The West, with the US always in the vanguard, is wailing and screaming its heart out against the ISIS for the terrible things it has done in Paris and Brussels, but is in stunned silence at the recapture of Palmyra from Islamic State’s clutches by an alliance of the Syrians, Hezbullah, Iran, all under Russian supervision.
Robert Fisk, that splendid chronicler of West Asia, is at his biting best:
“The biggest military defeat that ISIS has suffered in more than two years – the recapture of the Roman city of Empress Zenobia, and we are silent. Yes, folks, the bad guys won, didn’t they? Otherwise, we would all be celebrating, wouldn’t we?”
Murderers of Paris and Brussels have suffered a crushing defeat. Why then is the West and its independent press so glumly silent? Because victory was achieved by the Russian-led coalition?
It is not generally recognized that there is widespread suspicion in circles outside the Western establishment (this includes the media) that the West is not wholeheartedly in the fight to destroy the ISIS. To use a racing metaphor, the West pulls back its horses just when the ISIS is about to be trampled.
I have seen this sport at least since August 2014 when President Obama blurted out the truth in an interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. Asked why he did not use air strikes against the ISIS to halt their march towards Baghdad, Obama did not mince words: “That would have taken the pressure off Nouri al Maliki.”
Iraq’s obstinate Shia Prime Minister was being blamed by Washington for the “anti-Sunni” policies which were being cited as one of the reasons for the rise of ISIS.
It is a convoluted argument that, by not attacking the nascent ISIS, the US was allowing the Caliphate to gain sufficient strength so that it could force Maliki to leave. This would pave the way for the next Shia Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi handpicked by the US. In other words, under certain circumstances the ISIS, like Mujahideen in an earlier game, can be a Western asset.
Terrible human dislocations and death in Syria, the refugee crisis on an epic scale in Europe, caused Obama and Vladimir Putin to agree to limit the damage. On May 12, 2015, an understanding was reached between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
They agreed that a political solution was the only way out of the Syrian impasse. Obviously, Kerry had to sell the agreement to Riyadh, Ankara and Jerusalem by maintaining an ambiguity on President Bashar al Assad’s future – he will go but “when” has to be decided. Lavrov spoke a straightforward language: Assad would stay until all inclusive elections by the Syrian people decide on their leader.
The important point is that the Washington-Moscow understanding on Syria held despite Riyadh and Ankara throwing a ginger fit. How else does one explain the presence of the Operations Rooms in Baghdad to co-ordinate military activity against the ISIS. Russian command of the Air Space over Syria would not have been possible without an understanding between the Air Commands in the region.
The Western media did yeoman service by pulling a curtain over US embarrassments in Syria. To balance its attitude it chose not to dwell Russian-Syrian victories. Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter had his face distinctly in the lower mould when US Special Forces were caught with their pants down. Arms given to the so-called “opposition” were handed to militants. The “opposition” sought safe passage to few know where.
Russian and Syrian advances against the ISIS surprised those who did much drum beating to fight the ISIS but somehow minimized participation in real combat. Meanwhile the panic stricken Turkish President, Tayyip Erdogan, by his excesses against the Kurds, pushed them into the Russian embrace. Material and military assistance flowed to the Kurds giving them muscle against Ankara which is reaping a terrible whirlwind in the form of suicide bombings and terror strikes. The Turkish leader has charged off to Washington, imploring Obama for something which has already been denied him before: a no fly zone in Northern Syria to serve as a kind of paddock where Syrian refugees can be parked.
Of course, US think tanks have been spending months in Lebanon to study if the power structure in Beirut can offer a model for Syria to follow. They have also been spending time in Iraq: is Iraq’s federal structure worth emulating? Meanwhile, the Geneva process is stumbling along. Syria is promising a referendum on each issue, including agreements reached at the Geneva dialogue.
All this activity notwithstanding, an end to the Syrian crisis is not in sight. Stakeholders like Saudi Arabia, Ankara and Jerusalem have their eyes set on the US elections. These and other regional players will do whatever they can to allow the problem to linger until a new President settles in the White House. Their approach does not take into account the mounting sense of panic in Europe where each day’s delay to the Syrian conflict means so many more migrants knocking at Europe’s door.
(Saeed Naqvi is a commentator on political and diplomatic affairs. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org)