlying this policy is an assumption that if they could just get Assad out of the way and force the Russians out of the equation, there would be a nice clean transfer of power — to an American puppet government, of course — and that all would be dandy. Just like it was in Iraq and Libya.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov countered the recent comments from Washington by arguing that it would be “absurd” to exclude the Syrian Army from fighting the jihadists, as it would be “the most effective military force on the ground.”

But inconsistency still reigns in DC. One minute we are told Assad is actively aiding Islamic State and the next minute it’s the ‘common enemy’, and John Kerry is talking about negotiating with the Syrian president. Similarly, the intensity of the calls to get rid of Assad has changed numerous times. Sometimes it’s vigorous and resounding. Other times it’s more timid and reserved.

Barack Obama can’t make up his mind. That much is crystal clear.

Media struggling to toe the line

The muddled media coverage we’re seeing now is a natural byproduct of Washington’s own confusion and shifting priorities. Washington’s establishment media — and those across the pond who follow it lockstep — are trying to toe the line, but the contradictions are getting more tangled by the day.

In case you were losing track, here is a quick rundown of the latest narratives we’re supposed to be swallowing:

  • The West has simultaneously ‘done nothing’ and needs to ‘do even more’ to solve the crisis (this ignores the US’s sustained campaign of airstrikes and its training of anti-Assad rebels)
  • Putin wants to destroy IS, but he’s also sending jihadists to join them (oh, and he’s also to blame for the crisis in general)
  • Russia and Syria are allies, but Russian military personnel in Syria amounts to some sort of new ‘intervention’

And let’s not forget that for at least two weeks last month we were inundated with stories about how Putin was about to ditch Assad at any moment. Those stories were peddled by some of the same people who are now trying to spin Russia’s support of the Syrian president as some shocking new development.

Just over a week ago, the New York Times editorial board gave its full-throated endorsement to the State Department and lambasted Putin’s “dangerous” interference in the conflict. The piece was illustrated with a frankly Russophobic cartoon of an angry bear gobbling up a Syrian flag. Crude and disingenuous propaganda, particularly when you consider that the difference between US military involvement in Syria and Russian military involvement is that the Russians were actually invited.

Then, an essay in the Wall Street Journal last weekend managed to simultaneously roast NATO for the failure of its intervention in Libya while calling for deeper intervention in Syria — in the same sentence. It’d take some fairly strenuous mental gymnastics to work that one out.

Another headache for Washington

Perhaps the most striking revelation in the Syria story came this week in a Guardian article quoting the former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, who asserts the West ignored a 2012 proposal by Russia that would have seen Assad step down as part of a broad peace deal. Convinced that Assad was about to be toppled, the West reportedly ignored the proposal.

Fast-forward to 2015, hundreds of thousands of Syrians are dead and millions more displaced. The US is still arming and training Al-Qaeda-linked rebels to overthrow Assad, struggling to convince the world that this is a workable solution and using Russia as the scapegoat to cover its own failures.

This latest piece of the puzzle surely provoked more frustration in the White House, which will not want to be embarrassed by the implication that time and again, it appears to prefer bombs as a first resort rather than a last one. For Russia’s part, the response to the Guardian story appeared to be neither confirm nor deny.

However, it’s against this backdrop that Washington has now agreed to restore direct military talks with the Russians. On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry said the new talks would allow some time to “consider the next steps” to be taken in Syria. The talks could be a lifeline for Washington, a chance for Obama to walk his way back from the edge.

The US has overextended itself in Syria. One would think that at this point the White House could begin to admit its shortcomings and stop digging the hole — but as with so many American foreign policy adventures, evidence of failure isn’t usually enough to force a rethink of strategy. Still, the fact that Washington has agreed to reopen the lines of communication is a glimmer of hope. At the same time, the calls for Assad to go have been scaled back to something to be ‘negotiated’ rather than immediate. Another positive sign.

If however, nothing comes of the latest negotiations, we must then begin to seriously question Washington’s motives. Is the White House still more concerned with installing a puppet government in Damascus or vigorously fighting Islamic State? Why has the US thus far been so reluctant to partner with Russia to create a strong and broad international coalition that would provide the best chance for weakening this barbaric group and give the suffering Syrian people a decent chance to take back their country?

Writing for RT, Bryan MacDonald speculated that Washington “fears that Russia may get the credit for ending the conflict.” It appears, he wrote, “that US leaders think it’s more important to show contempt for Russia than to bring to an end a war that has caused such death and destruction.”

If saving face against the Russians is a major factor in Washington’s decision-making, it spells only more suffering for ordinary Syrian people. European leaders, who have largely supported Obama’s Middle East policies, must begin to seriously ask themselves, is toppling Assad worth any cost?

The US evidently believes it is — but then, it’s not the one paying the price. It rarely does.

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