Did the Boston Bombing Hurt the Syrian Revolution? Obama & Putin Confer as Rebels Allege Regime Massacre

The phone call between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin after the Boston Marathon bombers were identified as Chechens, in which Obama thanked Putin for Russia’s cooperation on counter-terrorism and promised more such collaboration, was probably the most cordial exchange the two countries have had for some time. The thaw was occurring as Syrian troops were accused of committing a massacre of hundreds civilians as they advanced on Judaydat al-Fadl in the hinterland of Damascus. In other developments, Lebanon’s Hizbullah Shiite militia appeared to have been drawn more explicitly than ever before into the fighting in Syria near the Lebanese border.

Russia has been backing the Baathist regime of Bashar al-Assad against largely Sunni rebels. Some of those rebels, in the north of the country, have turned to Muslim radicalism and announced an affiliation with al-Qaeda. The governor of Chechnya, Putin appointee Ramzan Kadyrov, has denounced the small number of Chechens who went to fight with the rebels in Syria, most of whom are fundamentalists (Kadyrov is a secularist). He said, “They represent neither our people, nor our religion,” saying that they would be “personally hunted down” if they tried to come back to Chechnya.

It should be realized that from Aleppo in northern Syria, where the radical Jabhat al-Nusra is active, to Grozny, the capital of Chechnya in Russia, is only about 960 miles through Turkey and Georgia, about a 20 hour drive. In Chechnya, the nationalist Chechen forces of secularists, Sufis and other non-fundamentalists have since 1999 fought the radical Caucasus Emirate Islamic Insurgency, more or less an al-Qaeda affiliate, with Putin’s backing. Ramzan Kadyrov and Putin do not want a resurgence in the area of Muslim radicalism, and so hate the idea of the Syrian Jabhat al-Nusra defeating the secular Baath Party. (The secular-fundamentalist split in Chechnya, by the way, is mirrored in the Tsarnaev family. Anzor Tsarnaev married a daughter to a policeman working for Kadyrov, according to AP, while his son, Tamerlan, became a radical fundamentalist. See my “Fathers and Sons and Chechnya.”


Although Putin’s reasons for backing al-Assad are mostly geopolitical, having to do with reasserting Russia’s great power status, the two are also allied in opposing Sunni Muslim religious nationalism, especially the radical sort.

But Putin is not alone. The rise of Jabhat al-Nusra and of Sunni radicalism in northern Syria is alleged to be one reason the Obama administration declines to support the rebels militarily. They fear repeating the mistake of the Reagan administration, which encouraged the radical fundamentalists to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and created an atmosphere in which al-Qaeda could be founded in Afghanistan.

Regime advances in taking back territory from the rebels in recent weeks caused the Syrian opposition to be especially angry that Secretary of State John Kerry continued to speak this weekend of supplying only non-military aid, though he announced a big increase in the latter.

But frankly, after the bombing of Boston, the likelihood of US intervention in Syria, never very high, has plummeted toward zero. The Obama administration will not want to take a chance on ensconcing another radical hirabi (terrorist) organization in the Middle East, which might one day strike at the US. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry continue to plump for a diplomatic solution, perhaps involving Bashar al-Assad stepping down, and a joint Baath-rebel government that would move to elections. This scenario, resembling what happened in Yemen, where the ruling party allowed the opposition to join the government after the president was forced out, couldn’t be more unlikely in Syria. The Baath government has killed tens of thousands of people, and is just not any longer acceptable to most Syrians. But the US says it wants talks between the sides.

Even as the US kept hands off except for civilian aid, the situation on the ground in Syria became more dire. The pro-Sunni, anti-Baath Lebanese newspaper al-Mustaqbal reports on a massacre in Rif Dimashq, the region southwest of the capital of Damascus. Syrian troops loyal to the Baath government of President Bashar al-Assad have been fighting in Judaidat al-Fadl for five days, and finally took it on Sunday. But when the smoke cleared, there were some 560 dead, many of them women and children (according to rebel sources quoted by CNN). Al-Mustaqbal accuses the Alawi Shiite militias loyal to the regime, the Shabiha (Specters) of having summarily killed the villagers as an object lesson to the other residents of Rif Dimashq that they would be unwise to join the rebellion.

The newspaper sees this massacre as an act of sectarian ethnic cleansing, i.e. of Shiites intending to terrorize Sunnis.

Aljazeera English reports

In other news, the city of Qusair in Syria is on a notorious smuggling route that you could use to supply Homs from Lebanon. It and its hinterland, however, had fallen into the hands of the rebels. On Saturday, the Sunni Syrian rebels sent mortar fire on Hermel, across the border in Lebanon— a Shiite, Hizbullah stronghold. It was the farthest into Lebanese territory that Syrian munitions have fallen. A Hizbullah fighter was also killed in Zita a Shiite town on the Syrian side of the border.


Alarabiya reported that Hizbullah fighters assisted the Syrian army on Sunday in a counter-offensive in the hinterland villages between the Lebanese border and Qusair. These, Arab wire services alleged, fell one by one back into Government hands. They include al-Burhania, al-Ridwaniya, and Tel al-Nabi Mandu (the latter is strategic in being higher and allowing whoever holds it to dominate the surrounding villages). The Jordanian al-Dustur reported that the rebels now expect the Syrians to attempt to take back Qusayr itself.

If this report is true, it is the most direct attested intervention of Hizbullah in the Syrian civil war yet.

For other recent developments see Syria Comment

17 Responses

  1. “The rise of Jabhat al-Nusra and of Sunni radicalism in northern Syria is alleged to be one reason the Obama administration declines to support the rebels militarily. They fear repeating the mistake of the Reagan administration, which encouraged the radical fundamentalists to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and created an atmosphere in which al-Qaeda could be founded in Afghanistan.”

    Your observation Professor Cole, cited above, illustrates the dilemma faced by US policy-makers. To many geopolitical armchair moralists who glibly pronounce on US policy as “hegemonist” and “imperialist” on one side, and unwilling to engage in defense of “human rights” and “democracy” on the other, the world is black and white. Issues are easily disposed of by declaring the US either a “Warmonger” for engaging (Afghanistan), or uninterested in “human rights” by not engaging (Rwanda).

    Policy-makers are constantly facing such issues. Should the US have intervened in Bosnia, an intervention that resulted in the 1995 Dayton Accords? Should the US and NATO have gone to War against Serbia in 1999, a war that rid the Balkans of Milosovic and resulted in Kosovar independence? Should the US have intervened in Rwanda in 1994 to stop the genocide occurring in that hapless country? Or were we correct in not intervening and allowing the genocide to continue? Should the US directly intervene in Syria in support of the rebel army? Or not?

    To many who have never had to face a decision more difficult than whether to have another glass of chardonnay or make a switch to merlot, the answers to such questions facing the United States are easy. After all, the poseurs feigning moral superiority can pronounce on US policy with impunity and go to sleep at night without facing the consequences (good or bad) of decisions that policy-makers must face.

    • I guess the message to all the “geopolitical armchair moralists,” transmitted by people who don’t really ever lay out their credentials illuminating their deep involvement in and knowledge of the world of Grayness, and its ‘appropriateness,’ is to shut up and leave the “hard choices” to the so demonstrably morally straight, incorruptible, doing-the-best-they-can Experienced Players and Great Gamers. Since there is such a long history of successes on their part in acting in the supposedly least bad or later-characterizable-or-justifiable-as-best-possible-or-less-awful manner in all the manifold bits of “policy” that are always in play.

      And there is never any element of venality or arrogance or ignorance, or at least no more than an excusable amount, in how the Game is played day to day. No self-advancement, no bribery, no meanness, no “hegemonist” element, no institutional pressures from all that MONEY trending doen the well-eroded channels, no defining the “national interest” to include What’s Good For General Bullmoose, no self-advancement or groupthink or drivers like a notion of exceptionalism that justifies almost any kind of thing like massive dissimulation (“In wartime [which apparently is ALWAYS], truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”), with defoliation and Arc Light and “free fire zones” and torture and (not so much any more, of course) selling and planting antipersonnel mines, and still actively peddling weapons all over the planet, subverting governments, even ones that God Forbid were actually elected “democratically,” as in Iran and Honduras and Chile, like might possibly have happened (that “revolution of the ballot box”) in places like Italy after WW II that had to be pretermitted by ACTION.

      Too bad that the selection process that are in place mostly bring to the top only a certain kind of personality. Too bad certain kinds of humans on all “sides” are drawn to and carry forward that certain set of behaviors and justifications that, whatever the state of their “consciences” when they lay themselves down to rest, however troubled their dreams may be, or however soundly their personal justifications let them sleep, only seem to add to the parts of the human experience that involve and augment the number of bullets in the air, and explosions and rage and pain and dislocation and consumption and fear and insecurity. Too bad so much of what they do is so nicely invisible, or opaque, or cultured to activate the nastiest parts of the brains and cultures of the rest of us. Too bad that there seems to be so little room for the peacemakers, until the active scene of “conflict” has moved on and the survivors go about forgetting and rebuilding, pending the next stirring-up. Maybe that’s the, I won’t say “optimal best,” but just “simply all” we can do.

      But of course, what do I know?

    • Bill,
      If I understand you correctly,
      you consider the US imposing on the Serbs the “liberation” of Kosovo to be a great accomplishment, and the Dayton Accords to represent an accord of the indigenous peoples ?
      Clinton sowed the seeds of blowback in the Balkans, as much as Reagan did so in the Hindu Kush.

      In the end, the locals have to work things out, or the Empire has to leave troops behind perpetually.

      • Agreed, Brian. We could have left the Balkans alone and let Milosevic run roughshod over Bosnia and continue his murderous actions against the Muslims (Srebenica) and his ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Maybe we should have. As Secretary of State James Baker said earlier, “We don’t have a dog in that fight.” The same applies to Rwanda, where we chose not to intervene. We certainly didn’t have a dog in that fight either. Perhaps the best thing is to let them slaughter each other until one side cries “uncle.” My point was these are the issues that policy-makers must deal with and make decisions on whether or not to intervene. And the context in which they make those decisions is not a vacuum; there are pressures from all sides.

  2. While many who read in this space are choosing sides (or just wishing a plague on all their houses) in that “reality show” titled “What’s Happening In Syria And All Those Little Countries in Oilland,” and the Great Gamers skim high above in “command and control” mode while enunciating their Grand Strategies and moving little markers around on their Game Boards and trying, like the bit players in the stock market, to “pick winners,” it might be illuminating to look occasionally at what is happening to fellow humans “on the ground” there. Dr. Cole links to a telling resource, Joshua Landis’s “Syria Comment,” which is giving the kind of exposure to the violence that the rest of us, living in smoother locales, ought to be aware of. Here’s the current lead article, loaded up with exemplars:

    link to joshualandis.com

    The “Great Policy” crotch seems once again to be “give or withhold ‘aid’ to this or that group if we can figure out who is who and where they are on the arcs of violence and “loyalty” from day to day, whether guns or not-guns,” $124 million of this or that, with not a lot of thought, other than “countering Russia” and “protecting our strategic presence” and “retaining freedom of operation” or making more Great Game same-old moves, going into what’s beyond the Now.” I would doubt that, given the Experienced Players and institutional momentums and the ancient alluvial channels that money flows in, floating weapons that tote up to a quarter of the planet’s wealth, anything different might eventuate that might eventually “work better” for the ordinary people who create the wealth the warlords and other rulers and their militaries suck up, that hallmark of the “genius” of Mesopotamian-rooted “civilization,” might reduce the rush to tribal flags and the recursion of vengeance.
    We label the warrior groups as Fundie, Shia, Sunni, Alawi, “government,” whatever. Our brains render one or the other “good guys” or “bad,” or “who cares, they’re just a bunch of Muslims,” irrespective of their actions or the horror and misery they cause. Seems to me the actual category is maybe “gunmen-fighters,” which describes all of them and hints at what draws mostly males into the FUN thing called “war” or “battle.” Churchill said the exhilaration comes from being shot at and missed. There’s a lot more fun to be had in “victory” in the form of KILLING – warriors would much rather kill for their tribe than die for it, and if you spend any time looking through the videos in Landis’s link to syriavideo.net growing collection, you get a little sense of the fear-excitement-rage-exultation chemistry that impels these dudes to attack, and to murder captives and non-combatants, behind a pasteboard front of “religion:” “Allahu Akbar! God is Great!” How’s that again?

    Add some video time in youtube looking at “helmetcam” and “hellfire” selections, to see the universality of it all. And maybe feel some revulsion, and get some hints about how us humans might find some path or other out of that reptile-brain set of behaviors? Or not — “we” don’t seem capable of controlling the behaviors that are killing the planet and ourselves…

  3. Great analysis. Thank you. It’s especially enlightening to read more about Russia’s stake in backing the Ba’athist regime. At first, it appeared Russia’s foreign policy merely harkened back to Cold War days of proxy battles with the West, but now it appears they have a viable concern in maintaining suppressed Chechen independence aspirations. Indeed, if the winds self-determination kick up again in Chechnya, would South Ossetia follow suit?

    • It’s North Ossetia that counts in this calculus. If South Ossetia “kicks up” then of course Putin will simply bankroll them as before. There are places where he has no objection to “self-determination” at all.

  4. The decision on how to confront genocide has never been easy.

    Pope Pius XII was criticized in some circles for not speaking out forcefully against Nazi practices.

    FDR aserted accountability of Nazis would be demanded for those who implemented the Holocaust. He was criticized by some for not bombing the concentration camps.

    These questions have arisen again and again in regions such as Biafra, Darfur, East Timor and many other places.

    There is no easy answer.

    • “The decision on how to confront genocide has never been easy.”

      Ask a native American about how that works. Or their cousins in the vanishing forests of South and Central America. Or the populations of certain sub-Saharan nations, where “our” presence has been felt. Regarding Pius XII, link to jewishvirtuallibrary.org

      Maybe there’s “no easy answer” because the moral clarity has been so compromised by the interposition of “national interests?”

  5. For me the choice is simple. you shouldn’t aid and abate Islamic government to come to power. i am not talking about the extremist type such as Jabahaat Al Nusraa only, but any Islamic government profess to be peaceful or violent. you have to leave the fight to the waring factions to sort it out and deal with the outcome rather than force the outcome one way or another. America is not seen in a good light in Middle-East at all therefore it will strengthen the idea America is up to no good.

  6. A pox on both of their houses! All we want is to take out an ally of Iran. Anyone who believes in our morality or exceptionalism has already drunk the Kool-aid!

  7. Juan I wanted to comment on your “fathers and Sons” piece but the comments sections for that one is closed. Psychological explanations are OK but there is a more compelling sociological explanation for the radicalization of the brothers. In 90’s when Russia committed genocide against the tiny nation of Chechnya, no one did anything. Only Islamic radicals came to their help. Today, it seems like the Islamic peoples are the ones most oppressed throughout the world. Atrocities in Iraq, Afghanistan, sectarian war in Syria and massacres of Hazara and Ahmadiya in Pakistan have created a siege mentality among the people of the middle east and far beyond. And there is always that underlying subtext namely Palestine. Feeling powerless in the face of the power of the West and East abetted by the fifth column reactionaries in the Arabian Peninsula. While EU lifts sanctions on Myanmar, the genocide of Rohanga is in full swing. Uyghurs are being extinguished by Chinese. What would you expect from the young souls and minds? Of course, their approach is wrong. They are harming and alienating the very people who can help them in the long run, that is the people of the West and Russia. Instead they should think about the ways in which they can address the historical inadequacies of the societies in the region: good governance, self-determination for minorities and nationalities, rule of law, elimination of the colonial boundaries which make one country filthy rich like Saudi Arabia and another one miserably poor like Yemen, and of course democracy. Islamic fanaticism is anathema to the rational thinking needed to address these problems. We need a manifesto of rebirth for Islamic countries which have been in decline for 5 centuries, not more ignorance and nihilistic destructivism.

  8. It seems rather misleading to call Kadyrov a “secularist.” He is religious (or at least pretends to be) and supports governmental (i.e. his own) enforcement of some aspects of religious law. Moreover, his own father, Akhmad Kadyrov, rose to power as a religious leader before he was appointed and later “elected” to lead Chechnya.

    I also don’t think that it is accurate or helpful to imply that Chechens are either “secularists” or “fundamentalists”. Kadyrov isn’t either and being opposed to AQ style Islamic extremism hardly makes one “secular.”

    • Being secular doesn’t mean you are an atheist. Most Western secular countries are led by believers in religion. The word has a wide semantic range, but I think using it to describe a mindset that rejects theocracy is perfectly legitimate.

      • State imposition of religious law is not secularist in the ordinary sense of the term. Maybe Kadyrov is “secular” by Saudi standards (i.e. extremely theocratic ones), but by the standards of the anywhere in the former Soviet Union he is not.

        My impression from the outside is that the terms of Kadyrov’s relationship with Moscow are such that he is free to be as religious or secular as he pleases as long as he keeps foreign fighters, Wahabists and other trouble makers out of Chechnya. And so he is able to impose aspects of his own interpretation of sharia even when this conflicts with Russian law. Whether this is motivated by his own personal beliefs or is just an attempt to stay in the good graces of Sufi clarics and other supporters, I have no idea. But it is pretty misleading to call any of this “secularist” – it is certainly sectarian and by post-Soviet standards fairly radically so.

  9. The US had a civil war once which by and large was left to the United States to sort out.

    Perhaps you great gamers might speculate how things might have worked out if European powers had decided to back the Union or the Confederacy – perhaps towards their own goal of creating two weaker nations to be played off against each other?

    Would this foreign backed US civil war be less or more blood drenched? Would one side be more or less accepting of their defeat if imposed by foreign troops? Is there a case to be made for letting a nation find its own solution?

    • Given there were attempts to draw Great Britain into the war on the Confederate side on grounds similar to why Gulf War I happened when it did – someone “we” aren’t all that friendly with has invaded and cut off supply of a resource we rely upon! – that’s a valid question. It may have been a close-run thing.

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