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Has Barack Obama already ceded his Syria policy to Hillary Clinton?

Though US President Barack Obama has managed to restrain the more belligerent voices in the US administration demanding military intervention in Syria, he has never succeeded in fully imposing his authority on them, and he now anyway appears to be ceding control of Syrian policy to the much more hawkish Hillary Clinton.

Throughout five years of war in Syria President Obama has been in a constant internal struggle with hawks in his administration who want the U.S. to directly intervene militarily to overthrow the Syrian government.

On at least four occasions Obama has stood up to them. At other times has has compromised and gone half way. With less than three months to go in office, Obama appears to be leaving his Syria policy to those aligned with the lead hawk who might soon take Obama’s place.

When she was secretary of state, Hillary Clinton failed to convince Obama to consistently take a tough line on Syria.  She wanted him to realize her two main policies, which she still clings to:  a safe zone on the ground and a no-fly zone in the air.

Both would protect rebels seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which she calls her top foreign policy priority. It was the model Clinton had convinced a reluctant Obama to adopt in Libya. It led to the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi but ultimately turned that county into a failed state.

Libya was emblematic of the disarray following regime change that has marked nearly two decades of neoconservative influence in Washington: dividing and weakening defiant states, while American contractors profit from the chaos that bleeds the locals to death.

Obama learned from Libya. He said his biggest regret was having no plan for the aftermath. It left him deeply skeptical about intervention in Syria.  But given his opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he should have already understood what happens after the U.S. overthrows regimes these days.

In the early years of the CIA, in Syria in 1949, Iran in 1953, and Guatemala in 1954, as illegal and as unjustified as those coups were, the agency had viable leaders groomed to take over in competition with the Soviet Union. But all that changed after the Cold War ended.  “We can use our military in the Middle East and the Soviets won’t stop us,” arch-neocon Paul Wolfowitz boasted before the Iraq invasion.

Today neoconservatives and liberal interventionists (such as Clinton) act like gamblers who can’t leave the table. Disaster for Iraqis and Libyans hasn’t dissuaded them from wagering on Syria.  It seems to have only encouraged them.

That regime change in the guise of “spreading democracy” in the Middle East instead spawns chaos and terrorism only gives the hawks further reason to intervene, create more chaos and make more money, while weakening nations defying Washington.

Clinton began laying a bet on regime change in Damascus by pushing to arm rebels in the summer of 2012. One of her leaked emails explains her motive:  to break up the Tehran to Damascus to southern Lebanon supply line to Hezbollah—a long standing Israeli objective.

Obama refused at this point to arm the rebels. But an August 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency document showed that U.S. intelligence agencies were up to their own designs in Syria, with or without Obama’s approval.

Ret. Gen. Mike Flynn, who headed the DIA at the time, said it was a “willful decision” in Washington to support a “Salafist principality”—a safe area for jihadist rebels—in eastern Syria to put pressure on Damascus.  He didn’t say who in Washington ultimately decided. The DIA document made public last year warns that these Salafists could join with jihadists from Iraq to form an “Islamic State.” And indeed two years later they did.

While this was gestating in August 2013 Obama again showed some independence on Syria after seeing the consequences of the Clinton-led disaster in Libya: a failed state radiating arms and jihadis to Syria and the Sahel. 

This time Obama compromised with the hawks. He eventually agreed to arm the rebels. But he resisted pressure to launch cruise missiles against Syrian government targets after his “redline” was supposedly crossed by a chemical weapons attack outside Damascus that killed hundreds of people.

As we now know, the CIA did not think it a “slam dunk” that Syria did it. Evidence has pointed to the rebels. So Obama instead took Russia’s offer to have Syria give up its chemical weapons stocks, which in time it did, infuriating the neocons.

An Even Bolder Putin Offer

Russian President Vladimir Putin followed with another offer to the United States in September 2015, delivered from the podium of the U.N. General Assembly:  He proposed joint U.S.-Russian airstrikes against the now fully formed Islamic State and associated jihadists.

These extremists were seeking to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an undemocratic leader in a police state, but who posed no threat to the West. The jihadists had by now clearly become the greater evil in Syria. In time ISIS would plan or inspire attacks in France, Belgium, Germany, Egypt and the United States.

More than three years earlier I reported that Russia’s motive to support Assad to was stop the spread of jihadism that threatened the West and Russia.  Now Putin put it on the record in his U.N. speech. He invoked the World War II alliance between enemies that together faced a greater threat. “Similar to the anti-Hitler coalition, it could unite a broad range of parties willing to stand firm against those who, just like the Nazis, sow evil and hatred of humankind,” Putin said. 

This time Obama sided with the hawks and immediately rejected the offer. We now know why. In a leaked audio conversation with Syrian opposition figures in September, Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S., rather than fight ISIS, or Daesh, in Syria, was instead ready to use its growing strength to pressure Assad to resign—the original intention outlined in the DIA document.

“We know that this was growing, we were watching, we saw that Daesh was growing in strength, and we thought Assad was threatened….ah, we thought however we could probably manage that Assad might then negotiate, but instead of negotiating he got Putin to support him,” Kerry said.

Moscow began its military intervention in late September 2015 without the United States. Russia’s motives have been made abundantly clear by Putin and other Russian officials.

For instance, last month Putin told French TV channel TF1: “Remember what Libya or Iraq looked like before these countries and their organisations were destroyed as states by our Western partners’ forces? … These states showed no signs of terrorism. They were not a threat for Paris, for the Cote d’Azur, for Belgium, for Russia, or for the United States. Now, they are the source of terrorist threats. Our goal is to prevent the same from happening in Syria.”

Such clear explanation are rarely reported seriously by Western corporate media. Instead it peddles the line from officials and think tanks that Russia is trying to recover lost imperial glory in the Middle East.

But Kerry knew why Russia intervened. “The reason Russia came in is because ISIL was getting stronger, Daesh was threatening the possibility of going to Damascus, and that’s why Russia came in because they didn’t want a Daesh government and they supported Assad,” he said in the leaked discussion. That seems to indicate the U.S. would have tolerated ISIS coming to the verge of power if it meant ousting Assad.   

Washington may have then intended to turn its firepower on ISIS once Assad was gone. But this presumes Assad would have stepped down, rather than make a last stand in Damascus. Had it gone that far the U.S. was risking an Islamic State government in Syria.

Putin had warned the General Assembly about such a gamble with terrorism: “The Islamic State itself did not come out of nowhere. It was initially developed as a weapon against undesirable secular regimes.” He said it was irresponsible “to manipulate extremist groups and use them to achieve your political goals, hoping that later you’ll find a way to get rid of them or somehow eliminate them.”

Pipelines

There may another motive for Russia’s intervention in Syria beyond a sincere goal of crushing jihadism. There’s the argument that the uprising against Assad financed by the Arab Gulf came after he turned down a proposed gas pipeline running from Qatar in 2009.

A year later Syria was in flames. There is precedent for such a motive. The first coup led by the two-year old CIA in 1949 in Syria came when the elected government rejected a Saudi pipeline deal. The government was removed and replaced by a military leader who let the pipeline be built.

A Qatar gas pipeline through Syria to supply Europe would compete with Russia’s sales of natural gas to the continent. Keeping Assad in power prevents that.

Perhaps Assad had to chose between the Gulf or Russia, not understanding that the sore losers  would launch a jihadist war to oust him. It reminds one of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s choice between the EU or Russia. He also didn’t count on that decision leading to his violent downfall.

The Safe Area

Hillary Clinton has been pushing for a no-fly zone and a safe area in Syria since she ran the State Department.  She has called for both as recently as the last presidential debate, despite the inherent dangers of confronting Russia. 

The safe area is supposed to shelter internally displaced Syrians to prevent them from becoming refugees. But it could also be used as a staging ground to train and equip jihadists intent on regime change, as was employed in Libya. A safe area would need ground troops to protect it. Clinton says there will be no US ground troops in Syria.

Turkey has also been clamoring for a safe area on the ground for the past few years. Erdoğan called for it (as well as a no-fly zone in northern Syria) as recently as last September in his address to the U.N. General Assembly.

Erdoğan has had neo-Ottoman tendencies for some time but in August he acted on them, invading Syria with U.S. air cover on the exact 500th anniversary of the Ottoman’s first foreign invasion, also of Syria. Now Erdogan is openly making claims on Mosul based on a World War One-era Turkish claim. And he’s massing troops on the Iraqi border threatening war with Baghdad. [See the related Duran article “Will Turkey and Iraq Go to War?”]

The hawks appear to have bested Obama this time. He has not stood in the way of Clinton-allies in his administration letting Erdoğan pursue his neo-Ottoman fantasy (even fighting U.S.-backed Kurds) in exchange for Turkish NATO forces establishing a safe area without U.S. ground troops. Turkey and its rebel forces already control about 490 square miles in northern Syria.

With less than three months left in office, Obama, who had opposed a safe area and a  Turkish invasion, appears to have relinquished his Syria policy to who he wants to be the next president. 

Again with Plan B?

Since American officials rarely explain fully what they are up to beyond slogans like “Fighting ISIS” and “the War on Terror”, understanding U.S. policy in the Middle East is reduced to educated guesses based on official and leaked statements and assessments of complex developments on the ground.

For instance, the U.S. is publicly opposing Turkey by backing Syrian Kurds in their just launched offensive to take Raqqa, the ISIS capital in Syria. Erdogan has vowed to send Turkish troops, or Turkish-backed rebels there. How will Washington solve this contradiction as events on the ground would indicate that Washington is effectively letting Turkey create Clinton’s safe area on territory taken mostly from ISIS. It could eventually stretch from northeast Syria into western Iraq.

A safe area in eastern Syria stretching to western Iraq could implement the so-called Plan B:  dividing Syria to weaken it, while also creating a corridor for the pipeline from Qatar. Settling for Plan B, or partition, would be an admission that Plan A, regime change, had failed.

There might also be another crucial task for Turkey on behalf of the Washington hawks in both Syria and Iraq. Erdogan may well target the Turkman-majority Iraqi Tal Afar area, a Shia   area that the Iraqi government wants to control. It would open a corridor from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. But Turkey could also cut this passage in northern Syria.

Is the U.S. allowing Turkish troops to create these facts on the ground?  It’s impossible to know for sure because of the lack of transparency coming out of Washington. But in this scenario Erdoğan gets to control Syrian Kurdish areas and possibly parts of Iraq, satisfying his neo-Ottoman fantasies, while Clinton gets her safe area with NATO troops, but without deploying U.S. soldiers on the ground.

Aleppo

Obama stood up to the hawks for the third time this summer by allowing Kerry to negotiate with Russia on Putin’s offer at the U.N.: to form a military alliance against ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria. Russia’s entry had turned the tide of the war in Syria’s favor but the defensive war against the insurgency has stalled in Aleppo, where a third of the city remains largely under al-Qaeda control.

While Obama publicly slammed the Russians, projecting that they were on an imperial venture that would wind up in a quagmire (exactly what has afflicted U.S. imperial ventures in various theaters), he kept plans for a safe area and no-fly zone on hold.

Then nearly a year after Putin’s offer and months of intermittent talks, Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Sept. 9 finally reached a deal to jointly fight terrorists in Syria. Though it was clear the agreement would ground the Syrian air force, resume humanitarian aid and agree on the identity of rebels to be jointly attacked, the U.S. insisted the terms remain secret.

But Defense Secretary Ash Carter made no secret of his objection. On Sept. 8 he said: “In the current circumstance, it is not possible for the United States to associate itself with — let alone to cooperate in — a venture that is only fueling violence and civil war.”

It was an extraordinary act of insubordination for which Carter was not punished. Once again Obama did not completely stand up to the hawks. But then Carter’s objection to the deal went beyond words. Two days before it was to go into effect, his Pentagon’s planes killed more than 60 Syrian soldiers near Deir ez Zor in an air strike the Pentagon later said was an “accident.” U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power was hardly repentant as she condemned Russia’s attempt to discuss the incident at the Security Council as a “stunt.”

Four days later a U.N. aid convoy was attacked near Aleppo, killing more than 20 aid workers. The U.S. immediately blamed Russian air strikes without presenting any evidence. Russia says rebels were responsible. The U.S.-Russia deal was dead.

Moscow eventually revealed its terms. At its heart was the separation of U.S.-backed rebels from al-Qaeda, which dominates a third of Aleppo. But once again, despite repeated pledges to do so, the U.S. failed to separate them.

Syria and Russia had enough and declared all rebels fighting with al-Qaeda to be fair game. They commenced a furious bombardment of east Aleppo to crush the insurgency there once and for all.  Putting all of Aleppo back into government hands would be a major turning point in the war. It has not proven easy. Instead the fierce aerial assaults have claimed numerous civilian lives, handing Russia’s opponents a public relations coup.

Washington, London and Paris are leading the chorus of war crimes accusations against Russia (though the U.S. and Britain invaded Iraq without Security Council authorization in an act of aggression that can reasonably be seen as the supreme war crime.)

Russia’s actions in Aleppo have been compared to Israel’s in Gaza. Though two U.N. reports have said Israel may have been guilty of war crimes in 2012 and 2014 attacks on Gaza, Israel has not been prosecuted at the International Criminal Court.

The differences between Gaza and Aleppo are stark, however. Gazans are an indigenous people attacked by an Occupying Power. Syria and Russia are attacking the occupiers–largely foreign-backed mercenaries. People in Gaza cannot escape the city because of their attackers, while people in east Aleppo can’t escape because of the attacked.

The area of bombardment and number of people under fire (and so far casualties) were much higher in Gaza than in east Aleppo. Rebel rockets from east Aleppo actually kill large numbers of civilians in the west of the city, unlike Hamas’ rockets into Israel. The biggest difference is that the West defends Israel and deflects charges of war crimes while it accuses Russia and Syria of the same. 

Isolated from the context of the entire war against a foreign-backed rebellion, the battle for east Aleppo ( usually reported as the whole city) has been framed by Western liberal media in the same way Sarajevo was in the 1990s. Then a highly complex war was boiled down to one battle alone, where Bosnian Serbs fired (indiscriminately) into civilian areas.  Today it is Russia that is accused of acting out of the pure intent to kill civilians with no other motive. 

The tactic of intense bombardment in Aleppo by Russia is troubling.  A Syrian army ground invasion of eastern Aleppo without heavy bombardments would minimize civilian causalities, but increase the government’s. It might be the price that has to be paid.

Nuclear Chicken

The reaction to the bombardment of eastern Aleppo has led to a severe increase in rabid calls for Western military intervention against the Syrian government, and possibly against Russia. 

The British parliament held a Russia-bashing session in October with calls for war against Moscow. Neocon newspaper like the Washington Post are itching for battle. A British general said the U.K. would be ready to fight Russia in two years—enough time for a Clinton administration to prepare.

The U.S. and its allies are planning for a post-Putin Russia in which a Wall Street-friendly leader like Boris Yeltsin can be restored to reopen the country to Western exploitation. But Putin is no Yeltsin. Washington’s modus operandi is to continually provoke and blame an opponent until it stands up for itself, as Putin’s Russia has done, then falsely accuse it of “aggression” and attack in “self-defense.”   

We see this being prepared in Ukraine, the Baltics, Poland, the Balkans and in Syria, where neocon calls are increasing for the U.S. to strike the Syrian government. Apparently Obama for the fourth time kept the hawks at bay after a White House meeting last month in which military action was turned down in the face of Russia’s warning that it would target attacking U.S. aircraft.

The neocons appear to much prefer coups to direct military action, but are not averse to blundering into war.

Obama has been the only brake on keeping Syria—and relations with Russia—from spiraling out of control. But his voice is fading as he prepares to leave office.

Into this fevered environment steps Hillary Clinton who may win the White House on Tuesday. She continues to call for a safe area and ominously for a no-fly zone, despite the warning last month from Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the joint chiefs, that that would mean war with Russia.

“I’m going to continue to push for a no-fly zone and safe havens within Syria….not only to help protect the Syrians and prevent the constant outflow of refugees, but to gain some leverage on both the Syrian government and the Russians,” Clinton said at the last debate after Dunford’s warning.­

She also said this after admitting in one of her paid speeches, released by Wikileaks, that a no-fly zone will “kill a lot of Syrians.”

Russia’s reaction has been defiant, setting up an ominous game of chicken that could go nuclear. Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Russia would shoot down any American plane attacking the Syrian government.

Russia has also deployed sophisticated air defenses in the country. This has given U.S. brass deep pause about confronting Russia in Syria.  Congress is not disposed to authorize war against Syria. So far Russia has come out on top there, lessening the risks of confrontation that could escalate to the most dangerous levels.

But will Hillary Clinton back down from her harsh rhetoric if she’s elected? Will she appoint more hawkish military leaders? Obama’s half-way measures in Syria have left the door open to a Clinton administration that appears determined to ratchet up the regime change operation, perhaps calling Putin’s bluff.

What happens if she miscalculates and he doesn’t backdown? Would she count on Putin retreating to save the world from a US-Russia war?  Is she ready to back away or smart enough not to even try?

Would Congressional and FBI investigations in the Clinton Foundation and the emails lead her to cause an international crisis to take the heat off, the way her husband bombed Iraq on the very day his impeachment proceedings were to begin?  Some astute analysts, like Alexander Mercouris, think she is rational enough to not provoke such a crisis. That remains to be seen.

Clinton also seems poised to arm the Ukrainian government and perhaps give Putin another ultimatum: give back Crimea or else. What if Putin calls Clinton’s bluff there?  It’s a roll of the dice the hawks, in their fanaticism to rule the world, might be ready to toss.   

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Joe Lauria
Joe Lauria is a veteran foreign-affairs journalist based at the U.N. since 1990. He has written for the Boston Globe, the London Daily Telegraph, the Johannesburg Star, the Montreal Gazette, the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter at @unjoe.