The Russian government has invited representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition to come to Moscow from 26 to 29 January, in what foreign minister Sergei Lavrov described as a “warm-up” for a potential third round of Geneva talks. Meanwhile, the UN special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has continued to push for a policy of localised ceasefires to enable relief teams to reach embattled civilian populations, moving incrementally toward a hoped-for political settlement.
These diplomatic moves on the part of both the UN and Moscow have so far been spurned by most of the so-called ‘opposition’. Whilst Russia has been making constructive diplomatic initiatives aimed at bringing to a conclusion a war that has killed 200,000 and uprooted millions more, the opposition stooges have continued to reveal their true colours.
In particular, Khaled Khoja, the latest head of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, more commonly known as the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), and generally considered to be the opposition force most closely aligned with western interests, has rejected the invitation to attend the Moscow talks.
Why Assad’s opponents fear peace
Lebanon’s Star newspaper, no great supporter of Syria, recently offered an interesting explanation for the marked reluctance of the various opposition forces to engage in any peace process at all, worrying that: “Making Khoja and his comrades part of a process could fragment Assad’s enemies further and heighten discord within the already largely discredited exiled opposition. This would ultimately ensure that Assad is recognised internationally as the only game in town.”
The reporter went on mournfully to predict that “the weaker the so-called moderates become, the more likely they may be to embrace a diplomatic initiative to save themselves. And once that happens, the Russians would be in a better position to bring the exiled opposition, along with the so-called internal opposition, together with the regime in a resolution project, giving Assad new legitimacy. Those opposing such moves could then be denounced [quite correctly – Ed] as ‘extremists’ in league with the jihadis.”(‘Behind the Russian peace plan for Syria’ by Michael Young, 8 January 2015)
In short, what terrifies the opposition leaders is the possibility that a peace initiative sponsored by Moscow and welcomed by Damascus might prove so universally popular that their fragmented and marginalised leadership would be swept aside by the tide.
One Istanbul-based leader of the SNC who recently spoke with Syrian exiles in the south of Turkey, Nasser al-Hariri, was reportedly horrified by how many looked favourably on Russia’s move. “People were saying: ‘we’ve been trying the American approach for years, and we’ve gotten nothing. Let’s try Moscow,’ even at the expense of angering the United States and its allies. Despite Russia’s alliance with Mr Assad against the nearly four-year insurgency, some Assad opponents initially said they were ready to try out Moscow’s approach.” (‘Syria peace hopes dim further as opposition rejects Moscow talks’ by Anne Barnard, New York Times, 13 January 2015)
For his part, de Mistura has lent the weight of his office to the Russian project, with his secretary announcing that: “The office of the special envoy will be present at these talks. The office of the special envoy welcomes any initiative that would push forward reaching a peaceful and diplomatic end to the crisis in Syria.”
Fearful of losing the diplomatic initiative for good, Washington thought it best to damn the proposed Moscow talks with faint praise sooner than denounce them outright. So it was that US Secretary of State John Kerry, in Geneva for talks with de Mistura, grudgingly mumbled that: “We hope that the Russian efforts could be helpful.”
However, it is perhaps what he did not say that was most interesting. In last year’s talks in Geneva, Kerry kept banging on that any “transitional government” must exclude President Assad. Now this highly-prized precondition appears to have been quietly dropped. (‘Kerry backs Syrian peace talks in Russia’ by Michael R Gordon, New York Times, 14 January 2015)
Syria stands firm
It should be understood that neither of the significant peace proposals now on the table would have gained traction were it not for the steadfastness with which for four years the Syrian leadership, army and people have fought back against the proxy forces cultivated and unleashed by imperialism.
In other circumstances, had the national resistance wavered, and had the West succeeded in stirring up sectarian tensions within the Syrian army, then de Mistura’s job now would have been, at best, to dictate surrender terms to President Assad – always assuming that he and his government had survived for that long.
Staffan de Mistura is able to take Aleppo to pilot his new policy of “freezing” hostilities by means of local agreements at ground level precisely because the jihadist gangs are losing their grip on the east of the city – Syria’s second largest and of immense strategic importance – and because the reassertion of government control is laying the foundations for a genuine, Syria-led peace process. These are the facts on the ground which allow de Mistura to tell the world that he is “pushing for Aleppo because Aleppo has become an iconic example of where things could start sending the best signal”.
Iraq: the occupation never ended
Back on 18 August last year, Prime Minister David Cameron popped up on BBC Breakfast TV to tell everyone that, whilst Britain would arm Kurdish fighters against IS, and that British involvement in Iraq might last for months: “We are not going to be putting boots on the ground; we’re not going to be sending in the British army.”
By 13 December, the story had changed. Yes, there would be British soldiers sent in, but not really that many. Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told the Telegraph: “We have not finalised numbers yet – obviously we have got a lot of kit back from Afghanistan that we can make available – but we are talking very low hundreds.” Fallon insisted the troops were not there for combat, just to train others.
Needless to say, this flip-flop in Britain was triggered by a similar recantation in the US. Flying in the face of repeated White House promises that there would be no US “boots on the ground” in Iraq or Syria, the Pentagon announced in December that as many as 1,300 US soldiers would be deployed in Iraq in late January, most of them from combat divisions.
Chuck Hegel authorised this deployment as his parting shot as he prepared to leave his post as Defence Secretary – Obama’s third. The Pentagon said that their mission will be to “train, advise, and provide assistance to Iraqi security forces”.
These new and acknowledged facts on the ground are the looming reality, in the shadow of which the official pronouncements defining and redefining exactly when a boot on the ground is not a boot on the ground become ever more jesuitical.
Back in November, Obama said he would seek authorisation from Congress to fight IS in both Iraq and Syria. On 9 December, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a draft authorisation allowing for a three-year operation but ruling out “large-scale US ground combat operations”. This draft, carried only on a 10 to 8 majority, satisfied neither Democrats (who were nervous of authorising force at all) nor Republicans (who for the most part wanted explicit endorsement of boots on the ground).
Then, on 13 January, the president informed leaders of Congress that he will propose terms for a measure authorising US military force against IS. Happily reading between the lines, the notorious warmonger John McCain, currently acting as Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, pronounced himself “very pleased” with Obama’s statement, saying, “I think it’s the right thing to do. It’s what we’ve always asked for.”
It had long been obvious that the ‘boots on the ground’ shibboleth had been so flexible in interpretation as to be virtually meaningless. In September last year, writing in the Washington Post, Rosa Brooks ridiculed the disingenuous wordplay.
“Here’s what ‘no boots on the ground’ apparently doesn’t mean: It doesn’t mean that no US troops will be sent to Iraq or Syria. Reportedly, there are already 1,600 US military personnel in Iraq …
“When the Pentagon issues a Boots on the Ground report (known colloquially as a ‘BOG report’), it often excludes military personnel on ‘temporary duty’ in combat areas, even though temporary duty may mean an assignment spanning five or six months. Similarly, Special Operations personnel assigned to work under CIA auspices are often left out of the BOG numbers. This makes it hard to know just who’s being counted when officials say there are 1,600 military personnel in Iraq.
“‘No boots on the ground’ also ignores the many non-military American boots (and shoes and sandals) present in Iraq and Syria. Our Baghdad embassy personnel presumably wear some kind of footwear, as do thousands more civilians working as US government contractors in Iraq. In both Iraq and Syria, scores of American civilians also work for non-governmental organisations and humanitarian aid groups.”
Finally, Ms Brooks drew attention to the fact that “there were often more contractors working for the US government on the ground than there were US troops at the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.” (‘Why Obama’s assurance of ‘no boots on the ground’ isn’t so reassuring’, 26 September 2014)
In short, the occupation of Iraq never really ceased, the war never stopped, and imperialism is plunging ever deeper into a swamp of its own making.