America's thinly veiled threats against Russia hurting anti-terrorist efforts in Syria

Danielle Ryan
Danielle Ryan is an Irish freelance writer, journalist and media analyst. She has lived and traveled extensively in the US, Germany, Russia and Hungary. Her byline has appeared at RT, The Nation, Rethinking Russia, The BRICS Post, New Eastern Outlook, Global Independent Analytics and many others. She also works on copywriting and editing projects. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook or at her website
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power © Andrew Kelly
Cast your mind back about three weeks to when there was something resembling sincere hope that the US and Russia were finally going to work together in Syria. There was a fleeting burst of enthusiasm for what many considered a “landmark” deal.

Now fast-forward to today, when diplomatic relations between Washington and Moscow over Syria have just reached perhaps their sourest point yet.

The short-lived ceasefire that began on September 12 crumbled after one week, which saw a Syrian military based bombed by the US-led coalition, and shortly after, a humanitarian aid convoy bombed by — according to the US — either Russian or Syrian planes.

Damascus declared the ceasefire over on September 19 and massive bombardment of Aleppo followed as Syrian forces warned residents to stay away from terrorist positions. By September 28, the US had threatened to cut off all bilateral cooperation with Russia unless the assault on Aleppo was stopped.

Veiled threats from Washington

The problem with ultimatums from Washington is that they mean very little to either the Syrian forces or their Russian allies. The chasm between both sides is huge and seemingly unbreachable.

No matter how many semi-ceasefires can be cobbled together behind closed doors in Geneva, the fundamental differences will remain: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remains committed to retaking all of Syria. Washington remains committed to supporting the “moderate” opposition and ultimately engineering Assad’s ouster — and Russia remains committed to preventing exactly that. Until somebody has a major change of heart, it’s simply a matter of running in circles and blaming the guy behind you for the fact that you’re getting nowhere.

From the US point of view, everything that has gone wrong in Syria since September 12 has been the fault of the Syrian government and Russia. But what did Washington do to uphold its part of the grand ceasefire bargain? It appears not much. The onus was on Washington to separate its “moderate” rebels from the ranks of jihadist terror groups — which it still has not been able to do. Although, by the looks of it, they haven’t tried very hard.

Perhaps to distract from its failure to fulfill its own obligations, Washington has now upped the ante by lobbing thinly veiled threats at Russia, very publicly and very dramatically. State Department spokesman John Kirby warned that extremist groups could attack “Russian cities” and Russia “will continue to send troops home in body bags,” if Moscow does not heed Washington’s demands.

More than any sort of concern for Russian lives, these bizarre comments sounded like threats — and that is how they were received in Moscow, where Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova asked sarcastically in a Facebook post would it be the “moderate” rebels supported by the US that would carry out these terror attacks in Russian cities.

Zakharova, known for her snappy retorts to US officials on Facebook, said Kirby’s comments sounded like a go “get ‘em” command to terrorists rather than a diplomatic comment.

But what effect can threats and warnings from Washington really have on Moscow’s actions? Short of implementing a dangerous no-fly zone in Syria and shooting down Russian planes, there’s not much they can do to force Russia into any sort of policy turnaround. As for the threat to cut off “bilateral cooperation” with Russia, could that really be described as a huge loss? After all, there was hardly ever any bilateral cooperation to begin with.

You reap what you sow

If you were to take Kirby’s word for it, you’d believe the only thing on Barack Obama’s mind is the fate of Aleppo civilians — but there may be a less palatable reason why Washington has turned up the rhetorical heat on Russia.

In a recent interview with a German journalist, a fighter named as Abu al-Ezz claimed to be a unit commander in Jabhat al-Nusra and said that the US is supporting the terror group indirectly in its efforts to oust Assad by allowing US weapons to be delivered to jihadists by governments friendly with Washington. When asked whether the American-made TOW missiles used by al-Nusra were obtained from the moderate Free Syrian Army, al-Ezz said that the weapons were given directly. If this is true, it would be no wonder the White House wanted to divert our attention.

But should this interview be trusted as legitimate? Jabhat al-Nusra rebranded themselves Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and publicly ‘broke’ with al-Qaeda a couple of months ago, which is the first giveaway that the interview could be a hoax. Then there’s the fact that the JFS media team has now publicly denied that the interview is real. But despite the fact that it was possibly faked, everything al-Ezz said still “sounds true” according to respected Syria expert Joshua Landis.

The idea that the US supports terrorists to achieve its geopolitical aims is written off as conspiracy rubbish by pro-regime-change analysts who believe in a world where US humanitarianism fights valiantly against Russian barbarism. It’s simply too difficult for them to believe that the world’s ‘moral leader’ could possibly justify supporting al-Qaeda or its affiliates in pursuit of any goal — but history speaks for itself.

Funding and supporting jihadists to fight its enemies is a long-standing strategy for the United States — and if you don’t want to take a jihadist at his word, you could always take the word of Hillary Clinton instead. In 2009, Clinton said something that it’s doubtful she would admit again today: “The people we are fighting today we funded 20 years ago. And we did it because we were locked in this struggle with the Soviet Union.”

Clinton was referring of course to the US support for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s. That nifty little plan resulted in the formation of al-Qaeda — the same al-Qaeda responsible for the September 11 attacks. You would think Clinton would have learned a lesson from that, but the most interesting part of her comment comes when she admits that despite everything, supporting jihadists in Afghanistan “wasn’t a bad investment” because it ultimately helped bring down the Soviet Union.

So there you have it: If it helps bring down the Russians, it’s sometimes a good investment to fund terrorists. Clinton did provide a caveat by admitting that the US must be careful in its use of such policies: Let’s be “careful what we sow,” she said, “because we will harvest”. Unfortunately, if her current Syria policies are anything to go by, she seems to have forgotten that last part.

Outlook bleaker than ever

Where does Syria go from here? Unsurprisingly, Damascus is no longer in the mood to entertain talk of political solutions. The last time it signed up to a ceasefire deal brokered in part by Washington, it saw 62 of its forces killed in a “mistaken” bombardment of one of its bases. The rebel and terrorist groups fighting Syrian forces are not much interested in a cessation of hostilities either. The US and Russia are now at loggerheads once again and the outlook is as bleak as ever.

The Obama administration is said to be weighing a “tougher response” to Russia in Syria, but what does that mean? Will the US decide to supply more lethal weaponry to the rebel forces? Will they bomb another Syrian base as a warning shot to Assad? Will they try to implement a no-fly zone? Will they send in more special forces in an attempt to turn the tide in favor of the rebels in key areas?

But there are better questions to ask: Who is weighing the ‘tougher response’ to Washington for conducting a policy that amounts to providing either direct or indirect support to al-Qaeda? And who will get tough with Washington for its own bombardment of Syria, which — unlike Russia’s — is illegal under international law. Who gets to police the world’s policeman?

Whatever happens next, it should be abundantly clear that while Washington might like to engage in selective outrage and finger-pointing, it is in no position to be claiming any sort of moral high ground — and certainly in no position to be handing down ultimatums.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.