Syria: Russia warns of Mideast Apocalypse if US attacks al-Assad’s military

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

ABC News reports that Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova warned that a U.S. attack on the Syrian army “will lead to terrible, tectonic consequences not only on the territory of this country but also in the region on the whole.” She maintained that if the regime were overthrown, it would create a vacuum within which “quickly filled” by “terrorists of all stripes.”

The incident a couple of weeks ago wherein the US military killed dozens of Syrian Arab Army troops, mistaking their base for an ISIL one, either spooked Putin or presented him with a pretext.

The Russians and the Syrian regime are all up on their high horses about what was likely friendly fire and a simple mistake.

Now they’re accusing the US of contemplating an attack on al-Assad himself. I don’t buy it.

But Zakharova is right that a precipitous overthrown of the Syrian government at this juncture could have unintended consequences.

If the US-, Saudi- and Turkey-backed fundamentalist militias swept into Damascus and took over Syria, there would likely be immediate reprisals against Alawite Shiites, the backbone of the regime. Moreover, Christians (5% of the population), would probably be targeted, just as they were in Iraq.

Iran would lose its land bridge to south Lebanon and perhaps ability to resupply Hizbullah. If Hizbullah really was weakened by this step it would risk losing territory and positions to hard line Salafis, provoking a grave crisis in multicultural Lebanon.

The ascendancy of fundamentalist Sunni Arabs (“Salafis”) throughout the Middle East would be the biggest threat to Iran and to Iraq.

I think the subtext here is that the Putin government is afraid of a new wave of fundamentalist violence in places like Chechnya inside the Russian Federation if the secular government of Syria falls to Salafi jihadis.

But what is really remarkable here is the tone of voice she used against the US. Given the diplomacy pursued by Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, it seems awfully shrill.

If Moscow really fears that Obama in his last months will move on al-Assad and produce a tectonic shift, they don’t know Obama very well. He’s far too cautious for that. Moreover, people in Washington are understandably upset that the Russians are openly saying they think the US has sloughed off in the fight against Syria’s al-Qaeda, or are secretly allied with it.

Russia should dial down the rhetoric! Kerry and Lavrov need to put back together the ceasefire– the only sure way out of this mess.

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Related video:

Euronews: Syria: US on verge of ending peace talks with Russia

37 Responses

  1. It’s hard to say for sure what lay behind that attack on the Syrian base. It was *awfully* convenient for the hardliners within he US government and defense establishment who don’t like the prospect of a cease-fire agreement and would be happy to see it fall apart, which such an incident was likely to cause. It reminds me of that still-controversial “accidental” bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade back in 1999, brushed off at the time as a mere “snafu” but it sent a message to Chinese intelligence operatives who’d been using that embassy as an HQ and some analysts at the time were skeptical given the background context. Cui bono?

    The Russians may be using their public statements to show cards in their hand to signal they know what the US may be up to behind the scenes (the cards the Americans are NOT revealing). We can’t rely on the mainstream Western media to give us the full story, that’s for sure.

  2. Dear Professor Cole

    Once is an accident
    Twice is concidence
    Three times is enemy action

    The USAF have bombed the bridges in Deir Ez Zor that will be needed by Syrian Army to pursue and defeat ISIS once the Aleppo pocket has been liberated from Al Qaeda/Al Nusra later this week.

    link to almasdarnews.com

  3. If ever there was a shrill woman I suggest Samantha Power tops the bill and she leaves Zakhrova standing. The statement Power came out with a short while ago when she said Assad was trying to get most of Syria for himself, was mind boggling. Samantha power treats stupidity as though it were a virtue!

  4. “She maintained that if the regime were overthrown, it would create a vacuum within which “quickly filled” by “terrorists of all stripes.”

    Can you really argue with that point of view?

  5. Many do not believe the attack on the Syrian army was an error, and many others are simply not persuaded that it was ‘entirely’ an error and figure there must be more to it, and what matters is what people believe, belief is a continuing state, Truth is gone before you take another breath. I haven’t seen Maria Zakharova’s warning but she comes over as entirely rational, highly competent and ultra professional. If her tone appeared undiplomatic there is a limit to the patience even of a saint, and it can still only have been dulcet compared with the vitriolic outbursts of Susan Power. You may have seen/heard in the NYT the exchange between Kerry and a bunch of Syrians the other day link to nytimes.com on which the DOS will not, by the way, comment because it was a ‘private’ conversation. Well, it ain’t private any longer, and it’s the kind of thing that must feed into the Russian perspective on the deteriorating situation, leading them perhaps to believe that the US is contemplating pouring more arms into the area, and the better of two evils may be to go all out to gain Aleppo, and then call that a point at which diplomacy should begin since the alternative looks like something that could blow us all sky high.

  6. Is the suspicion of intentional targeting of the SAA troops really so far-fetched? The timing alone is noteworthy as it came just as further cooperation between U.S. and Russian forces was to go forward. What do you think of the commentaries that this was the Pentagon’s way to undermine Obama’s diplomatic efforts?

  7. You say Obama is cautious but Ash Carter (and Brennan) is not. I believe Carter ordered the strike to derail the ceasefire. The unmentioned gorilla in the room is Israel, which will pursue any insane policy to get rid of Assad and the land bridge to Hezbollah. Carter, Clinton and others support Israel (the Likud) no matter how self-destructive their policies.

  8. “Moreover, people in Washington are understandably upset that the Russians are openly saying they think the US has sloughed off in the fight against Syria’s al-Qaeda, or are secretly allied with it.”

    Not only the Russians, but also quite a few comments on this blog indicate the contributors ludicrously think the U.S. is deliberately supporting the terrorists among the rebels. But then there are people who think the moon landing was “staged” and never really happened. And that “Area 51” is secretly keeping captured aliens in vats of formaldehyde. Conspiracy theorists will always be with us. Nothing ever just happens. Everything happens by deliberate design.

    • Some 15 years before 9/11, US was promoting, funding and arming the al-Qaeda type to topple Najibullah government. Some 15 years after 9/11, US is promoting, funding and arming the al-Qaeda type to topple Assad’s government. The simple act of not coordinating with the Syrian government and the makeup of their coalition is telling. And then there is history..Now what’s so absurd about that? Yes, understandably upset, that Syria is not going to pass as smooth as Libya did.

    • maybe referring to one combatant party or another as “terrorists” doesn’t really help the discussion.
      In ground combat, the tools of “terrorism” are how one protects his fellow soldiers.
      .
      I ask you to examine the battle field in terms of specific organizations involved in the fighting. Use the names they have chosen for themselves, or the names that others have labeled them with. But do whatever you need to do to examine specific groups involved in the fighting. As long as you are thinking in terms of one huge mass of homogeneous “terrorists,” you are unlikely to discern where the different groups get their support from.
      .
      When a DOD-backed group of notionally Syrian fighters crossed the Turkish border 2 weeks ago, escorted by Turkish armor, they were trying to find, fix and finish a group of non-Syrians, the “Free Syrian Army,” that is backed by the CIA.

      • If you had read my comment carefully you would have noted that I did not refer to any particular group as “terrorists.” I stated: “Not only the Russians, but also quite a few comments on this blog indicate the contributors ludicrously think the U.S. is deliberately supporting the terrorists among the rebels.”

        It was the Russians and some contributors to this blog that referred to U.S. support of “terrorists.” In fact, I suggested that it was ludicrous to state that the U.S. deliberately supported terrorists.

        It helps to read comments carefully before responding.

  9. Juan,

    You’re a hero of mine. I know you’re one of the few experts who desperately wants peace (even if you and I disagree on how to achieve it). I agree with you Obama would not likely make a big push to oust Assad. But the whole reason, in my opinion, that he agreed to start arming the rebels years ago is because the CIA and Pentagon were pushing him…because they want to oust Assad. I don’t think Putin fears Obama at all. But I think he fears that Obama as a lame duck has lost control of both Langley and the Pentagon and that the attack on Assad’s forces was done intentionally by those in the military upper brass who refuse to give up the fight to get rid of Assad. Obama might be willing to let Aleppo fall and effectively end the war, but the deep state will not allow it.

    • Or possibly Mr. Putin is becoming concerned about what a President Trump might do. It’s one thing to mess with the Americans – quite another to have a Tea Party takeover of the US military.

  10. You say our murder of 62 Syrian troops, and wounding 100 others (which you reduce to “dozens”) was probably “friendly,” but you don’t mention that it was an invasion of Syria. Are you saying that we didn’t know we were invading? or that it was a justifiably “friendly” invasion?

    • I agree on this. Reducing the deaths of 62 troops to dozens is insulting and demeaning. If Samantha Power were truly regretful about accidentally targeting a Syrian base, she would ensure that the US government pay reparations to the families of those deceased or wounded to which they are entitled under international law.

      “Moreover, people in Washington are understandably upset that the Russians are openly saying they think the US has sloughed off in the fight against Syria’s al-Qaeda, or are secretly allied with it.”

      Our government has supported with arms and training extremist groups that are openly allied with groups that are currently on a US Department of State list of groups that commit terrorism. This is such a blatant contradiction, but is completely ignored in this IC post.

      “The Russians and the Syrian regime are all up on their high horses about what was likely friendly fire and a simple mistake.”

      A government lost 62 men in an accident for which the US government offered only a statement of regret, but no compensation or apology. What is happening in Syria is catastrophic, and you hint as much as when you write:

      “If the US-, Saudi- and Turkey-backed fundamentalist militias swept into Damascus and took over Syria, there would likely be immediate reprisals…”

      Except, the possibility that you admit could happen in Damascus, has already occurred in other parts of Syria. US, Turkish, and Saudi-backed militias have already committed pogroms of minorities all over Syria. That the US actions, even accidentally, made continued pogroms even more likely is not something Syrians or Iraqis take lightly. But, then, Syrians and Russians like to be on their “high horses.”

      • It’s hard to believe how much all you people who think everything the US does is intentional and part of a ‘conspiracy’ – who are so critical of US actions – cannot believe that the US has messed up in Syria from day one and continues to do so, including with an incompetent bombing sortie. Kerry’s Syria policy is in shambles, much to the detriment of the Syrian people. Russia has handled their involvement in smarter ways but no players in this war are the ‘good guys’. You and others overestimating US strategy as long as long as you believe the US is continuing to push for Assad’s overthrow by messing up the peace talks and intentionally bombing Syria. Dr. Cole is right – you don’t know Obama. What possible interest does he have in tearing the Mid East apart with 4 months left in his term? I think Obama knows the mistakes the Administration has made in Syria since 2011. Why would he add gasoline to the fire now? Sun Tsu wasn’t the only strategist who advised ‘the simplest explanation is usually the right one.” Because whether the bombing was intentional or not, the resulting tension and more distrust are the same.

        Then you go on to say “This is such a blatant contradiction (US arming groups linked to Al Queda), but is completely ignored in this IC post.” I mean, please! You’ve been reading this blog for years and may have first learned about US arming groups working with the Nusra Front right here from IC. In any event, that has been covered in IC extensively. Dr. Cole has to assume people are following along and doesn’t have to repeat what already in IC’s archives.

        Finally, Russia may be smarter in its involvement in Syria, but neither the US nor Russia have been the good guys. This is not a zero sum game they are playing. It’s more like 2 dimensional chess. Shadows are everywhere.

        • @rbtl . . . The views that you ascribe to me are not mine, and the quote that lies embedded in your comment is also different to mine. You changed it sufficiently enough that the meaning is completely different to mine. If you are going to quote someone, do it accurately.

          In my post, I never once said that I believed that the United States deliberately or intentionally targeted the Syrian base, which is a view you ascribe to me when you write, “You and others overestimating US strategy as long as long as you believe the US is continuing to push for Assad’s overthrow by messing up the peace talks and intentionally bombing Syria.”

          No, I never once said anything of the sort that we deliberately targeted the Syrian base…

          International law requires my government compensate Syria for those losses regardless. International law also requires that government not fund or train mercenaries or extremist groups in foreign countries.

          … My secondary point is that if our government officials are upset about Russian comments, they should cease to support extremist groups in Syria. Saying this, does not make someone ‘conspiracy minded.’ All it acknowledges is that our actions in Syria have been against international law. The same is true in Yemen, where we support Saudi with logistics and arms in committing war crimes. That Saudi Arabia is using white phosphorus and cluster munitions is against international law, but will never go acknowledged in most press.

    • That’s the real elephant in the room, isn’t it? It’s legal, by international law, for the Russians to be there.

      That isn’t so much the case for NATO.

  11. I don’t buy that the attack was a mistake, that is an overused excuse for everything we do. . . besides it doesn’t matter what we personally believe. It does matter though what the opposition believes. . . . and they believe we planned it and can supposedly prove it. . . . I believe we are stumbling our way into a large and bloody war . . . dethroning Assad is hardly worth it.

  12. “spooked or pretext”… “… was likely friendly fire and a simple mistake.”
    Both of your initial remarks must be caused by fatigue to be so misleading.
    Non-usa leaders do not become spooked; they possess a long-term outlook that potus’ lost after LBJ.
    Putin does not deal in pretext – look to usa for that, since 1812.
    Large mis-targeting is not accidental – lack of any responsibility connotes usa hubris.
    Prof. Cole, please don’t abandon your réalistique standards.

  13. The US does not want to put the “peace” deal back together. It wants “to isolate Iran, and ensure it loses its land bridge to south Lebanon and perhaps ability to resupply Hizbullah”. This is all about Israel and its ever expanding borders. It is counting on Russia to back down. The US does not give a shit about the people of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq or Libya as long as it controls oil and gas and the currency they are denominated in.

  14. Yes, a ceasefire would be “the only way out of this mess” if the US was sincere and able to enforce the necessary terms of separation of “moderates” but all information is that it will not or cannot, because true “moderates” are completely insignificant and the US knows that it is counting pretenders. Even that is giving the US the benefit of doubt that it ever knew rebels who could be reliably called moderate. The US packing in of tripwire forces and SAMs and threats against Russia show complete lack of intent to negotiate.

    A ceasefire would require the US to abandon its false claims of “moderate” rebels and get its forces out of there. It will not do that, because the goals of its oligarchy are to defeat Russia for commercial gain, topple yet another socialist state, and get Israeli bribes, none of which it can admit.

    So the US merely delays through the election, allowing the next corrupt admin to take aggressive action or back down. Meanwhile state media will promote US false flags, wild accusations against Russia and Syria, etc.

  15. ‘But what is really remarkable here is the tone of voice she used against the US. Given the diplomacy pursued by Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, it seems awfully shrill.’

    Honestly, professor, I do not understand where you are coming from. To accuse the Russian spokesperson of being shrill, after what has been said by Kerry (an open threat to start arming the opposition ala Taliban) and the ‘speech’ more like a diatribe by Samantha Powers in the UN is height of cherry picking.
    The Russian position is not so unreal given that the position of Hillary and the rest of the establishment is the implementation of a ‘no fly zone’. The whole one-sided coverage of the Aleppo fight has been to soften the US public and then make it easy to launch yet another chapter in this Syrian Tragedy which has its roots in ‘our obsession with Assad must go’

    And finally, how come we are the only ones that make honest mistakes whereas our adversaries only have devious motives in every attack.

    I would like you to address the following: ‘Did we commit to have our good rebels to separate from l Nusra, and did we ever fulfill that commitment?’

  16. I read you religiously, and agree with you 99%. But now:. What right did the U.S. have to bomb Syria? or to sponsor/acquiesce in Turkey’s recent invasions? To what degree are Assad’s opponents non-Syrians encouraged by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey? To what degree has Obama been using them as a partner for a proxy war? These are serious questions, which don’t deserve to be buried (as in the corporate media) by someone as genruinely rightminded as you.

  17. Gaddafi said virtually the same thing about Libya. Was that “shrill” uncalled for language.

    Of course the fall of Assad would empower radical Sunni’s. Where do you expect all these militants to go after Assad falls? But that raises a serious question Juan, what in your view would happen in a “post-Assad” Iraq? I see to major problems. First, the radicals would come to power. Second, the members of the Assad army and Assad’s other associates would be extremely bitter about losing their status and would organize much as the Sunni’s in Iraq did. Leading to year’s of conflict. In other words, Juan, where exactly do you think they would do?

    At this point, the obvious conclusion is that decades of conflict were the plan. The only other alternative is complete and totally stunning incompetence, which isn’t likely given the USG’s vast experience in destabilizing “non-complient” regimes.

    PS: the idea that we are in Syria for humanitarian reasons is absurd. Just like the suggestion that our vassal states in the Gulf are funding the militants because they support democracy. The Saudi royal family detests democracy with every fiber of their being.

    I also agree with another poster, the “shrillness” of the statement quoted above is four or five levels below the shrillness of the language used by Samantha Power.

  18. Now Juan I’m liking your articles because the comment section has better info and expertise than you. In my opinion because you write more and more subjectively and in favor of the US YOU ARE MISSING what really in going on here in the USA. The people don’t care and the CIA and State and Defense Dpts. are taking over.

    • what is subjectively to you is objectively to the rest of us, and it’s YOU who is missing what’s really happening.

      • I agree with Sergio’s observation on an increasing tilt in favor of the US establishment position vis-a-vis Syria….but do not believe the professor MISSES anything, I believe that is his INFORMED opinion…similarly to say that Sergio is missing has no basis in any objective observation of his comments.

  19. You really have drunk the kool aid to say the US bombed the Syrian government base mistaking it for an ISIL one. That was a deliberate attack to derail the Kerry-Lavrov deal. Obama wants it both ways–to look like a peacemaker and simultaneously wreck any peace prospects. Typical of him. I think you must be getting ready for the Hillary administration so you can justify her certain escalation of the war in Syria, something you would denounce if a Republican were president. You have previously said the US is de facto allied with the al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria.

  20. Mr. Cole,
    Please stop using the term “friendly fire”. It’s just the euphemism for ” stupidity killing your own people”. I suspect the term was coined by the military to obscure incompetence.

    (Semi-joking, of course.)

  21. Juan- you identify several minorities that would be at risk if the Salafists and jihadists took over in Syria.
    I’d suggest that other groups would also be at mortal risk, notably non-Alawite Shia, and non-extremist Sunnis. Doesn’t leave many who could look forward to a bright future under the extremist Sunnis.

  22. ISIS Air Force just killed 50 civilians in Deir ez Zur

    50 civilians, including women and children, were killed in the US-led coalition airstrikes on Deir Ezzur,” the sources said on Monday.

    Noting that the US airstrikes have pounded 7 bridges in the past four days, they said that the bridges on the Euphrates in al-Mayadeen, al-Bu Kamal, al-Ashara, al-Basira, al-Tarif and al-Nowam in the Eastern and Western countryside of Deir Ezzur were attacked before the airstrike on al-Abbas bridge on Sunday.

    Army sources in Syria said on Sunday that the US pounded several strategic bridges in Deir Ezzur in the last few days to prevent the army and its allies’ further advances in the fight against the ISIL terrorists.

    link to en.farsnews.com

    • Hi, Frank. this Iranian article is completely crazy and you’d want some corroboration from some non-whacky news agency before crediting it.

    • Hi Frank,

      This could be another wacky site…though it cites Syrian government and appears to be an American site (albeit antiwar).

      link to news.antiwar.com

      yet another one:

      link to handsoffsyriasydney.com

      The last one appears to be Australian…

      .frankly, it becomes very difficult to sort out which is real or not…that is why I come to this site…so maybe the professor can validate these.

      But on an analytic note I would not be surprised at all if our strategy was to cut off the ISIS controlled area from the SAA so that the Syrian state can never take control of it…

      After all our goal is to create the Sunni version of Kurdistan that will cut off Lebanon (hence Hizbollah) from a land corridor to Iran. This will meet one of our goals in service of Israel…the second goal of ‘pipelinestan’ may not be achievable at least in the near term.

  23. Many of you are forgetting to put the tinfoil hats on. If the US wanted to bomb Assad and start a war it would have chosen a better target. You think air support is easy like top gun it’s not. Mistakes will be made. However, for a country that has cruise missiles, B2s, and mobile artillery the US could do a lot better than an F18 bombing some 3rd rate militia on the margins. C’Mon! When the US starts wars we do it right!

    I don’t trust the media either but jeez you can’t ignore the NYT but believe RT line and sinker.

  24. maybe the bombing of a static Syrian Army position, a position they held for more than 6 months, a position we had under continuous surveillance for weeks, was a mistake.
    In the same vein,
    maybe the timing of that strike, less than 2 days after the Syrian Army killed a US Navy SEAL and one other SF warfighter embedded with Kurdish forces, was just a coincidence.
    .
    but don’t we claim to have such good Intel that we don’t kill innocents ?

    • We have never claimed we “don’t kill innocents.” We have claimed, correctly, that we do all we can to avoid killing innocents. But measures taken to avoid killing innocents are not 100 percent effective, and some inevitably are killed. The U.S. has acknowledged that.

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