The ugly truth behind Obama's Syria plan

Targeted strikes to punish Assad will only perpetuate the conflict – and that's exactly what the American government wants.

America's aims in Syria are not what the government wants you to think.

You can see the evidence in what action is being suggested. Jay Carney, the White House chief spokesman, yesterday categorically ruled out regime change as an objective. “The options that we are considering are not about regime change,” he said to the assembled White House press corps. “They are about responding to a clear violation of an international standard that prohibits the use of chemical weapons.” But the targeted strikes being proposed will only perpetuate the butchery – and that is what they are designed to do.

A true solution to the conflict in Syria would have been difficult and incredibly complex even two years ago. It would take a long time, and more money than would probably be palatable to either Britain or America. Solving this problem would mean attempting rapprochement between two factions whose hatred for each other is drenched in the blood of thousands and steeped in years of murder. It is probably impossible.

But nobody is even talking about a solution, and there's a reason for that.

America is not interested in regime change. Obama does not want to be a war-time president. Nor is he interested in the humanitarian argument for intervention for any more than rhetorical purposes. A cursory glance shows his 'red line' of the use of chemical weapons to be ridiculous. The death toll in Syria stands at more than a hundred thousand people. The rhetoric has been that Assad must be “punished” for the use of chemical weapons, but why? The tools used to reach this number are immaterial in the face of that horror. Who cares whether people were killed with shells, mortar or gas?

The truth is that evening the odds in Syria – which the West has already been doing, by drip-feeding supplies and weaponry to rebel forces – has turned a brief if bloody resolution into an interminable meat-grinder, in which no side has the decisive edge, and flattening out some more of Assad's tactical advantages will only maintain this grisly status quo.

Here is why that is attractive to the American government. At the moment, the conflict in Syria is acting as a sort of sump; collecting the resources of America's enemies in a confined space. It's a black hole for extremists. When Assad's army re-took the town of Qusayr in June, they were supported by Lebanese Hezbollah. Iran, too, is supporting him: the Independent on Sunday reported in June that a contingent of 4,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops would be sent to fight alongside Syrian government forces. Tehran has even threatened to strike at Israel should America attack Syria, a move which could start a disastrous chain of events.

On the other side, Jabhat Al-Nusra, widely regarded the most effective and disciplined rebel group fighting the Assad regime, is openly linked with Al-Qaeda; another jihadist affiliate, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is a hugely powerful faction of the rebel Free Syrian Army.

As far as the White House is concerned, this is a zero-sum game. While these groups are spending money and resources fighting in Syria, the threat they pose to the West is greatly diminished. If Al-Qaeda is focussing on overturning Assad, it is not plotting the next 9/11; and it is even possible that it might be grateful to the US for even miserly airborne assistance. My enemy's enemy, so the saying goes, is my friend.

Obama and his advisers will also be calculating that victory for the rebels in Syria could allow anti-Western sentiment to resurface under an extreme Islamist regime. Another lesson from recent history: in Iraq, it was after Saddam was toppled that things went to hell in a handcart.

So that leads to the awkward conclusion: that a half-hearted airborne intervention in Syria is designed not to rock this deadly boat, but to steady it.

The situation for Putin is much the same. Perpetual civil war in Syria works almost as well for Russia as for the United States. Russia has enormous business ties with Assad's Syria – some 20 billion dollars worth, according to the Congressional Research Service, and they stand to lose this if Assad is toppled – as well as Russia's only military naval base outside of its borders, . But Syria is also a large-scale buyer of Russian arms; spending nearly five billion dollars in the four years to 2010, and that number has increased significantly since the conflict began, with Assad signing deals to buy advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles and MiG-29 fighter jets in just the last few months.

More importantly, the Syrian conflict allows Putin to tighten political support at home in an era of increasing unrest and protest by increasing anti-American, and anti-Western sentiment. With Russia and the US implacable on the UN security council, no resolution is likely, however much Russian foreign ministers may bluster about “catastrophic consequences” if the US and its allies were to intervene.

Russia doesn't want the rebels to win, because it will lose its business and its naval base. America doesn't want the rebels to win because the state they will most likely form will be an extremist Al-Qaeda backed breeding-ground for terrorism, led by the Al-Nusra Front.

So Syria has become effectively a straw man, by tacit agreement of both Russia and America. And as long as the straw man continues to burn, neither side cares how many civilians are lost in the inferno.

Barack Obama walking to the West Wing of the White House. Photo: Getty

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt