News of America's misadventures in foreign policy and defense.
Rarely has the sheer arrogance and manipulative game-playing of the United States in foreign policy been more clearly highlighted than in the recent episode involving a phone call between Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey R. Pyatt, the US ambassador to Ukraine.
In a stunning development, the entirety of the Nuland-Pyatt telephone call was taped and then released on YouTube, possibly as the result of a Russian intelligence coup or, less dramatically, by a snooper somewhere in Europe or Ukraine who managed to gain access to a crystal-clear, high-definition recording of their talk. In the course of a little over four minutes, the two American diplomats exchange ideas about who ought to be promoted, and who ought to be demoted, by the United States inside Ukraine, which is suffering through a difficult and even violent political dispute over whether Ukraine will tilt east, toward Russia, or west, toward the United States and Europe.
Let it first be noted that it shouldn’t be surprising that Nuland would come off as a would-be imperialist or game player. If anything, she’s long been the neoconservative inside the Obama administration. For starters, for years she served as chief foreign policy adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney and then as the George W. Bush administration’s ambassador to NATO. She’s married to another prominent neocon, Robert Kagan, one of the co-founders of the Project for a New American Century, the outfit that did more than any other to promote the invasion of Iraq starting in the late 1990s. For two years, Nuland served as the official spokesperson for the US State Department. Why President Obama let Nuland into his administration is anyone’s guess, but there she is.
The transcript of the Nuland-Pyatt phone call, which apparently occurred sometime last week and was released on YouTube on February 6, reveals how deeply the United States is enmeshed into internal Ukrainian affairs. The two diplomats banter about which of the Ukrainian opposition figures ought to go into the government, perhaps as prime minister, if a deal can be struck with Viktor Yanukovich, the president. As if it’s any of her business, Nuland says, referring to Vitali Klitschko (“Klitsch”), an opposition leader, “I don’t think Klitsch should go into the government. I don’t think it’s necessary, I don’t think it’s a good idea.” To which Pyatt, after a long pause, replies, “Just let him stay out and do his political homework and stuff.” Instead, Pyatt and Nuland agree that Arseniy Yatseniuk (“Yats”) ought be the guy who goes in. “I think Yats is the guy who’s got the economic experience, the governing experience.” Then Nuland concludes: “I just think Klitsch going in… he’s going to be at that level working for Yatseniuk, it’s just not going to work.”
After going back and forth, in which the two Americans decide on who’ll make what phone call to give Yats and Klitsch their apparent marching orders, and after they note that Oleh Tyahnybok, who represents an outright fascist-nationalist party, might be a “problem” (but, still, it seems, someone they can work with), it gets worse.
After noting that Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations and a UN envoy will be weighing in, Nuland expresses her disdain for the European Union (EU), which has been taking the lead on trying to bribe, cajole and persuade Ukraine to drop its dependence on Russia and start the process of joining the EU. Although the United States has officially said that the EU ought to be out front, in Washington—and in Nuland’s office—there is frustration over the fact that the EU won’t move faster and more aggressively to undercut Russia. “Fuck the EU!” says Nuland. Pyatt replies, rather hilariously, “No, exactly.” Exactly?
Well, that hasn’t gone over too well with leaders in Europe, especially with Germany’s Angela Merkel, who’s already expressed her extreme displeasure over the fact that the Bush and Obama administrations have been bugging her private telephone and otherwise spying on Germany, an ostensible ally. Obviously not thrilled about the idea of being fucked by Victoria Nuland, Merkel called the ambassador’s comments “totally unacceptable.”
Meanwhile, the United States has tried to distract from the actual content of the phone call by blaming Russia for its release. Said Jay Carney, the White House spokesman: “The video was first noted and tweeted out by the Russian government. I think it says something about Russia’s role.”
And Jen Psaki, using spy lingo, added: “Certainly we think this is a new low in Russian tradecraft.” Tradecraft, of course, is spy-talk for the secret techniques of espionage agents.
Victoria Nuland, laughing it off and noting that the quality of the audio was good, echoed Psaki, calling the whole episode “pretty impressive tradecraft.” (Less impressive, of course, is the idea that phone calls between two top American diplomats in the midst of an international crisis can’t be properly protected using secure transmission lines and encryption.) Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger, a German journalist and editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, said that as a result Russian President Vladimir Putin “should certainly be laughing himself stupid.”
No surprise: Ukraine’s own intelligence and law enforcement agencies aren’t going to bother investigating who did it.
Lastly, appearing on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS on Sunday, the outgoing US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, had this to say about the phone call episode, adding that he too had been bugged and the tape released:
Well, I haven’t seen any confirmation that it came from the Russians. I’ve been down here in Sochi during this period. I can say that the Russian government does have tremendous capacity when it comes to listening to conversations. I’ve had one of mine put on the web before when I was—a couple years ago. And most certainly we respect their capacities. We don’t respect what I consider if it’s true, to be a real breach of diplomacy. That’s just not the way we do business between countries.
No, the way we do business is far more aggressive than that.
Read Next: Stephen F. Cohen argues that right-wing extremists control the Kiev protests.
The United Nations has released the latest numbers on civilian deaths in Afghanistan, and they don’t look good. Overall, the number of civilians killed in the war that everyone in the United States has stopped thinking about rose seven percent in 2013 over 2012, and the number of those injured rose seventeen percent. In sheer numbers, that translates into 2,959 killed and 5,656 injured. As many as 1,756 of the casualties were children.
Said Georgette Gagnon, the UN official in charge of human rights at UNAMA, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan:
It is particularly alarming that the number of Afghan women and children killed and injured in the conflict increased again in 2013. It is the awful reality that most women and children were killed and injured in their daily lives—at home, on their way to school, working in the fields or traveling to a social event. This situation demands even greater commitment and further efforts by the parties to protect women and children from conflict-related violence.
As detailed at great length in a special report published in The Nation last fall and written by this reporter and Nick Turse, the UN’s figures tend to understate the numbers substantially.
According to the UN, about three-quarters of the civilian casualties were caused by what the UN calls “anti-government elements,” i.e., the Taliban and its allies, which is actually a drop from the four-fifths of the deaths that were attributed to insurgents in 2012.
Said UNAMA’s press release:
The report attributed 74 per cent of total civilian deaths and injuries in 2013 to Anti-Government Elements, 11 per cent to Pro-Government Forces (eight per cent to Afghan national security forces and three per cent to international forces) and ten per cent to ground engagements between Anti-Government Elements and Pro-Government Forces. Five per cent of civilian casualties were unattributed, resulting mostly from explosive remnants of war.
It’s important that Afghan government forces, which have taken over much of the fighting as the United States packs up to go home, were cited as being responsible for two-and-a-half times as many civilian casualties as the US/NATO command, according to UNAMA.
The Center for Civilians in Conflict, which has done critical work over the years trying to reduce civilian deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflict zones, noted the rise in casualties caused by the Afghan army and police—which, it seems, pay much less attention to civilians in the line of fire than the US/NATO forces have done. The Center said this trend is a sign that the Afghan forces need to do a lot more to change their method of operations as they take over from the departing Americans, and that “the Afghan government must urgently improve its efforts to minimize civilian harm caused by its forces.” Said a Center official:
When Afghan officials act to prevent civilian harm, they succeed, as shown by their efforts to detect and clear IEDs, which has saved civilian lives. Similar attention by Afghan officials to prevent civilian harm by their own forces is needed, starting with understanding why harm occurs in order to make changes to prevent future harm.
The Taliban, which callously disregards any concern about avoiding civilian deaths, slaughtered thousands via IED’s, suicide bombs, and other attacks. Says UNAMA:
Within civilian casualties from IEDs, UNAMA noted an 84 per cent rise in civilian deaths and injuries from radio-controlled IEDs and a 39 per cent decrease in civilian casualties from indiscriminate victim-activated pressure-plate IEDs. Anti-Government Elements continued to detonate IEDs in public areas used by civilians such as roads, markets, Government offices, bazaars, in and around schools, and bus stations. Suicide and complex attacks caused 1,236 civilian casualties (255 killed and 981 injured) in 73 incidents in 2013. While the number of attacks was similar to 2012, an 18 per cent decrease in civilian casualties from these attacks was noted. Combined, these IED tactics caused almost half of all civilian casualties in 2013.
On the “pro-government” side of the ledger, UNAMA reports:
Of all civilian casualties by Pro-Government Forces, 57 per cent were attributed to Afghan national security forces, 27 per cent to international military forces and 16 per cent to joint operations. Of the 57 per cent attributed to Afghan forces, the majority were from ground operations led by Afghan forces which resulted in 349 civilian casualties (88 civilian deaths and 261 injured), up 264 per cent from 2012.
You can access the whole UNAMA report at its website.
Read Next: George Zornick on senators demanding a vote before more war in Afghanistan.
Don’t think for a moment that the United States isn’t still involved in Iraq. At the moment, the government of Iraq is preparing for what might be called the Third Battle of Falluja. That’s the city in Anbar Province, west of Baghdad, that was the scene of horrific clashes during the US occupation of Iraq in 2004. Now, Falluja is under the control of radical-right Sunni Islamists, Al Qaeda and elements allied with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and the government in Baghdad has been paralyzed in its efforts to retake the city.
Whatever happens, it’s going to be bloody once again. And although the United States withdrew its occupation forces in December 2011, the Obama administration has continued to view Iraq in the context of the regional competition with Iran, which has enormous influence with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s regime. Although Maliki, who lived in Iran during part of his exile in the Saddam Hussein era, is ideologically closer to Tehran than to Washington, he’s maintained political and military ties with the United States since 2011—including the supply of advanced US weapons—and it looks like the United States is trying to use the crisis over Falluja in 2014 to move Maliki closer to Washington and away from Iran. That’s a dangerous, zero-sum game to play.
First, some history. The First Battle of Falluja, in April 2004, was a revenge-minded US assault on the city after several American military contractors with Blackwater USA were killed and mutilated by an angry mob. But the battle was inconclusive, and to paper over its failure the United States withdrew in early May and handed control to something called the Falluja Brigade, a militantly Sunni, anti-Iran paramilitary force that was made up of some of the selfsame forces the United States was fighting when it went into the city. Then, in what would be called the Second Battle of Falluja, a massive, American-led force reinvaded the city in November 2004 and virtually destroyed it, causing thousands of casualties.
Now, Maliki—who’s ruled Iraq as a Shiite partisan, making bitter enemies of Sunni moderates, tribal elements and hard-core Islamists alike—is stuck. With the city once again controlled by Sunni Islamists who detest him, he initially considered a massive military assault on Falluja using his Shiite-controlled, Shiite-dominated Iraqi armed forces—but that, he probably knows, would provoke open civil war again. (Already Iraq is in the early stages of civil war, with nearly 10,000 killed in 2013 and another 900 dead in January in suicide and car bombings and other clashes.)
So the United States is urging Maliki to offer an olive branch to the Sunnis, to arm Sunni tribal elements, and to use the tribes in a neighborhood-by-neighborhood retaking of Fallujah. According to The New York Times, he’s aided not only by US arms but also by the support of 100 US troops still stationed in Baghdad at the US embassy, including Special Forces who are advising Maliki’s commanders. And the paper reports, General Lloyd J. Austin III, the commander of the US Central Command, met in Baghdad last week with the Iraqi military command. While the United States has an interest in suppressing Al Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS and its allies, it seems obvious that Washington would also like to use the crisis in Falluja to move Maliki away from his ties to Iran, which means reducing the power of the Shiites in Iraq and bringing the Sunni tribes back into the Iraqi political framework.
Certainly, it would be a good thing for Iraq if a healthier balance between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds could be established in Baghdad. But it isn’t at all clear if Maliki understands what he has to do to begin the process of true political reconciliation. So it’s more likely that the Third Battle of Falluja will be more of the same: Maliki will use the tribes as a battering ram, retake the city and then fall back on his usual policy of keeping Iraq’s Sunnis at arm’s length and away from any real power. Which means that at some point there’s likely to be a Fourth Battle of Falluja, and other elsewhere.
In the meantime, members of Congress and Obama administration officials seem to agree that the United States needs to be involved more deeply in Iraq. Yesterday, Brett McGurk, the State Department’s top official for policy toward Iraq and Iran, told a committee of Congress that the United States is looking to get involved in training Iraqi forces “in Jordan or in the region.” In other words, Washington is hoping that Maliki is so desperate to solve the crisis in Falluja that he’ll turn to the United States for help. But make no mistake: the primary goal of the United States in Iraq—and in the civil war in Syria, too—is to undermine Iran’s regional influence. (Iraq, as has been widely reported, is allowing Iranian forces to overfly Iraq’s air space to aid its allies in the government of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and Iraqi Shiite militias have traveled to Syria to fight on Assad’s behalf—against the selfsame Sunni and Al Qaeda–linked rebels in Syria that are now occupying Falluja!)
Joining the fight in Iraq are “hundreds” of American contractors, according to The Wall Street Journal:
Hundreds of contractors working for America’s biggest defense companies are taking on a broader role in helping Iraq’s military learn to use new weapons in a growing battle against Islamist insurgents.… Across Iraq, military specialists are helping the Iraqi military maintain its growing number of surveillance drones, attack helicopters and powerful missiles. Thousands more support the U.S. government as security guards, analysts, drivers and cooks.…
Two dozen Lockheed employees are helping the Iraqi military keep their C-130 transport planes in the air. The company is also sending nearly 500 Hellfire missiles, which are being increasingly used in the fight against al Qaeda militants.
And more than a dozen employees with Beechcraft Corp. and General Atomics maintain a fleet of “Peace Dragon” surveillance airplanes used to track insurgent activity around the country.
According to the Journal, there are more than 5,000 American contractors in Iraq, and “those numbers don’t account for scores of military contractors working in Iraq as part of US-approved foreign military sales that provide the Iraqi government with helicopters, missiles and other critical support.”
Read Next: John Feffer on revisiting the Pottery Barn rule in Iraq
The last time trouble brewed between China and the Philippines, back in the spring of 2012, there was a naval standoff over disputed territory that drew the United States into support of its alliance, of sorts, with Manila. At the height of the mini-crisis, the United States and the Philippines engaged in joint military maneuvers that included “mock beach invasions along coastlines facing China.” Privately, however, some US officials may have been uneasy about how aggressively Manila asserted its right to sovereignty over, well, nothing—nearly everything that the Philippines claims in the South China Sea is underwater—but in the Philippines the hubbub played well among nationalists, jingoists and the military. China, too, felt the pressure of nationalists and the military. But this standoff was very early in the purported US “pivot” toward Asia and early in the broader Chinese assertion of its supposed right to waters to the south and east, which lately has provoked tension with Japan as well.
Come we now to 2014, and to the extreme, reckless comments from President Benigno S. Aquino III, who drew comparisons between China and the rise of Adolf Hitler’s dreams of world conquest. Said Aquino, in an interview with The New York Times: “At what point do you say, ‘Enough is enough’? Well, the world has to say it—remember that the Sudetenland was given in an attempt to appease Hitler to prevent World War II.”
Even before Aquino’s absurd comments, the Philippines has repeatedly called on the United States to strengthen its military alliance with the islands, even using the catastrophic typhoon damage—in which the Pentagon played a life-saving relief role—to suggest that the US permanently station troops in alliance with Manila. As the South China Morning Post reported on Monday:
Two weeks after Haiyan made landfall, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said the disaster “demonstrated” the need for US troops in the Philippines. Shortly after, US ambassador Philip Goldberg argued that Haiyan underscored his top priority: to deepen the military relationship between the countries. That argument riled some Filipino legislators. One leftist political advocacy group decried the move as “disaster opportunism at its finest.”
On the surface, Aquino seems upset that thanks to an American-mediated resolution of the 2012 dispute, his country has lost de facto control of a rocky outcrop in the South China Sea. As the Times reports:
The Philippines already appears to have lost effective control of one of the best-known places of contention, a reef called Scarborough Shoal, after Philippine forces withdrew during a standoff with China in 2012. The Philippine forces left as part of an American-mediated deal in which both sides were to pull back while the dispute was negotiated. Chinese forces remained, however, and gained control.
The dispute this time may not flare into military confrontation, and in any case the rise of China, and its offshore assertiveness, is something that the United States will have to negotiate carefully and may ultimately have to swallow as American power recedes globally.
But don’t tell that to James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, who testified yesterday in Congress that China is fitfully testing American power and resolve. “They’ve been quite aggressive about asserting what they believe is their manifest destiny, if you will, in that part of the world,” said Clapper. Perhaps “manifest destiny”—which echoes a claim made by the United States back in the days when it was itself a rising power—is too strong, but there’s no doubt that China is asserting itself after a century and a half of looking inward and, as the Chinese point out, being subjugated by the world’s imperial powers. That power will extend beyond the immediate waters around China, and yesterday Military Times reported that a Chinese naval squadron is holding drills deep in the Indian Ocean.
For years, the Pentagon and, even more strongly, those in the military-industrial complex who’ve sought a reason to ramp up military spending, have raised the threat of the Chinese bogeyman to justify an American buildup in Asia. Those efforts got a boost over the weekend when it was reported that China is proposing a modest rise in military spending, from $139 billion to $148 billion next year—reported in The New York Times under the headline: “China to Ramp Up Military Spending.” (That’s in comparison to the more than $600 billion that the United States spent on defense last year, a number that underestimates the actual total.) Some analysts, such as Ian Easton of the Project 2049 Institute—while still sounding alarms about China—point out that actual Chinese military strength is woefully lacking and “much weaker than it looks,” adding that China is not even capable of mounting an assault on Taiwan, the breakaway island republic that China claims.
Read Next: 2014 is shaping up to be a rocky year for US-India ties.
AIPAC is in deep, deep trouble. First, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee tried, and utterly failed, to destroy President Obama’s critical diplomatic dialogue with Iran by pushing for a new economic sanctions bill that would have ended the US-Iran talks. Now, AIPAC will have to face a real, existential challenge, namely, the about-to-be-released “framework agreement” for the Israel-Palestine conflict, a framework developed by Secretary of State John Kerry over months of shuttle diplomacy in the region. If AIPAC hadn’t confronted the White House over Iran—and lost—it might have more muscle now to fight the Obama-Kerry plan for Israel-Palestine. Instead, AIPAC has alienated the White House and, no doubt, lost credibility with some members of Congress, especially in the Democratic Party, who’ve traditionally followed AIPAC’s lead on the Middle East.
The Obama-Kerry Framework Agreement, which is supposed to be released very soon, could be a very, very big deal. For years, American presidents have promised, or threatened, to release an “American peace plan” for the Middle East, but none of them have had the courage to do so, because doing so would mean taking on AIPAC. Now, it appears, Obama and Kerry are doing it. And they’re doing it with AIPAC in a gravely weakened state.
Lately, Martin Indyk, the Obama administration’s point person on the Middle East, has been making phone calls to American Jewish leaders—no doubt including AIPAC officials—to explain what’s coming. By all accounts, the precise terms of the plan are still in flux, and none of it has been accepted yet by either the Israelis or the Palestinians. But its terms include tens of billions of dollars in financial compensation for Palestinian refugees who have to resettle in the West Bank and Gaza, for settler Jews who’d have to be relocated out of the West Bank and back into Israel, and apparently also for Jews who were forced to flee Arab countries for Israel over decades. Kerry will propose a state roughly based on the 1967 borders, with some changes, and with US and NATO forces taking over security along the Jordan River valley and the creation of a security zone there. And, though it isn’t clear yet, the proposal will have to deal with Jerusalem, which both Israel and Palestine demand as the capital of their respective states, which means dividing that city and providing Palestinian access to it despite the proliferation of illegal Jewish settlements that surround it and that were built precisely to prevent the division of Jerusalem, which Israel claims in whole.
Based on initial reactions so far, the Palestinians seem mostly willing to play along, and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority has even specified how long he’d accept the presence of Israeli forces in the West Bank and those forces transition out—either three or five years—and he’s expressed willingness for a US-NATO role in the Jordan River area. But the Israelis, led by a fervently right-wing, ultranationalist government, are not so willing to play along—and that’s where AIPAC may have to weigh in. Unfortunately for the Israel Lobby, however, its credibility is nearly shot.
As M.J. Rosenberg, an astute observer of the lobby and a former AIPAC staffer himself, has said, when it comes to Iran Obama faced down AIPAC and won, handily. As I reported here on January 13, the White House got tough with the Israel lobby and its neoconservative friends last month, when pressure was building for a new anti–Iran sanctions bill. At that time, as I reported, a statement from the White House said: “If certain members of Congress want the United States to take military action [against Iran], they should be up front with the American public and say so.” Then, in his State of the Union address, Obama said flatly that he won’t stand for any congressional meddling on Iran:
Let me be clear: if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it. For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed.
As Rosenberg reports, several leading Democrats in the Senate who’d earlier supported the self-destructive Iran sanctions bill scurried away from it. Says Rosenberg, “AIPAC’s entire campaign to destroy America’s chance to reach an agreement with Iran crumbled.”
Now what can AIPAC do if Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, rejects the Obama-Kerry plan? Not a lot.
To understand the Palestinian reaction so far, read the report in The New York Times about Abbas’ interview with that paper on the still-gestating Kerry proposal. Abbas makes what appear to be all-or-nothing comments, perhaps realizing the significance of Kerry’s plan. By the same token, top Israel officials—especially far-right types—have expressed grave alarm about what’s about to be announced, even using exceedingly undiplomatic language. As Avi Shlaim wrote, in a New York Times op-ed over the weekend, “Israel Needs to Learn Some Manners.”
Meanwhile, in an indication that Kerry is ready to play hardball with Israel, in comments made at a security conference in Europe, Kerry actually pointed out that Israel can’t afford to be stubborn because the movement to boycott Israel and to “delegitimize” the state of Israel is gaining momentum:
Today’s status quo absolutely, to a certainty, I promise you 100 percent, cannot be maintained. It’s not sustainable. It’s illusionary.… You see for Israel, there’s an increasing delegitimization campaign that has been building up. People are very sensitive to it. There are talks of boycotts and other kinds of things.
That, naturally, caused tumult in the Israeli body politic.
Read Next: The editors on Bill de Blasio’s pandering to AIPAC
The Washington Post, in an unsigned editorial that reflects the official position of that hawkish newspaper, is calling for war in Syria—this, despite the fact that peace talks that represent the only way out of Syria’s civil war have just gotten underway.
Calling the Obama administration’s policy toward Syria “feckless,” the Post recalls fondly that moment in late August and early September 2013 when President Obama threatened to rain cruise missiles on Damascus. Citing atrocities committed by the Syrian government—but utterly ignoring parallel atrocities committed by the opposition, including its Al Qaeda–linked parts—the Post says:
The diplomatic initiative that Mr. Kerry launched offers no means to hold the regime of Bashar al-Assad accountable for these atrocities, or even to stop them.
It then demands that Obama return to the war track:
President Obama demonstrated last year that the credible threat of force could change the regime’s behavior. His promise of airstrikes caused Mr. Assad to surrender an arsenal of chemical weapons. Yet the president seems not to have learned the lesson of that episode. Now he makes the defeatist argument that, as he put it to David Remnick of the New Yorker, “It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which our involvement in Syria would have led to a better outcome, short of us being willing to undertake an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq.”
In fact, Mr. Obama probably could force the measures [Lakhdar] Brahimi [the United Nations mediator] is seeking by presenting Mr. Assad with the choice of accepting them or enduring U.S. airstrikes. That he refuses to consider options between Mr. Kerry’s feckless diplomacy and an Iraq-style invasion only ensures that the Geneva 2 conference will fail and that the atrocities will continue.
Leave aside the fact that Brahimi, who’s working hard for a settlement in Syria, doesn’t favor the idea of bombing Damascus to force Assad’s hand. Presenting Syria with an ultimatum is guaranteed to destroy the peace talks once and for all, and it might do severe damage to the so-far-successful talks between Iran, Syria’s chief ally, and the P5+1 world powers over Iran’s nuclear program.
The talks in Geneva, now just beginning, have not started well. Both sides have threatened to walk out, and they’ve been more involved in name-calling than diplomacy, at least at this stage. But at least both Syria and the rebels agree on the principles that brought the parties together, and it’s not inconceivable that the two sides might ultimately agree on a step-by-step formula toward some sort of transitional authority, a cease-fire and aid for refugees.
As rumors swirled during the first real day of talks between Syria and the rebels, the State Department felt compelled to issue the following statement, apparently to quash reports that the talks had fallen apart:
Contrary to reports, the Geneva talks have not been cancelled. Brahimi has delayed the trilateral meeting to allow for more preparation. He met with the regime this morning. Brahimi will meet with opposition later this afternoon. Brahimi still plans to meet with the regime and the opposition together. We defer to Brahimi on timing of the meeting. As we’ve said, this is the beginning of a negotiation process, and as today has shown, expect a lot of ups and downs as it proceeds. What is important is that the process in Geneva continues.
Brahimi is meeting separately with each party because the two sides won’t yet meet face to face.
But except for The Washington Post, no one is calling for military strikes or ultimatums, except perhaps Al Qaeda itself. In a statement issued to the rebels, Al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri urged the various Islamist components of the anti-Assad struggle to work together in the jihad, as the Post itself reported:
Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has charged warring Islamist factions in the Syrian opposition with “hostile sedition” and has appealed to them to submit their differences to an arbitration council under Islamic law.
In an audio message released to jihadist forums Thursday by al-Qaeda’s media arm, Zawahiri called on the factions “to stop the fighting between the brothers of jihad and Islam immediately,” to form a commission to resolve their differences and to establish “a mechanism to compel everyone to abide” by the panel’s rulings.
Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss on the US effort to keep Iran out of the Syria talks.
The Montreux-to-Geneva peace conference is underway, and although the mainstream media is focusing on the negatives—namely, the fact that the invitation to Iran was blocked by the United States, and the confrontational exchange between Syria’s foreign minister and the United Nations’ Ban Ki-Moon—it’s important to emphasize that diplomacy, not war, is the only way out of the Syrian crisis. Still, Secretary of State John Kerry was hypocritical in his denunciation of the government of Bashar al-Assad, glossing over the atrocities by the anti-Assad rebels and demonizing Assad. Hopefully, behind the scenes, Kerry’s hard line on Syria will give way to a more serious effort to compromise in search of a solution.
Still, what’s happening in Switzerland is critically important, and it reflects an important shift from war to diplomacy on the part of President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry. The start of the Geneva process on Syria—coming only months after Obama and Kerry seemed determined to bomb Syria—and the successful beginning of the Iran-P5+1 talks are signal events.
That said, all sides acknowledge that the Syrian civil war won’t end anytime soon, and it will take enormous patience on all sides before there will be a resolution. The Syrian foreign minister, Walid Moallem, took a very hard line, too, as did the delegation representing the opposition. But some of that, at least, is for show, and it happened on the public stage. When the talks move from Montreux to Geneva on Friday, the real negotiations will take place, and the discussions will occur behind closed doors.
As Kerry said in a press conference following the first day of talks, it’ll be a long, hard road. “No one should doubt, no one’s trying to gloss this over, that this is the beginning of a tough and complicated process,” he said. “It’s no secret that getting to where we are now has, as I said, been difficult, and peace and stability will not arrive overnight. But it’s important that this process is now in place. It is important that the government and the opposition will sit down over these next days. And we don’t expect a sudden breakthrough.”
Part of the reason no breakthrough is imminent is that the conflict between the Syrian government and the rebels is not the only one going on. Parallel to that is the conflict between the United States, which implacably demands that the government of Bashar al-Assad be ousted, and Russia, which says that there is no reason at the outset to exclude the possibility that Assad and his cohort would remain in place. On top of that, there is a regional conflict between Iran, which supports Assad, and Saudi Arabia, the chief backer of the opposition. If the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran can all agree on the outlines of a new Syrian political balance, then there’s a chance that the peace talks can succeed. Unfortunately, in a shortsighted and self-defeating step, the United States and the Syrian rebels insisted that an invitation to Iran from the UN’s Ban be rescinded, and it was.
In an exchange with Kim Ghattas of the BBC in Montreux, Kerry obfuscated on Iran, falling back on the US insistence that Iran should have agreed to preconditions calling for the ouster of the Assad government and the creation of a “transitional” authority. Here’s the exchange between Ghattas and Kerry:
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much for taking our questions. Iran was disinvited from this conference because Tehran did not endorse the Geneva communiqué. But then clearly, as we saw today, neither does the Syrian Government. Iran is almost as much a party to the conflict as the Syrian Government. Can you really expect to make progress in the negotiations without finding a way to involve Iran in the conversation at some point?
And as a follow-up, I’ve just spent a month in the region, and everybody I spoke to said that there is simply no way that things will get better, whether in Syria or in the region, if you don’t get Iran and Saudi Arabia to talk to each other. How can you help facilitate that?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m not going to go into the details of it, but obviously, we’re very aware of the need for a number of specific countries to be able to contribute to a solution rather than to be part of the problem.
With respect to Iran’s participation formally in the conference, it was very clear what the standard was for participation. We never ever minced our words about that. We always said countries that want to support Geneva I, which since 2012 has been the framework—since June of 2012, that has been the framework for trying to resolve the problem of Syria. And country after country after country has signed up to Geneva I communiqué. So what you all need to do is ask yourselves why Iran won’t sign up to it, not why they’re not here. Why didn’t they sign up to it? Why won’t they agree as every other nation has that this is the method that even—I mean, the Russian Federation signed up to it and was here, and Russia has been a critical partner in helping to bring us this far.
So I believe that with Russia and other efforts—Saudi Arabia was here. Saudi Arabia wasn’t going to be here, but they decided that it was important and they came. So I think that we have a critical mass building, and yes, Iran certainly does have an ability to be able to help make a difference. We hope that they would decide to be constructive and to make a decision to operate in a way going forward that can allow them to do so. There are plenty of ways that that door can be opened in the next weeks and months, and my hope is that they will want to join in a constructive solution.
It’s good that Kerry is holding open the door to Iran’s participation, but there’s no reason Iran could not have attended the meeting today. And, in the rest of his press conference today, Kerry’s rhetoric left something to be desired. While he slammed Assad—and the brutality of the government in Damascus, along with the recently revealed widespread torture of Syrian prisoners, deserves condemnation—he didn’t condemn the suicide bombers, car bombers, torturers and assassins of the radical Islamist component of the opposition in equal terms, nor did he mention the mass executions carried out by the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the pro–Al Qaeda Nusra Front and the rebels of the Islamic Front coalition.
Perhaps the worst moment in Kerry’s press conference came when he tried to explain the origin of the civil war in 2011:
What happened in Syria began in the wake of a transformation that began to break out throughout the Middle East, throughout the Maghreb and the Middle East. And everybody knows the events that began in Libya and in Tunisia and Egypt. Eventually, young people in Syria stood up for change and some young kids with graffiti cans were arrested. When their parents came out to protest the arrest of their young children, 120 of them were killed.
That’s the beginning of this. Not a religious revolution, not terrorists. No terrorists were there then. This was people looking for change peacefully in their country, and they were met by bullets and violence and death.
First of all, it’s true that back in 2011, peaceful protesters in Syria were met with bullets. But that’s when President Obama made a huge blunder, calling for the ouster of Assad. Had Obama refrained from that step, had the United States back in 2011 sought to calm passions on all side, had the United States quietly contacted Russia then, had Washington sought to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia into dialogue then, perhaps the situation would not have escalated into war. But, by demanding Assad’s head on a platter, Obama accelerated the rebellion, throwing gas on the fire, and at the same time gave a green light to the Persian Gulf kleptocracies, led by Saudi Arabia, to provide cash and arms to the spreading rebellion.
In addition, Mr. Kerry: in 2013 the Egyptian government gunned down far more than 120 people in violently suppressing peaceful demonstrations by the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo and elsewhere. But Obama hasn’t called for General Sisi, the Egyptian coup d’état leader, to quit. If that isn’t a double standard, then I don’t know what is.
Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss on whether there is a solution in Syria.
For a brief moment this past weekend, just for a brief moment, it seemed as if sanity might prevail in preparing for the Wednesday start of Geneva II, the Syria peace conference in Montreux and Geneva, Switzerland. That’s because Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general of the United Nations, saw fit to defy the United States and deliver an invitation to Iran to take part in the conference.
For months and months, the United States has opposed the inclusion of Iran in the talks, scheduled to begin January 22 after many postponements and false starts since last summer. For most diplomats, excluding Iran is—or ought to be—the literal definition of insanity: if you’re having peace talks, it’s generally a good idea to have the other side present. And in the case of Syria, Iran—along with Russia—is President Bashar al-Assad’s closest ally and supporter. Not only that, but Iran’s new leadership, including President Hassan Rouhani, is looking for better relations with the United States and the West, and if there is to be a settlement of the civil war in Syria, then Iran will certainly play a role. Or, obstruct things.
And let’s face it: Assad isn’t going anywhere. Belatedly, long after Obama made the egregious error of calling for Assad to quit—a call that emboldened the opposition and sent a signal to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Persian Gulf Arab kleptocracies to unleash a flood of support—the United States has gradually come to realize that Assad will remain in power for at least the medium-term future, and he may very well run for re-election in June. Despite the machinations of the ineffective, outside opposition that spends its time in hotels and offices in Cairo, Turkey and the Persian Gulf, Assad is making military gains across the board and racking up political gains too. In September, by agreeing to the deal to dismantle Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons, the United States in effect acknowledged that Assad will have to remain in place in order to implement the deal through at least the middle of 2014. And Secretary of State Kerry, joined by his Russian counterpart, has welcomed Assad’s representatives to the table in Geneva, despite the great unhappiness that provoked among the Syrian opposition.
As I’ve reported before, former US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker has explicitly declared that Assad may be the “least bad option” to rule Syria, when the alternative is a mishmash coalition that includes the Al Qaeda–linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the pro–Al Qaeda Al-Nusra Front and the radical religious bloc called the Islamic Front. As The Washington Post reported on Saturday:
After nearly three years of fighting in Syria and persistent calls for a new caretaker government there, U.S. policy toward the country’s grinding civil war is tacitly acknowledging what has long been obvious: President Bashar al-Assad will remain in power, at least for a while.
Speaking about the Geneva conference, the Post added:
Although the official U.S. line is that Assad “must go,” the focus on striking even short-term bargains with his regime is a recognition that he retains a strong political hold.
That’s why the exclusion of Iran is so self-defeating. According to the United States, and as expressed by Kerry, the reason Iran is being excluded is because Iran refused to explicitly endorse the stated precondition that the goal of the conference is to create a “transitional” body that would replace Assad and pave the way toward a new government in Damascus. But no one, not a soul, thinks that is going to happen. The true goal of the Geneva II process—and it will be a process, lasting many, many months—will be to establish local ceasefires, then perhaps a general, nationwide ceasefire, and to allow humanitarian aid and supplies to get to the millions of people displaced by the civil war. Said a State Department official: “I don’t think that anyone who’s dealt with Syrian officials has any false expectations of rapid progress. This is the beginning of a process. It is not going to be fast.”
Already, as The New York Times reported last week, the Syrian government is seeking to create ceasefire zones, starting with the city of Aleppo.
On Sunday, UN Secretary-General Ban, backed by Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN mediator, sent a formal invitation to Iran to take part in Geneva II. But any hope that the United States backed Ban and Brahimi was shattered when Washington demanded that the UN revoke the invitation, claiming that Iran would not support (in advance) the idea of a transitional government in Damascus. As the Times reported:
American officials said they had been in regular communication with the United Nations over the requirements Iran would need to meet to be invited, but they appeared to have been caught off guard by Mr. Ban’s hastily organized news conference. They pointed out that Iran had not publicly accepted the formal mandate for the conference, which was agreed upon in Geneva in 2012 and is known as the Geneva communiqué.
Great fulminations followed from the State Department. And the next day, Monday, Iran was out. A big reason for the US demand to keep Iran out was the apparent decision by the ragtag Syrian opposition bloc that it would not go to Geneva if Iran did. A few days earlier, the opposition bloc—badly split—reluctantly decided that it would indeed take part in the peace talks. Then, when it seemed possible that Iran would also attend, the rebels said they’d back out.
A statement from Mohammad Khazaee, the ambassador at Iran's Permanent Mission to the UN, explained clearly that Iran is committed to a peaceful solution in Syria, yet would not accept any preconditions for its participation:
The Islamic Republic of Iran appreciates the efforts of the UN Secretary General and his special envoy, Mr. Brahimi, in seeking a political solution for the Syrian crisis. Iran has always been supportive in finding a political solution.
However, the Islamic Republic of Iran does not accept any preconditions for its participation in any conference. If the participation of Iran is conditioned upon its accepting the Geneva I communique, Iran will not participate in the Geneva II conference.
The job of diplomats is to find words that allow countries with differing political and military positions to find common ground. It’s clear, from the statements of Ban, Brahimi and Khazaee, that there was plenty of common ground to be found, if the right words were applied. But the United States was implacably opposed to Iran’s role, and that will make the talks in Geneva that much more difficult.
Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss on whether there is a solution in Syria.
There may not be any solution to the civil war in Syria, at least until one side or the other collapses from exhaustion, but the last, best hope for a peace process starts next week in Switzerland, with the opening of a peace conference jointly sponsored by the United States and Russia, under the auspices of the United Nations.
While Secretary of State John Kerry is scrambling to make sure that the rebels are represented in Geneva, the foreign ministers of Russia, Syria and Iran have been meeting in Moscow to prepare for the conference. However, thanks to roadblocks thrown up by the United States, Iran—Syria’s chief regional ally—won’t be invited to attend the talks. Kerry has threatened the Syrian opposition that American aid will be cut off if the groups refuse to attend the Geneva conference, but that’s problematic, too: first, the aid from the United States involves only non-lethal support, and much of it was already suspended when it looked like extremists among the rebels in Syria were seizing warehouses full of materiel.
In Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of Russia meet with Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, and Syria’s foreign minister, Walid Moallem, and all three parties agreed that Iran can play a critical role is resolving the war in Syria, according to The Wall Street Journal:
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Iran would "inevitably" take part in any resolution to the civil war in Syria, as the Iranian and Syrian foreign ministers held a round of meetings with Russian officials in Moscow. After a meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Mr. Lavrov said Iran should take part in an international peace conference aimed at finding a diplomatic solution to the war. “We are proceeding on the basis that Iran should and inevitably will be part of a set of measures to settle the Syria problems,” Mr. Lavrov told reporters.
What’s clear is that no settlement of the civil war is in sight. If it takes place at all, the conference will drag on for many, many months, toward an uncertain conclusion. The process of disarming Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal is proceeding apace, though not without some bumps in the road, and perhaps the best that could come from the meetings in Geneva is a plan to establish local ceasefires in which both sides agree to stop fighting and allow humanitarian supplies to reach desperate civilian populations.
Only days before the conference is scheduled to start, it isn’t clear who’ll attend, especially among the exceedingly complex armed Syrian opposition. Because of the ongoing radicalization of the Syrian forces arrayed against President Bashar al-Assad’s government, it’s fragmented into competing and disparate factions, from the openly pro–Al Qaeda ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) to the proto–Al Qaeda Al-Nusra Front to the radical Islamist coalition called the Islamic Front. It also incudes more mainstream, Western-backed factions, including the Free Syrian Army (itself a coalition of several armed movements) and the various exile groups backed by the United States, France, Saudi Arabia and other powers, such as the National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. It’s a tangle.
Fighting between and among Syrian rebels, especially involving ISIS, has been intense in recent weeks. In Syria’s north, near the Turkish border, hundreds of fighters and civilians have died in battles between ISIS, the Islamic Front and others. According to recent reports from the UN and others, the rebels battling against one another have committed horrific war crimes, including mass executions.
As The Wall Street Journal reports, the Assad government is gaining ground nearly everywhere in Syria, so with each passing day the opposition has less and less credibility. Says the Journal: “The Assad regime is gaining ground as it takes advantage of infighting between Syrian opposition groups, in a sign of how the rise of extremists could tip the balance in the three-year-old civil war.” The paper adds that gains by ISIS in some areas of the country are further undermining the pro-Western, anti-Assad forces. In the north, and around Aleppo, the Syrian government is also making important gains, according to Reuters:
The Syrian government has retaken territory around the northern city of Aleppo, the military said on Tuesday, after two weeks of rebel infighting that has weakened the insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad. The internecine conflict among various rebel groups will allow Assad to portray himself as the only secular alternative in Syria to a radical Islamist regime when peace talks begin in Switzerland on January 22.
Though he hasn’t said so—indeed, he’s insisting that the conference in Geneva create a transitional government that replaces Assad—Secretary Kerry may agree more than he’s letting on with former US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, who argued (as I noted here recently) that Assad may be “the least worst option,” in Crocker’s opinion. More and more, in Washington, there is growing disenchantment with the Syrian rebels and an increasing awareness that Assad may outlast the civil war. In fact, the US-Russian accord that began the process of eliminating Assad’s chemical weapons implicitly accepts the idea that Assad will stay on, at least for the time being. Especially when compared to the growing might of Al Qaeda and its allies in Syria, which is drawing American, European and other would-be jihadists, Assad is looking better and better.
If there is to be peace in Syria, it will come when Iran and Saudi Arabia, the principal supporters, respectively, of the Shiite and Sunni factions in the Middle East, work together to stabilize the country.
Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss on neocons and many Democrats trying to wreck the Iran talks.
Last night I was blown away, though happily not literally, by a brilliant stage performance at Page 73, a theater in Tribeca, in New York City, that often presents plays that have never before been produced in the city. Its current production is Grounded, a play written by George Brant that takes on America’s drone warfare program. It’s a one-woman show, acted by Hannah Cabell, who delivers a searing performance that left me stunned. She portrays a gung-ho, top-gun fighter-bomber pilot in Iraq and Afghanistan who, after becoming pregnant, is assigned to pilot remote drones at Creech Air Force Base outside Las Vegas.
At first reluctant to abandon “the blue,” Cabell’s character adapts to long days of boredom in front of a gray screen, days only occasionally marked by blowing up groups of “military-age males” in the Afghan desert. But as she tracks a “high-value target,” described in the play as a “Number Two”—a riff on the seemingly endless list of Al Qaeda Number Two’s killed since 2001—she finds herself unable to balance her day job with her incongruous role as a wife and mother back at the house to which she returns each day. I won’t reveal too much else about what happens, but do yourself a favor: if you’re in the New York area before the show ends its run on February 1, go see it. (And if you’re a theater producer elsewhere, make plans to put this on stage, with Cabell if she’s available.)
Google “drones“ these days and for every mention of President Obama’s policy of remote killing in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere, you’ll get information on drones that might be used to deliver pizzas or online purchases and headlines like: “Berkshire realty company uses drones to film luxury estates.” Or about a bill, recently passed by New Jersey’s state assembly, to regulate the use of unarmed drones by state law enforcement agencies.
But the killing goes on. To be sure, the sheer number of drone strikes has been dropping in recent years, but that’s little comfort to the innocents killed or to the friends and relatives of targeted individuals who become collateral damage. (Such collateral damage plays a critical role in Grounded.) According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which tracks drone strikes, there were twenty-seven drone attacks in Pakistan carried out by the CIA in 2013 and thirty-eight more in Yemen, including the December 12, 2013, strike that bombed a wedding party, killing as many as fifteen civilians, injuring up to thirty more. (There were 127 strikes in Pakistan in 2010, seventy-four in 2011, and forty-seven in 2012, according to the BIJ.)
The declining pattern of strikes is welcome, but the very use of drones raises fundamental questions about US policy. Aside from the moral questions, there are also important issues concerning the usefulness of drones, according to Science Daily, which reports on a pair of studies published in a military journal called Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict that challenge drones as a means of warfare. According to the site:
Metin Gurcan’s “Drone Warfare and Contemporary Strategy Making: Does the Tail Wag the Dog?” argues that increasing use of drones in asymmetric conflict is reversing the dominance of strategy over tactics and may be undermining civilian control of the military. Gurcan notes that while there are a number of advantages to using drones, such as effectiveness at removing key targets and avoidance of friendly casualties, they may also increase the power of extremists amongst civilian populations by creating a siege mentality.
And they report on another study that delves into the question of public support for remote killing:
Tom McCauley’s “U.S. Public Support for Drone Strikes against Asymmetric Enemies Abroad: Poll Trends in 2013” shows that, while a strong majority of U.S. citizens are in favor of using drones against terrorists in foreign lands, a small and increasing minority are against their use. In contrast, majorities in most countries are opposed to U.S. drone attacks against terrorists. McCauley notes, “Should drones’ unpopularity in the United States continue to increase, and their unpopularity in other countries persist, they may well become politically impractical, no matter how convenient and cost-effective the technology may be.”
Still, drone warfare is big business and, according to Science Daily, the United States spent $5.1 billion in 2013 on drone strikes. According to the International Business Times, at least a dozen companies are vying for what they expect to be an expanded military drone market in 2014-2015, including Boeing, General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, SAIC, Israel Aerospace Industries and Textron. Says IBT:
Boeing has had a hand in the drone market for a number of years, mostly developing for the U.S. military. They have more recently been testing the hydrogen-powered Phantom Eye drone, which Boeing says can stay at 65,000 feet for up to four days without refueling.
[General Atomics] is credited with building the Predator drone, the much-feared aircraft that saw action way back during the Balkans war, where the Americans lost two. Since then it’s been deployed in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Iran and the Philippines. Last year, the company signed a deal to supply $197 million worth of drones to the United Arab Emirates....
Like Boeing, Lockheed is testing a drone—the Stalker—that can stay in the air for days at a time....
Founded only in 1994, Northrop has quickly risen to become one of the top suppliers of military hardware in the world. In 2012, the company sold $1.2 billion worth of drones to South Korea.
In other words, your military-industrial complex at work.
None of this is found in Grounded, which powerfully focuses on the human element, on both sides of the joystick that unleashes drones overseas. Don’t miss it.
Read Next: Nick Turse on how US Special Operations forces are deployed in over 100 countries.