Nuclear Chicken In Syria
By Mark H Gaffney – Information Clearing House
Western civilization hanging by a thread
One need not be a rocket scientist to foresee the likely consequences of President Trump’s new $350 billion arms deal with the Saudi monarchy, which Trump inked with great fanfare on his much-ballyhooed visit to Riyadh. If the deal survives congressional opposition, its most likely outcome will be to escalate the Syrian war, the world’s bloodiest conflict. It will also fuel the Saudis’ on-going genocidal war in Yemen and may even produce new wars. At the top of the Saudi and Israeli hit list: Iran.
I mention Israel here also because although the Israelis harbour no love for the Saudis, they find themselves pressed by circumstances into a marriage of convenience with the most dictatorial and misogynistic state on earth. There is common ground. The Israelis and Saudis both strongly oppose Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, and both would like nothing better than for Trump to tear up the treaty, impose new sanctions, and even start bombing. During the 1970s-80s the Israelis forged a similar alliance of convenience with former Nazi-collaborators in Apartheid South Africa.
Americans need to understand that Trump has now placed the US squarely on one side, the Sunni side, of a regional sectarian war that GW Bush & Co. jump-started in 2003 by invading and occupying Iraq. The Sunni side includes the Saudis, Qatar and the other Gulf States, Turkey and Israel. It is also appropriate here to mention ISIS and the many faces of Al Qaeda, especially Al Nusra in Syria, all of which are Sunni.
The other Shi’ite side of the sectarian divide is comprised of Iran, Hezbollah, what remains of Iraq, and Syria which is allied with the Russians.
By openly committing to one side, Trump has taken a fateful step that no previous US president was willing to take, for the soundest of reasons. As boatloads of US-made arms are delivered to Saudi Arabia, much of the weaponry will subsequently find its way to Yemen, and also to Al Nusra mercenaries in Syria who are allied with the Saudis. Al Nusra is a Syrian branch of Al Qaeda. The proxy terrorists will go on slaughtering Syrians in the name of Allah and generally wreaking havoc. Removal of Syrian president Assad was the Saudi objective from the war’s outset, and a goal the US has supported, to our everlasting shame. Indeed, the new arms deal probably points to a renewed US commitment for regime change, and perhaps an expanded US military presence. For many months, US special forces have been operating in Jordan, just over the Syrian border. One week ago, US forces in the area fired on the Syrian army, killing a number of soldiers, the third such attack since last year.
Trump supporters will argue that the president’s arms deal is good for Americans working in “defense” plants who are now assured of pay-checks. The deal is Trump’s way of making good on his campaign promise to restore American jobs. Such reasoning is incredibly short-sighted, however, because the deal is likely to have grave unintended consequences. As the Syrian war heats up the risk of a military confrontation with Russia will increase. If the US starts killing Russians in Syria, whether intentionally or by miscalculation, all bets are off.
Can our world survive another Cuban missile crisis? How did we arrive at such a dark pass?
Last year, during the run up to the 2016 US presidential election, the prospects for peace momentarily brightened. For a time, it seemed that we might escape a deeper Mideast entanglement. Although candidate Hillary Clinton made it known she intended to impose a no-fly zone in Syria, fortunately, the scary implications of her reckless plan were made transparently obvious during a hearing on Capitol Hill when Senator Robert Wicker (R-Mississippi) queried General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, about the idea of a no-fly zone. General Dunford’s frank reply should have shocked Hillary supporters back to their senses. Said Dunford: “For us to control all of the airspace in Syria would require us to go to war with Syria and Russia. That’s a pretty fundamental decision that certainly I’m not going to make.”
Early in the campaign, Trump emerged as an effective critic of both GW Bush’s and Obama’s wasteful foreign wars and Hillary’s plans to perpetuate them. Candidate Trump also made it clear that he wanted improved relations with Russia, a positive and long overdue policy change. And Trump struck a populist chord by insisting that his top priority would be to rebuild the country’s infrastructure and put Americans back to work. Trump’s non-interventionist views doubtless gained him many votes in the November election, and may have been decisive in upsetting the heavily favoured Clinton, who many correctly viewed as a warmonger. In short, there was reason for hope.
Then came Russia-gate, and we all know the rest of the story. I will not belabour it here. The press has thrashed the matter up one side and down the other without producing a shred of evidence of wrongdoing by Trump, at any rate, nothing worse than poor judgement. Suffice to say that, by now, anyone paying attention ought to know or suspect that elements of the US intelligence community confabulated the whole farcical business to wreck Trump’s planned detente with Russia. Why would they do that? Simple. US plutocrats want continued confrontation and conflict. As Rep. Schumer (D-NY) pointed out to Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, “You take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday of getting back at you.”
With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, it’s evident that citizens who voted against Hillary were naive to expect that a different face in the White House would produce a more benign foreign policy. What we failed to understand is that, long ago, US presidents became figureheads and largely ceased making foreign policy. This has been true for many years, certainly since John F Kennedy paid the ultimate price, after bravely attempting to end the original Cold War.
There is a story that rings true and I suspect may be: that Robert Rubin and Alan Greenspan sat down president-elect Bill Clinton, shortly before his first inauguration, and explained the political facts of life: “From now on, Bill,” they told him, “you will take orders from us. We are your boss.” As we know, Clinton proved a most willing and dutiful servant to power during his two terms. Nothing less can explain why a vigorous young president who had the benefit of vast popularity failed to draw on his public support for the sake of the country. On the contrary, as we know, Bill did everything possible to deliver the nation into the hands of Wall Street scoundrels, thereby setting the stage for GW Bush, the neoconservatives, and the many disasters that have since befallen us. Someone wiser than Bill should have cautioned the young Arkansas governor about taking that first kickback: Once you accept the money, son, they own your ass for life.
While many, perhaps most, Americans continue to live in denial, the unpleasant truth is that policymaking, especially when it comes to foreign policy, is the work of a small cabal of ultra-conservative militarists, industrialists and bankers who rule America from behind the scenes: what has become known as the deep state.
The outer forms, the highly visible vestiges of democracy, are retained to placate Americans and keep them docile. Nonetheless, year by year and war by war, the ugly truth increasingly stares us in the face. The reality should have been obvious to everyone by 2007 when Oregon congressman Peter DeFazio was denied access to classified Continuity of Government (COG) documents in the secure room of the Capitol, even though DeFazio was (and still is) in possession of the relevant security clearances and by law should have been granted access. What are the rulers trying to conceal from us?
Another instance occurred last year when President Obama, to his credit, attempted to craft his own Syria policy. In September 2016, Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry announced a cooperative agreement with the Russians over Syria. After months of painstaking diplomacy, the US and Russia had agreed to share intelligence in the common fight against ISIS. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov even managed to agree about Al Nusra. What happened next is instructive.
Shortly before the US-Russia agreement was to go into effect, the US military launched an unprovoked air attack on a Syrian garrison at Deir ez-Zor that killed about 100 Syrian soldiers. The blatant US aggression put a swift end to Kerry’s agreement with Lavrov, erasing months of patient diplomacy while also raising questions about who in Washington was really in charge. The attack obviously had been ordered by someone at the Pentagon without Obama’s approval.
As it happened, there were other consequences. The US attack at Deir ez-Zor gave local ISIS fighters a momentary tactical advantage, which they exploited by launching a successful attack of their own against the Syrian army. It is no wonder that US critics believe Washington cultivated ISIS from the outset to destabilize nations targeted with regime change; and for who-knows-what other covert purposes. After recent events in Syria, it is hard to argue with the critics.
The second US strike against Syria occurred on April 6th, two days after a chemical weapons attack that the western press predictably blamed on Assad. The chemical attack occurred in terrorist-controlled Idlib province and killed scores of victims, many of them children. The world responded with justifiable outrage. Assad was roasted for gassing his own people. No surprise, we had seen it all before. Trump impulsively ordered a cruise missile strike against the Al Shayrat air base near Homs that was embarrassingly ineffectual. The Russians who had been forewarned alerted the Syrians who evacuated most of their planes in time. Nonetheless, many Americans cheered, including even liberals who despise Trump and eagerly support the deep state’s attempts to remove him. But forget all of that. It was a feel good moment. America was back in the saddle, standing tall again. No matter that we were striking the wrong target. Kind of like after 9/11. Does anyone remember?
Meanwhile, a more sober analysis of the Idlib chemical attack by MIT expert Theodore Postol received much less media coverage, at least in the US; and why? Well, because Postol disputed the government’s conclusion that the evidence pointed to Assad. After reviewing the White House intelligence report about the incident, Postol wrote that the summary “contains absolutely no evidence that would indicate who was the perpetrator of this atrocity.” Postol went on to accuse the White House of releasing “an obviously false, misleading and amateurish report.”
As for the Russians, they are not in Syria because, as some claim, they harbour illusions about restoring Russia to its former glory as a superpower. No, they are in Syria because southern Russia is exposed to penetration by jihadists and will not be secure until ISIS and Al Qaeda have been defeated in the Mideast. For this same reason, it is also unlikely that the Russians will be intimidated by US threats, even a display of raw military power. The Russians know that if they back down in Syria they will have to face the US or its proxies later under more adverse circumstances. So, it might as well be now and it might as well be in Syria.
As if to underscore all of this, last week, Putin dispatched Russian troops to southern Syria, for the first time. The Russians took up positions near Suweita, not far from where the third and most recent US attack against the Syrian army occurred. The deployment indicates the Russians are determined to stay the course. They will remain in Syria until the work of defeating ISIS and Al Qaeda has been accomplished, with or without US cooperation.
The new deployment ought to be viewed as a red line, indeed, as a line in the sand. By deploying far from their main base in north-western Syria and in plain view of US forces in nearby Jordan, the Russians have upped the ante. Henceforth, any US military incursion into southern Syria will run the risk of a confrontation with Russian forces and a dangerous escalation. By visibly placing their troops in harm’s way, the Russians are sending a message that US chicken-hawks would be insane to ignore. It goes something like this: if anybody wants to start something, you know, like World War III, let him start killing Russians in Syria. Think it over, America.
Mark H. Gaffney is the author of Dimona: the Third Temple (1989), a pioneering study of Israel’s nuclear weapons program.