A couple of weeks ago, I went to Damascus as an Election Observer with 4 other Americans and 3 Canadians, and a host of people from South America, Asia and Africa. Before I arrived, US Secretary of State John Kerry had declared the Syrian election ‘a fraud’ and the United States and her ‘democratic’ western allies in Europe, along with the Arab monarchies had barred Syrian expats from voting on their soil. Even so, the flood of voters who came out to vote for Bashar Assad in Lebanon gave a preview of what was to come. When we met with the Board of the Election Commission the day before the election, we were told that even the Syrian government had not expected this response, and that the Embassy in Beirut had run out of ballots. There was a brief moment of shock in the Western world, but it did not change the stance of the powers that be, and the press soon recovered their dismissive tone.
I traveled through Latakia to Tartous on election day, observing over half a dozen voting places in Tartous province, including locations in the town of Banyas and the city of Tartous; in a large cement factory and near the port; and in a refugee camp populated by people from Aleppo. Other Americans traveled to Sweita and Homs, which was only liberated from the insurgency a couple of weeks before the election. Everywhere, there were large crowds and long lines. People were enthusiastic and excited about the opportunity to show their loyalty to their government. In Damascus, our hotel filled up with people from outside Syria, many from the U.S., the U.K. and Western Europe, who had traveled to their homeland just to vote. There was a voting space on the lower floor of the hotel for workers. More than 9000 voting sites were set up around the country so that the numbers would be manageable at each location. At the end of the day, 73% of the population of Syria had voted with 88% of votes for President Bashar Assad.
A carefully crafted process functioned with a combination of structure and flexibility to create order in diverse settings where people had more or less experience with a structured process. In each location, tables were set up with a sign in book, someone to check IDs, ballots and envelopes with markers, and pot of ink to dip one’s finger in. A curtained space in a corner generally designated the ‘secret space’ where one could mark one’s ballot in privacy. At least one of the other candidates, Maher Hajjar, a communist backed member of the opposition, had his image widely distributed, and a following that predated the election. Both candidates opposing Dr. Assad have strong economic positions which reflect the difficult choices that have face Syria since Bashar Assad came to power.. But in the end, the vote was more than anything a referendum on the legitimacy of current President.
The results of the Syrian Presidential election put the icing on the cake of the government’s recent strategic victories over the three year insurgency in Syria fomented and supported by the Gulf Monarchies, Saudi Arabia and the Western oligarchy. After three years the Syrian army, with some help from their allies in Lebanon and Iran, were winning back territories one by one. The massive voter turnout to vote in this election combines with the overwhelming support for Dr, Bashar Assad made it clear to one and all that ordinary Syrians trust their government to defend their interests and given some valid alternatives, wish to keep their government as is for now.
The enthusiastic outpouring of support by the people of Syria for their government was very moving. There is no doubt there is more work to do, but by any definition of ‘Democracy’, the democratic outcome of this election was “Yes to Assad”. Aleppo, the second largest city in Syria and the industrial capital of Syria remains in the hands of the insurgents. Many of the factories in Aleppo have been dismantled and taken across the border into Turkey where they are now supporting their new owners. I met some people from Aleppo in a refugee camp in Tartous when I was there. They had a roof over their head, food and water, school for the children. But it sure wasn’t home. An employee of the Dama Rose, where I stayed, told me that his family had been driven out of their home in Aleppo and were staying in a small house in Damascus now, where which they share with his brother’s family. Everyone seemed hopeful that the war will end soon.
The Kurds are currently governing and protecting their own territory with the government’s approval but eventually the details of an agreement will have to be worked out. ISIS, Al Nusra and many branches of the Free Syrian Army have dismissed their interests and viciously attacked them for their independence. The insurgency no longer controls significant populated areas outside of Aleppo and the militias have been at each others’ throats, but even so it will not be easily eradicated. The Syrian people feel that their outpouring of support for their President and their government will bring them more quickly back to the lives from which they have been uprooted. They are tired of war and they want to get on to rebuilding. Yes, there will be skirmishes, but people expect to go home, rebuild and go on with their lives. Their hopefulness was contagious.
This victory, though largely unreported in the Western media, was a significant defeat for the United States and her allies. After three years of trying to unseat the government of Syria through mounting and feeding a violent insurgency; through constant slander undermining it’s legitimacy and demands for Assad to step down; through constructing of a shadow government of expats and bestowing ‘international’ recognition on them despite the fact that none of them is known inside of Syria and none was recognized either by the actual Syrian Government or by the various FSA groups on the ground; through one sided reporting of events in Syria and in some cases false and misleading reports. After three years of vicious attacks, the people of Syria overwhelmingly stood loyal to their President, their government and the Syrian Arab Army composed of their sons and husbands, fathers and brothers. Any opportunity for sending in the troops or setting up a ‘No Fly Zone’ has passed. New heavy weapons, inexplicably promised to support the insurgency by U.S. President in the days leading up to the the election will merely increase the level of violence – for a while. The war on Syria seems, for now anyway, to be lost.
Following this massive, largely unreported victory for the central government in Syria, the news breaks that ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, one of the most brutal contingents in the insurgency operating in Syria is now in the spotlight. ISIS conveniently rolled into Iraq, bringing victory after victory to a new, well coordinated insurrection there. Analysis on how and why this came to pass is ubiquitous but far from monolithic. There is a sense of awe and a barely concealed admiration for the brutal but efficient fighters of ISIS in many mainstream news reports. The dissolution of the regular Iraqi Army before the advance of ISIS is portrayed as everything from atrocity to shameful corruption to a useful temporary affiliation and well planned collaboration to just plain mysterious. Fifteen thousand well armed soldiers are not likely to be beaten, much less terrorized by a thousand of even the most brutish warriors. Were they massacred or did they fade into the countryside on orders from their Ba’ath commanders? There have been some rosy reports of unconcerned citizens in Mosul, following on reports of massacres in the same city. Something is rotten in Denmark.
President Obama’s pronouncements on what to do about it have been, well, less than consistent. Today he said he’s going to send a few hundred Special Ops forces to assist the Iraqi army, but no boots on the ground. “Will they be barefoot?” someone asked. He also said, in contradiction to pretty much every news outlet in the ‘free world’ that it isn’t our place to tell Iraqi Prime Minister al Maliki to step down. He suggested they may do some tactical bombing. In response, The Independent of London said “Drones would be largely useless against an elusive and lightly armed enemy …” Odd, because this is exactly the type of target drones are used for in Yemen, Pakistan and even Afghanistan, so I am expecting the drones to fly sooner or later.
In his speech on June 19, President Obama also spoke with satisfaction of Yemen as a model for Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries. Wouldn’t that just be lovely! Quietly remove an intractable puppet and replace him with one that is compliant; support a public discourse on progressive issues for those who will enjoy it; and use drones to bomb any emergent resistance around the critical issues of power sharing and basic distribution of resources. Sounds like a perfect recipe for pacification to me. Unfortunately for Mr. Obama, Iraq is far too complicated and volatile for any simple solutions to have even a superficial appearance of success from the other side of the world. And I wonder sometimes, is Mr. Obama privy to the end game or is he still looking for order in the Middle East?
When the discussion turned to ISIS at our recent United Nations Press Briefing with Sryian Ambassador Ja’fari, he said that ISIS was nothing more than a detail. One should look, he said, at who is backing ISIS. The reality is that the United States and her allies have been feeding ISIS in Syria and now it isn’t at all clear that they really want to defeat them in Iraq where, we are told, they are operating as a strike force for disaffected Sunnis, the exact reason they claim to have been supporting them in Syria. Recent coverage in the NY Times claims that ISIS is wealthy and pragmatic. They control the oil well at Raqqa to the tune of $1M/day, and have transported Aleppo’s factories across the Turkish border where they now operate them. These things cannot be done without social support, markets and economic connections.
It is common knowledge in the Arab world that Qatar has been paying members of the Muslim Brotherhood to fight in the Free Syrian Army and rich Saudis have been providing funding for the Jihadis and al Qaeda breakaways fighting there. Turkey is over invested in a loosing battle, and one that is most unpopular with the Turkish people who are becoming quite restive. One can almost feel sorry for Mr. Erdogan. When he was first elected he began building Turkey as a regional power. He seemed to be on a positive track. Could it be that one day, the devil arrived at his door. “Excuse me, Mr. PM, but isn’t Turkey a member of NATO? Your service is now required, Sir. Don’t worry. You will be well rewarded for your troubles.”
Perhaps you will remember the Obama phone call from Tel Aviv Airport where he rang up PM Erdogan on his cellphone and handed it to PM Netanyahu. Yes Nobel Peace Prize winner Obama made peace. “No more time to play around, kids. Time to set the Mavi Marmara incident aside and take your places for battle.” Now Erdogan has an election coming up and he’s starting to look like some of the other tyrants in the region, not so very popular, but secure.
Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who now commands ISIS spent several years in the U.S. prison camp at Bucca in Iraq before emerging as the leader of ISIS back in 2010. Apparently he wasn’t deemed very threatening during his stay there. I won’t make an absolute judgement here, but I can’t help thinking about those guys at Guantanamo who got the special training and the nice housing before being released to infiltrate their old gangs. And then there are the Warlords of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan who have made their fortunes fighting the battles of the West, and now stand with the presidential candidates running for Hamid Karzai’s office.
Members of ISIS are among those trained by the Americans in Jordan to fight in Syria. They also seem to spend a lot of time and have a solid base in Turkey. Until recently, ISIS controlled Jahbat al-Nusra, another al Qaeda militia which, according to Seymour Hersh’s article “The Red LIne and the Rat Line” in the London Review of Books, was enlisted by the Turkish government to perpetrate the lethal false flag gas attack in Ghouta last summer. From the beginning of the insurgency in Syria there has been support, not only from U.S. ally and NATO member Turkey, but a lot of action around the large U.S. Air Force Base at Incirlik, where it was said early on that American Special Ops were training opposition fighters from Syria early on. According to Sibel Edmunds’ Boiling Frogs Post “The joint US-NATO secret training camp in the US air force base in Incirlik, Turkey, began operations in April- May 2011 to organize and expand the dissident base in Syria.  Weekly weapons smuggling operations have been carried out with full NATO-US participation since last May.. Is it likely the pragmatic and ostensibly wealthy leadership of ISIS missed out on this opportunity?
Ultimately we have to look at the situation from a strategic perspective. Strategic from the point of view of the imperial U.S. And here, miraculously, we see a back door open and beckoning. Already people are referring to the old maps of a redivided Middle East which includes a Sunni region covering ISIS holdings in Western Iraq and Eastern Syria. Should the the US now support this ostensibly ‘well run’ militia to take over in this region? Should the U.S. treat ISIS as the barbaric al Qaeda offshoot that it is and try to eradicate it? Across the political spectrum from right to left there is support for one solution or the other. And guess what? From a strategic point of view where we might want to plant a poison thorn in the side of Syria, either road will do. How cool is that? Win-win.
If the U.S. decides to support a ISIS / Ba’athist Sunni region then they can offload most of the work. A civil war in Iraq will keep ISIS and the members of the Shia alliance busy. ISIS will be empowered to continue it’s rape of Eastern Syria with impunity. Dreams of an independent ‘Greater Kurdistan’ may seem closer to ordinary Kurds on the street, but the Barzanis who govern Iraqi Kurdistan are old hands at playing one side against the other. Most certainly they know that Turkey will never willingly give up the 1/3 or 1/4 of their territory claimed by the Kurds. And, they also know that without Turkish support exporting their oil, the economic foundation of their independence would vanish in a minute. Meanwhile, the Syrian Kurds are governed by the PYK, a breakaway party from the Kurdish Independence movement in Turkey which, for now, creates an impassable barrier to any union with the Iraqi Kurds.
If we ‘help’ Iraq to come together, there might be the side benefit of acquiring a more compliant ruler in Baghdad through ‘diplomatic’ means. Some Iraqi cities will be retaken, but others maybe not. The Kurds will get to hold on to Kirkuk which they have long claimed as a part of their domain, but they will need to make a permanent military commitment to defend it. The U.S. will have free rein to use drones to bomb eastern Syria as well as Western Iraq, to infiltrate Ba’athist ground forces with CIA and Special Ops and to support the continued bleeding of Syria’s resources in Raqqa and perhaps Aleppo as well.
A swirling pot of malevolent chaos is in the making.