Making Quagmires in Syria Is a Step Towards ‘Regime-Change’ in DC

Alastair Crooke, Strategic Culture Foundation, 12 Sept 2018

The Trump administration has stopped the dithering, David Ignatius wrote on 30 August, and is affirming that the United States has enduring interests in Syria beyond killing Islamic State terrorists — and “that it isn’t planning to withdraw its Special Operations forces from northeastern Syria, anytime soon”: “Right now”, one administration official told Ignatius, “our job is to help create quagmires [for Russia and the Syrian regime], until we get what we want”.

The US, it seems, switched policy in mid-August, (away from the Helsinki understandings of July, reached between Presidents Trump and Putin), to a quest for retrieving maximum leverage over the ultimate stages of the Syrian civil war.  It represents, apparently, a last-ditch attempt to impose the US will over the Syrian warscape - through keeping the jihadist ‘card’ in Idlib in play; and by holding on to the Kurdish ‘PKK stick’ in north-east Syria as US leverage over the Turks.

We are indeed seeing a 180° degree turn: Pompeo’s new Syria envoy, James Jeffry, has made that crystal clear: “Now”, he said, “the United States will not tolerate ‘an attack. Period’”. (Referring to the imminent offensive on the Jihadi enclave, in Idlib Province.)

“Any offensive is to us objectionable as a reckless escalation” he said. “You add to that, if you use chemical weapons, or create refu­gee flows or attack innocent civilians,” and “the consequences of that are that we will shift our positions”… Asked whether potential U.S. retaliation for any offensive in Idlib, with or without chemical weapons, would include airstrikes, Jeffrey said, “We have asked repeatedly for permission to operate,” and “that would be one way” [to respond].

The US objective is drive Iran from Syria; to inflict a humiliating slap on the Islamic Republic; to lever a political transition in which President Assad is ousted; and above all, to avoid conceding any appearance of any US strategic weakness (a point on which the ‘McCain-Brennan’ crowd are adamant).

It is all about the US standing tall and talking ‘power talk’ – when, but one glance at what is currently happening in Washington shows that the US is in a grave constitutional and political internal crisis (and one, that may well unfold into a financial crisis later this year). The US may have military muscle, but politically it has fragmented into openly warring camps. That does not convey convincing ‘strength’, but rather the danger of military impetuousness (i.e. a Suez).

Russia's leadership was already wary that the US intended to derail the last major operation to conclude the Syrian conflict. This is now confirmed.  A senior Kremlin official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, that American officials want to play spoiler, big time: "They are angry that we’ve gotten an upper hand in dealing with this crisis, and now they want to put their spokes into every wheel we are trying to make roll".

It has gone further than that: the Jeffrey language of ‘no attacks, period'; the State Department language hinting at further economic sanctions, as a pressure tool; and the threats against Iran, effectively are both a provocation against Russia, and an ultimatum.

This is a grave ‘turn’ of events. We do not know why Trump would have turned his back on his Helsinki ‘understandings’ so emphatically. In any event, it is now clear that John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, and all those who cannot abide any loss to empire, have got their way. The pressures on Trump are mounting: the funeral ‘apotheosis’ of McCain as the essence of ‘American virtues’, the seditionist NYT op-ed by a ‘senior’ WH staff member of the ‘Resistance’, which specifically claimed success in sabotaging Trump’s policy of détente with Russia; the Woodward book ridiculing the President; the Mueller investigation …

It is now 60 days until the mid-term elections. And, as Tom Luongo writes, “the fear of loss by the Deep State is palpable … And what is clear to me now, is that the Deep State is done whipping the progressive Left into a frenzy over Donald Trump. They are now openly handing them pitchforks and mustering for a hostile takeover of the Oval Office".

It seems that their hatred for Trump is being psychologically projected too, directly onto Putin: Nikki Haley as Chair of UN Security Council, the Skripal claims of GRU assassination:  Are ‘these people’ really ready to taunt Russia and Iran to the point of facing-off against them militarily?  It seems possible: James Jeffrey said just such, to the Washington Post: “In some respects, we are potentially entering a new phase, where you have forces from the different countries facing each other, rather than pursuing their separate goals”, he said, listing Russia, the United States, Iran, Turkey and Israel.

Russia’s leadership may well be ‘wary’, but in China, the alarm bells will be ringing as loudly too:  So … the US wants to play the extremist jihadist ‘card’ in Syria against Damascus and Moscow?  This will ignite deep fears in Beijing. For Russia, Syria has been, as it were, the ‘full-stop’ to be placed at the end to its Chechen story.  For China, the Uighur ‘problem’ is still gestating. It is not over. It is latent.

There are (reportedly), some 10,000 – 20,000 Sunni Muslim Uighurs in Idlib, who are radical, and have been fighting alongside the jihadists there. The Uighurs are Turkic, and their presence in Idlib was facilitated by President Erdogan, who asserts that the Turkish people actually originated in the troubled Chinese province of Xinjiang. These Uighur fighters have the reputation for being some of the most bloodthirsty and ruthless, amongst even the depraved and merciless gangs of Idlib.  And Erdogan has not only ‘facilitated’ their displacement down to Idlib, he has expressed sympathy for their cause in Xinjiang.

But that is not the end to it. The neighbouring states to the West of Xinjiang are also Sunni Muslim, and Turkic. It is not hard to see how China might fear that some benign actor (a Mr Bolton, perchance,) might think to find a platform (or ‘safe sanctuary’ in the language of interventionism), nearby, from which the Uighurs might be facilitated to pursue their aspirations inside China.  This, essentially, represents a prime vulnerability for Xi’s BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) – that Washington, with the hawks in the ascendency, may think to play - using the jihadist ‘card’ in Xinjiang, in order to obtain ‘leverage’ there, too – and for disrupting the BRI, too.  It is not by chance that China has offered to deploy its soldiers to Idlib. They don’t want those Uighurs coming back – ever.

The ephemeral ‘silver lining’ to the US policy U-turn for Beijing is that the Helsinki Understandings are now quite clearly dead.  It seems there had been a frisson of concern in Beijing that president Putin could be lured from his strategic partnership with Xi.  That was never likely. And that instant of worry has now given way to the sense that the strategic partnership has emerged strengthened, if anything.

President Xi emerged from the CCP summer leadership retreat, seemingly confirmed in his assessment that China was on the correct course, but that the Middle Kingdom faced a protracted Cold War with the US that would play out in various geo-political spheres (in the South China Sea, in respect to Taiwan and in an US effort to disrupt the BRI corridors) in different ways – financial and diplomatic pressures, as well as military ones.

There is no comfort to be had that China’s tensions with the US – for the moment – is shaped, primordially, as a financial struggle against Washington’s dollar hegemony.  For US domestic purposes, Russia is the tool by which to discredit Trump.  The newly-declared US Syria-policy precisely humiliates Trump – forcing him to disavow his prime foreign policy objective of lessening tensions with Russia.

Russia, Iran and Assad, are now lined-up in the US gunsights. This must serve as a wake-up call to Xi who will be aware that in respect to cutting China down to size, Trump has the full-throated support of Congress. Congress is well content with Trump’s aggressive policy towards China; is responding positively, and even asking for more.

Today’s summit in Tehran - Russia, Turkey and Iran - will be crucial.  It is all about agreeing a common position on the details of the Idlib offensive.  Syria has said that the offensive will proceed ‘come-what-may’. Iran is in favour. Turkey was leaning towards acceptance.  Russia now must decide whether to call the American bluff and proceed, or to play for time. President Putin has always sought other ways to ‘throw his opponent’, rather than to go face-to-face.  60 days is perhaps not such an unconscionable wait?