Russia and Syria Have Become a Hot Issue in US Presidential Elections

The two upstart front runners favor cooperation with Russia in the Middle East, while the entrenched old guard push for confrontation

Wed, Oct 7, 2015
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Credit: Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy
Credit: Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

According to Senator John McCain, the U.S. is now engaged in a proxy war with Russia in Syria, as a result of “an abdication of American leadership” on the part of the Obama White House.

I am afraid this time he is right, but it might help if McCain clarified who the American proxies are. Are they the so-called "moderate" Syrian rebels, some of whom have been trained at a high cost to American taxpayers, only to switch sides and become not-so-moderate but radical enough to join the ISIS? Or does he have in mind the Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra, which is also fighting on the side of "pro-Western, pro-democracy" Syrians?

It would be interesting to know if McCain (or for that matter other Members of Congress) or those in charge of US foreign policy clearly understand the complexity of the Middle East quagmire, with so many players that do not see eye to eye. There are Turks, Kurds, Saudis, Qataris, Iranians, and Israelis, as well as numerous splinter groups which do not report to anyone. On top of this there is a Sunni-Shia war which has been going on for centuries.

One would think that given this enormous complexity the need for close US-Russia cooperation is absolutely essential. However, so far, all of us who expected that after last week’s Putin-Obama summit in New York we would see the beginning of a joint US-Russia effort to defeat the ISIS were proved pretty naive. The way things stand now there is little chance we will see the emergence of something resembling their anti-Hitler coalition because the goals and objectives of the two countries do not coincide.

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Since the collapse of the U.S.S.R. the United States, instead of doing its best to integrate Russia with the West, has undertaken a global democracy promotion crusade to oust regimes that do not follow the Washington line in international affairs.

Russian president Putin is one of the worst recalcitrants, who has the unheard-of impudence to declare Russia's own security interests that do not necessarily coincide with those of the most hawkish Western democracy promoters. In their opinion, such outrageous behavior is absolutely inadmissible and definitely qualifies him for the top of the list of candidates for ouster.

However, Russia's pretty impressive arsenal of nuclear weapons requires different and slightly more nuanced approaches -  like NATO expansion -  a missile defense system close to Russian borders - or color revolutions, economic sanctions, removal of military bases outside of Russian territory, and most likely covert actions.

Not so long ago there were only two such Russian bases (compared with some 800 US bases in more than 70 countries and territories abroad): one in the Crimea, which until recently was part of Ukraine, and the other in Syria. Therefore both leaders of these countries had to be removed and replaced with "pro-democracy" leaders.

The Ukrainian president was indeed removed through a coup, but Putin gambled and took over the Crimea before the Russian base was thrown out from the peninsula. Now it is the Syrian ruler’s turn, but Putin is not ready to let that happen.

So, where do we go from here? One thing for sure is that besides a proxy war there is a huge risk that the U.S. and Russia may engage militarily either by accident or by design; and judging from the statements by what is known as the foreign policy establishment we are slowly but surely moving in this direction of engagement or outright confrontation.

However, is this something that the American people want? According to the polls the majority of Americans do not want the United States to be drawn into a new war in the Middle East. As for war with Russia, the overwhelming majority of Americans resent the idea. They are smart enough to understand that Washington's current foreign policy has nothing to do with the nation’s strategic and economic interests.

So far we see only two presidential candidates who see the Syrian picture more or less clearly.

One is Donald Trump who told NBC that the removal of Assad would be another tragic mistake similar to those in Iraq and Libya after the fall of Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gaddafi. “You can make the case, if you look at Libya, look at what we did there, it’s a mess,” Trump said. “If you look at Saddam Hussein with Iraq, look what we did there, it’s a mess.” In Syria, he said, “It’s going to be the same thing.” Asked if the Middle East would be more stable with Gaddafi and Saddam in power, Trump said: “Of course it would be.”

On the democratic side Bernie Sanders whose ratings are now comparable or in some states even higher than Hillary Clinton's, says: "at this point I oppose a unilateral American no-fly zone in Syria (suggested by Hillary) which could get us more deeply involved in that horrible civil war and lead to a never-ending U.S. entanglement in that region."

Judging from the high ratings of both Trump and Sanders it is absolutely clear that the majority of American people share their views.  As Pat Buchanan is saying: “perhaps it is time we climbed off our ideological high horse and started respecting the vital interests of other sovereign nations, even as we protect and defend our own.”

Will anyone listen in Washington before we have another war under Nobel Peace Laureate leadership?

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