Obama’s budding Cambodia Policy in Syria

By Juan Cole

Former British ambassador to the United States Sir Christoher Meyer is advocating that the US and Western Europe stop advocating the overthrow of the Baath regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and instead coordinate with it to move against the so-called “Islamic State,” which controls some predominantly Sunni Muslim desert towns on both the Syrian and Iraqi sides of the border.

The Obama administration is also talking about hitting IS in Syria. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says that the IS cannot be defeated without taking it on in Syria. For US fighter jets to fly over Syrian air space and avoid being shot down by Russian-supplied anti-aircraft batteries of the Baath government, the US would have to in some way coordinate with Damascus in this aerial bombing campaign. Typically this arrangement is made by sharing “Identify Friend or Foe” signal codes that the jets send out so that they can be seen as friendlies. Since the stated US position is that al-Assad should resign or be overthrown ASAP, such an arrangement would be, as Meyer says, “the mother of all U-turns.”

Meyer, however, is advocating not just a tacit recognition of strategic and tactical common interests with the Syrian Baath but an actual military alliance, which is unlikely.

British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond pushed back against Meyer’s amoral Realism. Hammond challenged the notion that you needed to coordinate with Damascus to do bombing runs on eastern Syria on IS positions. The foreign minister, however, is wrong about that. There would be a danger of setting off Baath Army anti-aircraft batteries unless there was at least minimal behind the scenes coordination.

For one thing, the Baath regime strategy has been to avoid fighting IS, which is the most gruesome and least sympathetic of its guerrilla enemies, and to allow IS gradually to defeat the moderate Free Syrian Army and the al-Qaeda affiliate, the Succor Front (Jabhat al-Nusra). Damascus seems to think that, faced with the Hobson’s choice between letting the Baath alone to win the coming Armageddon between Baath and IS forces, and risking Caliph Ibrahim marching into Damascus, only 60 miles from the Israeli border, the West will blink and acquiesce in Assad rule. Meyer is only one of many Western strategists who have been persuaded by this strategy. He advocates this alliance despite our knowledge of Baath atrocities (pictures have come out of mass torture to death, a bizarre factory of pain and murder on an industrial scale, by the Baath of its prisoners from among the guerrilla groups). Then there was the indiscriminate shelling of parts of Homs, which left them in rubble, a disregard of the lives of the people who lived there along with a dogged determination to wipe out the rebels (which the regime did).

Obama staffers are leaking the alleged necessity of cross-border bombing as a trial balloon. For my generation, it all sounds drearily familiar. Richard Milhaus Nixon and Henry Kissinger felt they needed to bomb Cambodia to stop North Vietnamese infiltration of troops into South Vietnam. They did so secretly and without Congressional or public authorization (you never want your country secretly going to war against another). They destabilized Cambodia and paved the way to the Pol Pot genocide that polished off a million of Cambodia’s five million people, a far higher percentage of the general population than the Nazis genocided in Europe in the 1940s.

The Obama people are at least speaking publicly about bombing Syria, though not of getting Congressional authorization. I suppose they think the dreaded AUMF (Authorization of Military Force) of 2001 still applies to an al-Qaeda offshoot like IS. Nor it there an analogy from the Khmer Rouge to the Baath, though the Baath has also piled up mountains of skulls bleached white in the sun. (The UN puts the deaths in the Syrian civil war at 191,000, but many of those are indirect, e.g. people thirsting to death on being forced to flee their homes because of fighting between government and guerrillas, and it is at least alleged that slightly more direct deaths have been perpetrated by IS and its de facto allies than by the Baath Army. The calculus of mass murder is a dreary and unedifying business.

For someone who doesn’t think morality is irrelevant to foreign policy, this debate is extremely distressing, since it reveals a dark world in which one’s only recourse against war criminals is a tacit alliance with other war criminals. Though, Realists would point out that such conundrums are common in history. FDR and Churchill openly allied against Hitler with the Soviet Union’s Josef Stalin, the paranoid head of a police state who had enormous amounts of blood on his hands. Ironically, the medium to far Left in the US and Western Europe agrees with the Neoconservative Meyer about a preference for al-Assad.

In the end, the idea that aerial bombing of IS in Syria is necessary should be interrogated. Giving close air support to the Kurdish peshmerga paramilitary to take the Mosul dam could practically work, as it worked in Afghanistan with the Northern Alliance and in northern Iraq in 2003 (when the US helped the Peshmerga take Mosul from the Iraqi Baath). But just bombing IS vehicles on the Syrian side, without there being any force to take and hold territory on the ground, has merely logistical implications (presumably Washington doesn’t want them moving around gasoline and kerosene for their vehicles– they smuggle Syrian oil). That could, however, be done on the Iraqi side of the border.

Whatever the Cameron government says in London, or the NSC staffers say in Washington, however, the proposed Obama “Cambodia strategy” in Syria does ally the West with Damascus and makes it even more likely that the Baath regime’s momentum of the past 18 months will continue on to a dreary Algeria-like fragile victory over the rebels. In turn, the Obama administration’s de facto policy (as opposed to what they say), may be beginning to align with that of the Czech Republic (which has all along supported al-Assad), Russia and Iran.


Related video:

Wall Street Journal: “Syria Vital to Defeat Islamic State, Says Official”

25 Responses

  1. This morning BBC’s history feature “Witness” discussed the story of the Kurds in the 1970s, when the U.S. and Israel provided them assistance through the Shah, until Saddam and the Shah reached an agreement that ended their dispute and the flow of assistance to the Kurds. We don’t hear much in the U.S. media about the long history of meddling in that region. It no doubt seemed tempting at the time. Perhaps it is sometimes even a good thing.

  2. The more successful the IS is the more likely to fragment into internecine conflict. It ought to be possible to encourage such an outcome by selective elimination of some of its leaders thereby encouraging the ambition of others. As for Assad, the US should talk to him. It is not unlikely that once stability is in sight he would agree to hold free elections since the antecedent, largely historical situation has morphed beyond recall, and it ought to be possible to encourage that with a tacit agreement to close the book on the past once such elections are held. The CIA are the obvious people to undertake the eliminations while Iran could bridge the gap with Assad who cannot possibly be enjoying the horrors of the present mess. It’s all very well blaming him for creating ISIL but, if true, it was surely a tactical response to a situation not entirely of his own making.

  3. Your example from history is funny : Which one was war criminal (other than Hitler)? Stalin or Churchill? I think both were. For the current crisis US is as much war criminal as Assad (US starts bombing countries in ME , supporting all dictators for the last 100 years, supporting rebels, supporting Saudis, overthrowing any democracy in ME ….)

    • As soon as the bombs start dropping Syria will become “the mother of all U-turns.”

      • As soon as al-Assad’s sophisticated surface-to-air Russian S-300 multiple target missiles start blowing US jets, will Oblahblah become the father of all U-turns, once more, or go to the the next and possibly final step and tackle Putin’s naval base in Tartus, Syria, since the US Ukrainian project keeps dragging, no matter the false flag operations and accusations by the US?

  4. Earlier this month on the 100th anniversary of the declaration of war that was to become the first world war we were reminded of the chaos that prevailed in European capitals about what to do after the assassination of the Austrian archduke. The decisions on what to do were in the hands of people who, according to the Peter Principle, had reached their levels of incompetence. What we appear to be witnessing in Washington and the Middle East today suggests 1914 Europe was a model of enlightenment.

    Presumably, we can depend on tomorrow’s (Sunday’s) talk shows to feature oracles from John McCain and Lindsey Graham on what we should do. Waging war on the “Islamic State” will probably mean postponing their desired wars on Russia and China.

  5. To me, a theocratic tyranny is significantly more evil than a secular tyranny. So I can see allying with Assad to try to defeat IS.

    But then what?

    One of the world’s biggest problems is that its most powerful and influential nation, the USA, does not insist that democracy should be a global norm.

    Instead of endorsing the further militarization of human relations, we should promote universal norms for governance, non-violent dispute resolution, human rights, and standards of living.

    One of our main priorities should be the democratization of the UN.

    • It should be the democratization of the UN, agreed, but starting with the US really giving the example, something it hasn’t done since the 1800s, if not before, not counting the North American Natives…

  6. Prof. Cole…as a long time reader and occasional poster, and as a non-academic in this particular field, I respectfully request that you give me, and the rest of us, a general overview of the middle east situation as we now all wonder about it. What’s going on? I don’t want to rely on the likes of Terry Bradshaw for my understanding of the complexities of this highly energized situation. I sometimes feel like it’s 1937 and I’m living in Prague, or where ever, and I’m thinking that things are getting a bit out of control. Nest’ pas? sg

  7. Patrick Cockburn has just posted a piece saying the same thing-that we should support Assad, because ISIS is a much worse enemy.

  8. Thomas Pierret

    Allying w. Asad is no realism but political illiteracy. It’s IS dreamed scenario, would boost support for it among Syrian Sunnis.

    • Thomas- what is your basis for suggesting that the generally moderate Sunnis of Syria would prefer IS to the Syrian Government? Some may be conservative in a rural kind of way, but neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor JN has demonstrated the extremism of IS. No doubt IS would use it as propaganda, but there is little evidence that Syria’s Sunnis are clamoring for an IS victory. While Iraq’s Sunnis may have temporarily cooperated with IS to rid themselves of the al-Maliki control, this has only occured at the end of several years of ethnic cleansing by al-Makiki’s shia militias. Such large scale ethnic cleansing has not taken place in Syria.

  9. I am of the same generation – the one that was around for the “secret” bombing of Cambodia – but I think there is an analogy nearer in time. Iraq and Saddam Hussein. One could argue, I suppose, about who is/was worse Saddam or Bashar, but they played in the same league.
    Was it a good thing to spend a long time seeking regime change through sanctions and then through invasion? Good for those who lived in Iraq? Good for US interests? One need not think kindly of Saddam Hussein to believe that bringing him down did more harm than good. That leaving him in power and dealing with him as we deal with so many brutal dictators – leaving bad enough alone and cooperating when it serves our interests – would not have been political illiteracy.
    Or, as appeals to authority:
    1. as cledwards just pointed out in a comment at 4pm “Patrick Cockburn has just posted a piece saying the same thing-that we should support Assad, because ISIS is a much worse enemy.”
    2. Pat Lang has been saying the same thing for some time now.

  10. There are parallels with the China-Burma-India theatre in WW2. General Chennault wanted bomb Japanese cities from China. General Stillwell had to constantly argue that the Japanese would respond by bombing the air bases in China, and there were no effective ground forces to protect those bases.
    Also, rhe Allies allied with Chiang-kai-shek, an extraordinarily corrupt, short-sighted dictator who had no interest in fighting the Japanese. And, the American people were falsely told that the Chinese Nationalists were fighting for democracy and winning victories. If we make a u-turn in Syria, our media may start fawning over Mrs. Assad the way they did over Madame Chiang.

    • “……..our media may start fawning over Mrs. Assad the way they did over Madame Chang.”

      This already happened. Asma al-Assad had an article about her in Vogue magazine a few years ago entitled “Rose of the Desert” which covered her life detailing her London romance with future husband when he was studying medicine and she worked as an investment banker for JP Morgan Chase.

      The article congratulated President Assad on his ability to maintain order in his country via superior security services in stark contrast with neighboring Arab countries and showed the Assads playing with their small children in their sprawling mansion.

      The impetus behind the Vogue article was a public relations firm hired by the Syrian government and the article later became a huge embarrassment for Vogue who eventually removed it from their website version of their magazine.

  11. I see the Cambodia parallel but as one of Juan’s generation, I believe it on the whole inapposite.

    The bombing was part of Nixon’s Vietnamization which alternated modest troop withdrawals and massive escalations.

    Cambodia was a fragile yet peaceful state. Cross border incursions by US forces had been occurring on a modest scale for years without upsetting Sihanouk’s fragile state.

    IF anything Pol Pot’s counterpart is ISIS

  12. Nobody ever said it was easy keeping the whole Middle East under American control. I have forgotten why we don’t have lots of love for the Baath regime in Syria. I know my country well enough to know that it has to do with al-Assad being insufficiently obsequious. My suspicion is that Syria provides Mediterranean access for Iran. If he will pledge allegiance to America, and tell Iran to go play somewhere else, al-Assad can be our buddy.

  13. There should be absolutely no collaboration with the Baathist regime in Syria with respect to ISIS – doing so would add legitimacy to the Assad regime which it does not merit.

    ISIS is one of the major reasons that more Syrians do not oppose the Baathist government in Damascus – they fear harsh reprisals in the event ISIS becomes a governing power over their areas. This fear is especially prevalent among Alawites, Twelver Shias, and Christians within Syria.

    President Assad, per former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, in a recent speech at Tufts University immediately following his resignation from the Obama administration, made it clear that Assad is hugely unpopular within practically all ethnic and religious constituencies within Syria. Ford cited the fact that the Alawite minority community of Syria, of which the Assad family belongs, have been demonstrating even within the hometown of the Assad clan.

    There is nothing that would discredit the U.S. more to the Free Syrian Army, which has a significant relationship to the State Department and Central Intelligence Agency, than collaboration in even the most minimal way with the Baathists in Damascus. It would place doubt in the minds of those Syrian rebels, who have chosen to trust and collaborate with the U.S. government interests, how deep the actual collusion is between America and the Syrian government.

  14. I remember another Cambodian hypocrisy: The Reagan admin diplomatically supported the unity government that included the genocidal Khmer Rouge in opposition to the Cambodian government installed by Vietnam. They supplied military materials to the OTHER opposition members with the caveat that they could not give their supplies to the Khmer Rouge. We know how that typically works in practice.

    In the long run, the cold war ended, the US, China, and Vietnam lost interest in Cambodia, and the UN stepped in to broker a peace process. The end result is a democracy-in-name-only with a government, the provenance of which is that originally installed by Vietnam.

    If the US took the Reagan approach to Syria, the US would construct a unity government that included ISIL in opposition to the Baath government. They would arm the opposition with the caveat that ISIL not get any, but, in practice, ISIL would get US weaponry. The hope being that the Assad government would be pushed into negotiations with the opposition that would eventually be a unity government that excludes ISIL. Then the US can fund this new democracy-in-name-only to go after ISIL.

    It would be a disaster for the Syrian people, radicalize many and perhaps lead to a 911-type disaster in the US. On the other hand, if successful would lead to an increase in US influence in the region.

    I’m not saying that’s a great approach, I’m just saying it’s an approach if the goal is an increase in US influence.

    Another solution may be a grand bargain with Russia, where Ukraine is pressured into giving autonomy to the Russian speaking Eastern regions, and Russia cuts off aid to the Baath regime. They could hand over Snowden, as well. That, too, could force Assad into negotiations. This solution has the downside that US influence is not necessarily increased as Russia gets a hand in the settlement, and countries become wary of looking to get their interests underwritten by US support. But getting Snowden would be a feather-in-the-cap for the current US admin.

    Neither solution is moral or ethical. ‘Nuff said.

  15. I was a Marine in Vietnam. Words and pictures can’t describe an air strike, you have to stand over a smoldering body and smell the napalm and burned flesh to get the reality of it.
    The real enemy of the American people are the oil cartels that control “our” President and Congress.
    We, the people, must take our Government back from the 1% and their lackeys and put our country to work developing sustainable alterative to oil

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