Watching the opening ceremonies of the so-called Geneva II conference in Montreux this week – a conference that has been all but declared dead before arrival – one can’t help but experience a profound depression at how a regime such as Bashar al-Assad’s has managed to outwit and outmaneuver even the languid efforts of the United States. This is quite clearly a Manson family cult masquerading as a national government, and its continued existence is extraordinary considering what it’s been up to in the past 40 years and how pathetically it’s evaded justice for the last gruesome three.
Yet an explanation for its longevity has begun to emerge. The White House claims that its Iran policy is safely compartmentalized from its Syria policy. But its actions betray its press releases, as do the president’s own thought-experiments in unguarded moments.
Here he is in dialogue with the New Yorker’s David Remnick: “[A]lthough it would not solve the entire problem, if we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion – not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon – you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.”
Thus do grand visions articulate themselves, and thus did the Obama administration recently suffer a decision-making crisis about whether or not to invite a would-be responsible country, which has subsidized and supplanted much of Assad’s atrocity-making abilities, to a conference all about “peace.” Would Iran accede to a two-year-old program for “transitional” government in Damascus? Nope. Would the Syrian National Coalition, a body that had to be cajoled and threatened into attending Geneva II in the first place, accept mullah representation without this necessary precondition? Come on. Yet an invitation to Tehran nevertheless was extended by the United Nations, an institution which hardly needs more bad press and which, in the space of 24 hours, had to embarrassingly rescind its own courtesy. How this happened remains controversial, with the kindest interpretation being a “multifaceted, multilayered miscommunication,” as former US diplomat Fred Hof diplomatically described it. However, Ban Ki-moon’s spokesman Martin Nesirsky must now be added to the long list of aggrieved parties who believe the United States these days is completely full of shit. “I know for a fact that this could not have been a surprise to the US authorities,” Nesirsky told Foreign Policy about this pre-Geneva SNAFU, as those selfsame US authorities played at innocence and crossed wires with Turtle Bay. What it must take to piss off Ban Ki-moon’s office.
Syrians by now are much wiser. In a week that has seen the most persuasive and tribunal-ready evidence emerge of the systematic torture and murder of some 11,000 prisoners of Assad’s dungeons – many of whom had been starved to death or beaten with rods or strangulated with serrated cords – this is what the US government has managed to contrive in response: “The regime has the ability to improve the atmosphere for negotiations in Geneva by making progress in several areas. However, this latest report of horrific and inhumane prison conditions/actions further underscores that if anything, it is tarnishing the environment for the talks.”
“Improve the atmosphere for negotiations.” “Tarnishing the environment for the talks”– this,even as the barrel bombs continue to fall on Hama and the artillery on Homs, and the prisoners continue to be tortured by the very “state institutions” Washington has said it wants to remain in charge after Assad leaves. Would now be a bad time to mention that Assad’s Minister of Information paraded around Montreux on Wednesday shouting, “Assad will not leave, Assad will not leave”?
The current Alpine pantomime is made even more Prozac-worthy when one weighs exactly what the United States is up against: not very much.
Walid Moallem looks like someone who has just passed out on a toilet at McDonald’s. That he is foreign minister of an important Arab country and has been for some time is tragedy and farce rolled into one. Instead of having handcuffs slapped on him, as would be a sensible response to his appearance in Europe, Moallem has just been granted the opportunity to expiate at endless length, and to accuse the West of “claim[ing] to fight terrorism, but…secretly feed[ing] terrorism.” Leaving aside how this doesn’t bode very well for conciliation by Swiss moonlight, it is also what Freudians would call a serious case of “projection.”
Bizarrely, Moallem’s logic is one that has been taken up by a raft of foreign governments, which really do seem to think that he may be onto something. Western intelligence officials have lately been dispatching Damascus seeking urgent help about nationals who have gone to Syria to practice jihad and may one day return to practice it at home. The problem lies in believing that Assad shares an enmity for transnational terrorism, or is genuinely interested in helping the West to combat it.
The Telegraph’s Ruth Sherlock and Richard Spencer have done us all a great service by reporting that the regime has “funded and co-operated with al-Qaeda in a complex double game even as the terrorists fight Damascus, according to new allegations by Western intelligence agencies, rebels, and al-Qaeda defectors.” This collusion began in the spring of 2013, although Syria’s facilitation of Al-Qaeda actually began more than a decade ago when Assad ran “rat-lines” of jihadists into US-occupied Iraq. The clearinghouse system got so unbearable that one Al-Qaeda operative, a man called “Abu Ghadiya,” had to be assassinated in a cross-border raid by US forces in Deir Ezzor in 2008.
Previous journalists have also documented how Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s only “official” franchise in Syria, had not only taken control of oil fields in eastern Syria, but had financed its own operations by selling millions of dollars worth of crude back to the regime it was putatively at war with. (This happened at a time when Damascus was importing tanker after tanker of virtually-free petrol from Iran.) But part of what was new in the Telegraph disclosure was that now the Zarqawist offshoot Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), has also started horning in on the same oil-for-caliphate action.