Last Monday morning Presidents Obama and Putin matched words and agendas at the podium of the United Nations General Assembly.
Putin’s address to the General Assembly laid out Russian opposition to terror groups, specifically the ascendant ISIS, in terms of simple realpolitik. He characterized these groups as a fire hazard, training European citizens in terror and sending them back to Europe weaponized. He also inconveniently but accurately identified the Kurds and the Syrian Army as the only two groups in Syria consistently and effectively opposing the ISIS.
President Obama’s address framed the problem primarily by describing what the US considers unacceptable terms of engagement. He spoke against “major powers [who] assert themselves in ways that contravene international law.” Obama’s speech decried the Russian logic that “we should support tyrants like Bashar al-Assad […] because the alternative is surely worse.”
This ignored that we’re already faced with the alternative: ineffectual American-trained defense forces in Iraq, and a “moderate opposition” force in Syria that either capitulates to the ISIS in short order, or never existed to begin with.
The Enemy of My Enemy May Be the Problem
A couple of weeks ago Foreign Policy ran commentary presaging the United Nations showdown. “America’s core interest — stated clearly by Obama years ago — is the end of the Assad regime.” There is of course little or no direct US interest in Assad’s removal by itself — unless America’s core interest is a purely moral crusade against world despots. Assad is only important insofar as his relationships with Iran and Russia place him at odds with America’s other interests in the region.
Assad’s rule in Syria was unquestionably brutal and tyrannical, and his government’s violent reprisals against Syrian protesters in 2011 are unconscionable. During his UN address President Obama decried “tyrants like Bashar al-Assad, who drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent children.” Meanwhile the US’s nominal allies in the Iraqi government and their allied forces have notoriously run roughshod across Western Iraq in their pursuit of ISIS fighters, burning and looting Sunni civilian enclaves and engaging in bloody reprisals.
Despite the United States’ demand for ethically immaculate partners to set in opposition to the ISIS, its closest allies in the region gladly partner with extremist groups in their single-minded opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime, including affiliates of the al-Qaeda front Jabat al-Nusra: “Turkey and Saudi Arabia are actively supporting a hardline coalition of Islamist rebels against Bashar al-Assad’s regime that includes al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria […] [While Turkey denies] giving direct help to al-Nusra, they acknowledge that the group would be beneficiaries.” While Russia’s willingness to work with Assad is presented as an insurmountable diplomatic hurdle, American allies’ overt support for al-Qaeda affiliated militants is overlooked.
Until recently, the Syrian government was well known to maintain extensive stockpiles of chemical weapons, an issue that came to a head in 2013. Iran’s domestic nuclear program has been a hot button issue for America for years as intense sanctions accompanied the multilateral P5+1 talks. In both cases, as well as leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the existence (or rumored existence) of weapons of mass destruction had been invoked as a sole and sufficient justification for regime change.
Historically though, the US has hardly shrunk from alliances with even those same states over technicalities like the use or possession of these weapons as long as they’re aimed at another of our enemies. The United States was glad to provide Saddam Hussein with satellite intelligence in support of chemical weapons attacks against Iranian forces during the 1980s. According to Air Force Col. Rick Francoma,
The Iraqis used mustard gas and sarin prior to four major offensives in early 1988 that relied on U.S. satellite imagery, maps, and other intelligence […] The Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve gas. They didn’t have to. We already knew.
In Israel Mordechai Vanunu has arguably been held as a political prisoner for nearly thirty years for blowing the whistle on the Israeli nuclear weapons program. Nonetheless, to this day the American establishment still skirts the very open secret of Israel’s nuclear stockpile, refusing to even join the general membership of the United Nations in a non-binding resolution calling on Israel to sign the international Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
The Syrian Army is condemned for indiscriminate treatment of Syrian civilians and rebels. While long-time US ally Saudi Arabia is not engaged in a civil war, it has thrown itself into the conflict in neighboring Yemen, indiscriminately turning its American-made arsenal against the Houthi rebels and civilians alike — human rights observers estimate that the Saudi-inflicted casualties are over 80% civilian. In response to criticism of their tactics, the Saudis have leveraged their seat on the UN Human Rights Council to neuter calls for an international inquiry into human rights abuses in the Yemeni conflict.
The Saudi state addresses domestic dissent no less decisively. Just this September the Saudi court reaffirmed Ali al-Nimr’s death sentence for crimes allegedly committed during Arab Spring-inspired protests while he was only 16-years old. Specifically, Ali has been sentenced to beheading and the public display of his mutilated body. Ali claims his confessions were “coerced”. CNN notes that “Saudi Arabia is one of the only three countries in the world known to maintain the death penalty for people who allegedly committed crimes as children — along with Sudan and Iran.”
Al-Nimr’s sentencing is hardly an outlier of Saudi justice. This is the nation where such high crimes such as homosexuality and sorcery still receive the death penalty. The Saudis have even criminalized participation in the Syrian civil war, a bold reversal of its earlier policy granting full pardons to political prisoners who agreed to fight against Assad in that same civil war.
With morally flexible allies like Saudi Arabia, it’s easy to forget that Syria itself was recently an ally of the United States in our global pursuit of militant extremists. “Syria is said to have been one of the “most common destinations for [subjects of the American ‘extraordinary rendition’ program]”” according to an Open Society Justice Initiative report, including the the site of the year-long torture of a Canadian national on behalf of US interests. As with US complicity in Iraq’s chemical campaign against Iran the US is bound to accept a measure of responsibility for the very interrogation tactics which motivated rendition to third party states in the first place. Far from simple association with a monster like Assad, the US shares culpability for the regime’s actions.
While the moral argument against cooperation with vicious tyrants like Bashar Al-Assad may be the most immediately compelling, it is also the most clearly specious and irrelevant. The American President’s denunciation of Russia carries very little weight when American regional allies against both the ISIS and Assad’s regime are all guilty of transgressions against civilian populations, appalling domestic human rights abuses, and the secret development and possession of weapons of mass destruction. The American position then is not that these crimes are indefensible in and of themselves; rather these crimes and our alliances are justified by their utility in achieving regional goals that outweigh these moral concerns. When both Russia and America then profess so many of the same goals, the moral argument is simply a propagandistic cover for the problem of how to effectively accomplish those goals, which will be the subject of the next installment of this series.