Today, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in Moscow to talk to the Russians about - among other matters - Syria. It is said that Tillerson will indicate to the Russians that they must pressure the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. There is mystery here:
- About what will Tillerson pressure the Russians - that Assad must no longer target civilians and use chemical weapons? that Assad must go? that the Russians must isolate Iran in the Syrian sector?
- About what weapons Tillerson carries with him to force Russia to do this - that the US would then lift its sanctions? that the US would help Russia settle the Ukraine affair to Moscow's satisfaction? that NATO would no longer creep eastwards?
There is neither clarity on Tillerson's potential message nor is there clarity in terms of the leverage available to Tillerson. In sum, this meeting will be like so many others: an overplayed hand here, an underwhelming outcome there.
Last week, the United States fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Syrian airbase called Shayrat. This strike cost the US treasury $100 million. The stock for Raytheon - maker of the Tomahawk - spiked the day after the strike (it is said that Trump has interests in Raytheon). These missiles were flown over Lebanon to prevent interdiction by Russian defense systems along coastal Syria. It turns out that 34 of the cruise missiles had their guidance systems disabled by the air defenses. Aircraft took off from the Shayrat base within a day of the strike. This was - as former US Secretary of State John Kerry put it four years ago - an 'unbelievably small' action. The net impact on the Assad forces will be minimal. But money was made in many quarters.
What will be considerable is the political ferment this will cause and the potential breakdown of whatever peace procedures had been crafted between the Russians, Iranians and Turks as well as the Qataris and Iranians. I spent an hour on Pacifica radio the day after the strike talking about the history of the conflict and the political implications of the strike. You can listen to it at the KPFA website here. It largely draws from my book The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution.
A few days before the strike, I filed my story for Frontline on the change in US policy - with 'regime change' seemingly off the table. The strike that followed was not the first on Syria. It was close to the 8000th US airstrike on that country (the bulk of them have been against ISIS and other extremist targets in the north and northwest of the country). What I argued in that report is that people are over-reading the comments from the Trump administration. What is actually in play, I suggest, is that the Trump people are trying to open up daylight between Russia and Iran, to find a way to isolate Iran in the region. This is the essence of the comments and neither the 'unbelievably small' strike on Shayrat base nor the newly bellicose language about Russia is going to change that part of US policy. You can read the report here.
Finally, in today's Alternet, I have a report on the urgency with which American think tankers, journalists and intelligence-defense officials have been talking about the partition of Syria. These are men who claim to uphold the principles of democracy and yet they are quite happy to don the cloak of Sykes and Picot - old crusty imperialists - to divide up a sovereign state. Is partition the new method of 'humanitarian intervention'? Part of the report is once more about Iran, which is truly at the heart of US policy in Syria. A dismembered Syria, I suggest, would both isolate Iran and provide security for Israel against its now powerless neighbours. My report ends with these lines, 'Mischief surrounds Syria. Partition is seen as a way to destroy that state and offer Israel relief on its borders with Syria and Lebanon. The rights and ambitions of the Syrian people are irrelevant to these plots and scheme'. You can read my report here.
The image above is by the inventive Syrian artist Mohamad Khayata and the Lebanese designer Ghina Sibaii. It was from a 2013 exhibit in Beirut called Bits & Pieces.
I am reading the newsletter that comes from - among others Omar Abdulaziz Hallaj - called Syrian Echoes. If you would like, you can visit their website and subscribe to the newsletter.
Finally, the new book from LeftWord - The Flower Slip Through the Asphalt: Writers Respond to Capitalist Climate Change - has received a lovely review in Business Line from the poet Aditya Mani Jha. He writes, 'Will the Flower Slip Through the Asphalt ought to be required reading for everybody who thinks green tribunals, tribal rights and anti-pollution legislation are nothing but development roadblocks'. You can read the rest here.
Our friends at the Indian Cultural Forum have excerpted the essay from Rafia Zakaria, which you can read here.
The book - one of our small books - is available here. The actor Emma Thompson says of this little book, 'With the earth and its inhabitants under more pressure than ever before, and with bona fide climate change deniers in the most powerful positions on the planet, reading this book is essential. It informs and inspires the actions that we all need to take to protect ourselves and our homes. Read it, and after you’ve wept, act'.
We will have a blog post on this book out at our website soon.