There’s a scene from the popular American series Homeland where one of the star characters, a US Special Ops/highly trained CIA hitman named Peter Quinn, is asked by his higher ups how he thought US strategy against the Islamic State was going. His response is instructive: he wants to know if someone can please tell him what that strategy is exactly? Only then, he says, would he be able to respond.
To which there is an ominous silence.
Quinn goes onto say, short of sending about two hundred thousand troops, perhaps what could help is…”pound Raqqa into a parking lot.” As well-intentioned as the likable Quinn may be, he effectively is advocating war crimes on a colossal scale.
The current escalatory rhetoric that has now resulted in the US bombing of Syria is emblematic of a similar sentiment. When confronted with a maddeningly confused policy toward one of the bloodiest civil wars of our time, Washington routinely is opting for one option alone: military force. Whether done on an indiscriminate, massive scale as in Mosul or Raqqa, or just some symbolic strikes to demonstrate a mindless, machismo display of force when the US president needs to look ‘presidential,’ fighter jets, cruise missiles, and ‘smart bombs’ become substitutes for any intelligible policy toward the bloody conflict.
All that we are able to ascertain with any certainty is that gone are the days where we were told that ‘terrorism’ is the greatest threat to American interests and the civilized world. The Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy this year revealed what should have been known all along: that the real ‘threats’ are actors that place genuine restraints on American power: principally, Russia and China. That is, the era of unipolar hegemony is effectively over, and if other crises in Eastern Europe and Asia have not exposed that sufficiently, then Syria seems to have revealed most glaringly that we are no longer in the world of unbridled American dominance.
Gone are the days of the late Cold War where American aims were essentially accomplished by proxy forces and client regimes. Gone are the days when US direct interventions right after the demise of the USSR were effectively ‘CNN video game’ wars essentially meant to ‘shock and awe’ the world with the spectacle of utter, unmatched American military prowess.
The flashy lights of the ‘toolbox’ of American weaponry is still present, the wreckage it inflicts there for all to see, but what happens next? Stable occupations? Stable pro-Western regimes? Not quite.
One of the most significant markers of the decline of an empire is precisely the fact that it will, with more frequency, have to resort to direct military interventions on its own, by itself – rather than relying on its proxy forces and client regimes to get the job done. In Syria, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, we have seen the abysmal failure of relying on proxies to defeat actors that Washington deems inimical to its interests, or to those of its two principal regional partners, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
America’s latest ‘animal’ that needs to be taught a lesson in this conflict, Bashar Al-Assad, has probably survived so long because US regime change operations (Iraq, Libya) have utterly terrified the region’s people, and there could hardly have been a more reactionary proxy force of ‘moderate rebels’ that the NATO-GCC alliance could have mobilized, funded, trained, and supported. The only recent historical parallel seems to be Afghanistan in the 1980s, and we know how that turned out.
It’s hard to keep track of all of the animals, Hitlers, butchers, and monsters that Western elites have named and punished when it has suited their interests to do so. The list is indeed a sordid reminder of state terror unleashed by vile despots, only made more grotesque by the fact that most of them received support from Western powers at some point or the other.
In this geopolitical crossfire, Syria’s civilians have been murdered in the hundreds and thousands and displaced in the millions, causing the largest refugee crisis since World War II. Though it may seem like the most graphic and gory scene of mass violence, the use of chemical weapons by the regime or other forces is nothing more or less despicable than the gratuitous acts of atrocities committed wholesale throughout this conflict.
The world just recently commemorated the fifteenth anniversary of the catastrophic war in Iraq that devastated the country, doing irreparable damage to the region. Millions have been killed and displaced, and unparalleled sectarianism, violence, and terror unleashed. It was done because a ‘Butcher in Baghdad’ was concealing his ostensible weapons of mass destruction and because he oppressed his own people.
But did anyone ever think that there would be a day that the horrific rule of Saddam Hussein would be missed with nostalgia? Only such a monumental bloodbath as the US invasion and occupation of 2003 could accomplish this.
The fact that the preservation of by now that pipe dream of American preeminent hegemony a-la the post-war period, or deflecting attention away from domestic political scandal, should compel this US administration to bring the world closer to the precipice, ought to be frightening enough. The fact that the most dangerous and reckless National Security Advisor in America’s history will be calling the shots should make countries seriously invest large amounts of their national budgets into the possibility of life on other planets.
The tragedy of Syria is that a genuine oppositional movement that challenged the political and socio-economic status quo in the country rapidly morphed into a geopolitical proxy war unlike that ever witnessed in the region. Syria has become a playground for so many outside actors and their surrogates. Up until recently, one would be lucky not to run into a dozen different groups and foreign personnel in most parts of the country and all the major cities. The mind boggling traffic of hodgepodge forces made the country infested and congested with God knows who, when, and where. Again, ordinary Syrians suffered so tragically in this entire power play.
In the newly composed American war cabinet’s desire to act tough to demonstrate that the US is not as weak as it really is, we can only expect the gloves to come off with more tenacity and recklessness. The ongoing resort to senseless military force to resolve the fundamental structural condition of imperial decline brings the world to a dangerous juncture. The routine US ‘Nuclear Posture Review’ makes it abundantly clear that, under sanitized and harmless-sounding terms like military ‘toolbox’ and ‘smart’ bombs’ and ‘tactical’ nukes, the principal objective is to normalize the use of the most heinous weaponry – albeit trying to repackage and rename them.
Does calling the Al Qaeda affiliate, Jabat al-Nusra (now renamed again), ‘moderate rebels’, fool anyone about their true ideological character? Well, Western intelligence agencies, perhaps, but certainly not the Syrian people.
The most depressing fact of the entire Syrian tragedy is that for the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia – Syria (the regime, its people, the nation) is merely a sideshow, a stepping stone to hit at the real target: Iran. Remember the notorious refrain of the good old neocons: Baghdad is fine, Damascus is OK, too, but real men…go to Tehran. For Tel Aviv and Riyadh, and their overlord in Washington, the Islamic Republic is the ultimate disobedient miscreant that has deserved disciplining and punishment since its revolution in 1979.
Nevertheless, things are moving more rapidly than expected by planners in Washington. It would have been great if the Syrian conflict was only limited to engaging regional actors like Hezbullah and the Iranian regime. These were forces that the Washington-Tel Aviv-Riyadh axis wanted to confront head on and finally eliminate, the US-Iran nuclear accord be damned.
But there is Russia, the country with the second largest nuclear arsenal in the world. The fact that possession of this stockpile allows what NATO thought would be a third-rate semi-colony after the Cold War to hijack Western plans in Eastern Europe and West Asia is what annoys Western political elites the most. Contempt for Putin is really contempt for Russian reassertion of sovereignty as well as an emerging global power advancing its own interests. For NATO capitals, this seems to be the special prerogative that only they deserve.
Finally, in the immediate conflict, there is one reason why a prolonged military engagement by Washington, Paris, and London is not a good idea: Turkey, one of the most formidable NATO members, is going ‘rogue.” That is, Turkey understands that a senseless non-strategy that is simply meant to carve up Syria to facilitate outside powers’ spheres of influence is a recipe for further disaster. Turkey, no friend of Russia’s in the past, perceived the latter along with Iran as at least wanting to sit down and discuss a pathway toward brokering some diplomatic resolution that deescalates the conflict. Looking Westwards, Ankara has seen no such sentiment. Instead, one hears Trump say one day that the US will remain indefinitely in Syria, then claim that the US is going to leave, and now of course begin to bomb.
This, perhaps, is the biggest scandal, i.e. no questions at all raised in mainstream Western media that ask: where in the world is any diplomatic initiative by Washington to try to deescalate and resolve the Syrian nightmare. The ‘liberal’ media has reached new lows that its main contention with the Trump administration is that the latter is not sufficiently bellicose and hawkish with regards to Syria and Russia. One must only come to the conclusion that the editors of the New York Times and The Washington Post must have some special bunkers and capsules that beam them and their families up to safety in outer space when World War Three breaks out.
In a nutshell, for the first time in its history as the preeminent hegemonic global power, the US imperium confronts discernible actors challenging, in a dramatic way, the two pillars of what has sustained its global rule: its geopolitical domination in the inter-state system and its economic supremacy. Russia is leading the way in the former, and China in the latter. Nothing is certain in this age of transition, except for the fact that only the proverbial guy living under a rock cannot see that the world has drastically changed.
Going back to Quinn from Homeland, it’s important to note that his death is ultimately not at the hands of terrorists or Russian spies in Europe or Syria. He is killed in the factional warfare running within the ruling political establishment within the US, taking a bullet to protect the President of the United States from being assassinated by her own intelligence services.
As much of a dangerous con-artist Trump may be, it is now patently obvious that he is a prisoner of the party line of the ‘deep state, from which he is forbidden to deviate. And the fact that no matter how many more Syrians need to suffer, more cruise missiles need to be launched, more tensions need to be heightened that result in a myriad different, dangerous possibilities, Trump may still become a victim – not of any foreign terrorist or Russian – but of his very own. The ‘palace intrigues’ of Washington may result in the victimhood of not only many more Syrians and others throughout the world and internally within the US, but ultimately, of Trump himself.
But who will apologize to Syrians and the world, then? I can’t remember any apologies from Bush, Cheney, or Rumsfeld.
Junaid S. Ahmad is the Director of the Center for Global Studies and Faculty in the School of Advanced Studies, UMT, Lahore, Pakistan, and is the Secretary-General of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST).