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Notes: Syria Panel – First Universalist Church, Hampden and Colorado Blvd. Denver. November 1, 2015

November 2, 2015
As far as the eye can see: Syrian refugee camp in Jordan

As far as the eye can see: Syrian refugee camp in Jordan


Yesterday (Sunday, November 1, 2015) I participated in a panel at the First Universalist Church, Hampden and Colorado Blvd. Denver, November 1, 2015 on the Syrian Crisis. Also participating were Charles Carlson of “We Hold These Truths,” Ron Forthofer of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, Boulder, CO, and Obeid Kaifo, a local representative of the “Free Syria Movement.” In preparation for such events I pretty much always put together an outline of what it is I think needs saying. Given the rhythm of events and time allotted, rarely get to make many of the points listed. So it was the case yesterday. So I share them here on line in Section 3 of this piece. First I want to briefly describe the current situation concerning Syria and then yesterday’s event. It turned out to be a lively exchange before a good sized audience (some 50 people).

The day of the forum a number of  new developments were unfolding both in and related to Syria, some of them hopeful, some not.

One event that gives a glimmer of hope that the crisis could finally be seriously addressed and a process for resolving it is taking place in Vienna. In light of the magnitude of the crisis there, combined with the unending flood of refugees to Europe, many from Syria, a new, more serious, round of negotiations concerning the Syrian conflict is underway in Vienna.  My main point in the forum was to emphasize the existence of these negotiations and to call on the audience to support the process and demand that the Obama Administration play a positive role in their completion.

Seventeen nations are involved with Russia and Iran now at the table with the United States, China, Russia, United Kingdom and France there as well. Iran’s presence is directly related to the recent successful completion of the Iranian nuclear deal. Neither the Syrian government nor the Opposition was yet present although they are expected to participate in later rounds. Prior to this, in negotiations, the Syrian sides did not meet face to face but spoke through proxies (the U.S. and Russia) who relayed their positions to a larger group. Although unspoken, it is clear that the United States has softened it call that Assad must step down as a precondition to proceeding with negotiations and dropped its opposition to the Assad government’s participation in the the negotiations, which was in the past, a way to block all progress on the issue.

On the other hand, at the same time it was announced that the Obama Administration is sending “troops on the ground” to Syria after claiming it would not take such an action repeatedly for years. Just before the weekend, on Friday, October 30, the Administration announced it was sending 50 special forces troops to Syria to “assist anti-government rebels in fighting ISIS.” The statement went on, hypocritically, to add that “this does not signal a change in US strategy but an “intensification” of the campaign.” As the “moderate rebels” which the Administration claims to be backing essentially do not exist, and have long been swept aside by militant Islamic mercenaries recruited from throughout the Arab World, trained, armed and financially supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey in particular, it is difficult to accept the Administration’s explanation at face value – if at all. Nor is it likely, given the secretive nature of special forces operations worldwide that actually these are the first U.S. special forces troops on the ground. But we’ll return to the question of what it is that the United States has done and is dong in Syria later.

On the ground in Syria, the balance of power is shifting, tilting more favorably to the Assad government’s side. This shift can be explained in part by the intensified role of both Russia and Iran in support of the government forces in the fighting of late. The Russians have started an intensive bombing campaign against ISIS positions that appears at first glance to have been far more effective than the U.S. bombing campaigns of the past year. The presence of Russian jet fighters in Syria has had another important consequence in that it has limited what has been essentially Turkish and Israeli unrestrained violations of Syrian air space, which were providing air protection for rebels in both the north and south of the country. As a result the Syrian army has gotten new confidence and has started to regain some territory from the rebels. While the Obama Administration has been publicly critical of the enhanced Russian military role in Syria, it is impossible (from where I am sitting) that it could have proceeded without some arrangement – otherwise known as “a deal” – between Washington and Moscow having been agreed upon beforehand, suggested recently by Wolf Blitzer on CNN news.


What made it lively, no doubt, was the presence of Obeid Kaifo, a young local restaurant owner, whose family hails from Aleppo; he is an unambiguous opponent of the Assad government and represented the opposition position in the forum. The rest of us were, Chuck Carlson, Ron Forthofer and I were more or less on the same page – critical of the U.S. role (and that of its close allies – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey – and supportive of the current Vienna negotiations. Kaifo’s family hails from Aleppo, the scene of some of the fiercest fighting between government and opposition forces and he has lost four relatives as a result of the war – his grandfather, and if I remember correctly three uncles.  Kaifo runs a Syrian restaurant on the corners of Grant and Colfax in downtown Denver; I’ve eaten there, the food is excellent. The cuisine might be quite good, but Kaifo’s take on the Syrian crisis left him open to criticism from the other panelists and the audiences (all of whom sympathized with the pain his family in Syria has experienced). For the most part, his comments were intensely personal, and while credible in part – ie. the suffering his family has experienced – they were large on emotion and small on solutions…and then there was his unintentional bombshell – pride in his connections to former U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford.

A protege of John Negroponte, who developed “the Salvador Option” of targeting Salvadorian rebels and their supporters, Robert Ford is no ordinary U.S. diplomat. Here is a little bit of his history quoted at length from a former article I co-authored with Ibrahim Kazerooni:

In January, 2011, just as the Arab Spring was expanding region-wide from its Tunisian birthplace, oneRobert Stephen Ford was appointed the new US Ambassador to Syria. Ford is no ordinary diplomat.  He was U.S. representative in January 2004 to the Shiite city of Najaf in Iraq. Najaf was the stronghold of the Mahdi army. A few months later he was appointed “Number Two Man” (Minister Counselor for Political Affairs), at the US embassy in Baghdad at the outset of John Negroponte’s tenure as US Ambassador to Iraq (June 2004- April 2005). Ford subsequently served under Negroponte’s successor Zalmay Khalilzad prior to his appointment as Ambassador to Algeria in 2006, another highly sensitive political appointment.

Ambassador Robert S. Ford’s activities in Iraq laid the groundwork for the launching of the insurgency in Syria in March 2011, which commenced in the Southern border city of Daraa. Much of what we know about Ford’s activities has been well documented by the Canadian research center, Global Research, Ca.

Ford arrived in Damascus at the height of the 2011 protest movement in Egypt. He was no stranger to some of the more covert and nefarious aspects of U.S. foreign policy having been part of John Negroponte’s team at the US Embassy in Baghdad (2004-2005) where he helped engineer “the Salvador Option” for Iraq. The latter consisted in supporting Iraqi death squads and paramilitary forces modeled on the experience of Central America to assassinate opponents of U.S. policy there.  Robert S. Ford’s mandate as “Number Two” (Minister Counsellor for Political Affairs) under the helm of Ambassador John Negroponte was to coordinate out of the US embassy, the covert support to death squads and paramilitary groups in Iraq with a view to fomenting sectarian violence and weakening the resistance movement.

Ford gave a touching statement of his goals in Syria in a communique from the U.S. embassy there:

“As the United States’ Ambassador to Syria—a position that the Secretary of State and President are keeping me in —I will work with colleagues in Washington to support a peaceful transition for the Syrian people. We and our international partners hope to see a transition that reaches out and includes all of Syria’s communities and that gives all Syrians hope for a better future. My year in Syria tells me such a transition is possible, but not when one side constantly initiates attacks against people taking shelter in their homes”.

“Peaceful transition for the Syrian people”? He was pursuing a much darker agenda.

Prof  Michel Chossudovsky of Global Research, Ca describes Ford’s role more honestly:

“Since his arrival in Damascus in late January 2011 until he was recalled by Washington in October 2011, Ambassador Robert S. Ford played a central role in laying the groundwork within Syria as well as establishing contacts with opposition groups. The US embassy was subsequently closed down in February. Ford also played a role in the recruitment of Mujahideen mercenaries from neighboring Arab countries and their integration into Syrian “opposition forces”.  Since his departure from Damascus, Ford continues to oversee the Syria project out of the US State Department:

All indications are that the activities Ford engaged in were more cynical than simply engaging in muted congenial diplomatic relations. In Syria he was a key player, implementing two major building blocks of the Salvador option needed for the destabilization of Syria, as he did in Iraq:

  1. He used the cover of the diplomatic immunity to travel around Syria in order to connect together the groups trained by the US intelligence community. He has been pictured with US military advisers visiting hot spot sites all over Syria.

  2. On a more sinister level, as in Iraq, he used his diplomatic status in Syria to distribute sophisticated communication equipment, equipment whose communications could not be decoded by the Syrian authorities (or those in other countries where the system was used). The US embassy in Damascus was the system’s communication system.Using this new secretly coded technology, he began to openly incite the Syrian elements sympathetic to the US interest to topple the régime. Imagine what would have happened to the Syrian ambassador in Washington, had he engaged in similar activities with the `Occupy’ movements here.


Here are the notes for what I intended to say yesterday, some of which was said. Kaifo’s name s omitted simply because we didn’t know until a few minutes prior to the panel that he was going to participate.

Returning to the forum, in preparation for it, for fun…I went back to a forum in which I participated at the Korbel School in March, 2012 on what was then the escalating violence in Syria.

Other members of the panel included the dean of the Korbel School – he is still dean – the former diplomat Chris Hill and Jonathan Sciarcon, Asst. Professor of Jewish History at DU as well as myself.

The Syrian crisis was heating up, and there was much interest from both the students and faculty – as I recall the forum was well attended, with more than 100 people there. In a blog entry I wrote afterwards I made the following observation, which with minor modifications – I would argue – still generally holds”

Although the participants looked at the Syrian crisis from different angles, interestingly enough they all seemed to reach consensus (well – that is too strong – “general agreement” would be more accurate) on a number of points: among them were:

1. That Syria is not Libya and the regime is not likely to collapse…the three agreed that it is unlikely that the Assad government will be overthrown by the opposition and that both the regime and the opposition have substantial popular bases. While the opposition has legitimate grievances against the Assad regime, it is at the moment hopelessly divided. The role of Saudi Arabia and Qatar (left out Turkey and Israel) in financially and militarily aiding the opposition was noted (but not emphasized enough). There will be no U.N. Security Council resolution giving the green light to coalition military action (meaning that a Libya-like overthrow of the Syrian government was even then unlikely)

2. That the situation was worsening and heading towards civil war, that neither side will ‘win’ but that it appears that neither side is willing to negotiate at the moment.

3. That in the end, there will be no military solution to the conflict, which only can be resolved through diplomacy and a political solution. (Same holds today). The alternative is a festering civil war which could broaden to include other regional players, the world’s great powers and could easily turn into something even uglier than it appears at present.

4. That while it is unlikely that a political process to resolve the crisis will be put in place soon, that the best thing that all parties can do is to pressure their allies (the government and the opposition) that the sooner they come to the negotiating table to resolve the conflict politically, the better. (Same holds today)

All in all – we, were not very far off the mark, although there are caveats and new developments.

So here were are three and a half years later. Another Syria panel. At different times and in different ways, I’ve worked with the other panelists – Chuck Carlson and Ron Forthofer – I am pleased to share the panel with them and look forward to their remarks.

In review what I said three years ago – I can elaborate in the questions and answers – I would like to simply add a few remarks, some of self criticism, others to respond to new developments…

No doubt, the balance of power in the Syrian conflict has shifted back to Assad, although the idea that one side will “win” the military conflict is, in my view, illusionary, and that once again, it needs to be repeated that there will be no military victory and the conflict can only be settled through negotiations in which the Syrians – all the Syrians – play a key role in tandem with key regional and international players.

1. I should have emphasized far more, the insidious role played by the U.S. allies – which was coordinated by the Obama Administration. The notion that Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and Israel function outside of a general framework organized and dictated by Washington is simply untrue and misleading

2. The events in Syria, as Kazerooni and I have repeatedly discussed in our regularly hourly Middle East Review program on KGNU, are an integral part of what is the overall failure of U.S. Middle East policy which is in shambles, “the train wreck” as we call it.

To quote an article from today’s (Nov. 1, 2015) Huffington Post:

“With just over a year left in office, Obama has overseen the extension of the wars he inherited in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the expansion of U.S. military action in far-flung corners of the world. Though his promise to utilize diplomacy and multilateral-ism in place of bombs has yielded some success, particularly in the case of the Iran nuclear deal, Obama’s foreign policy doctrine has been overshadowed by a failure to extricate the U.S. from a state of “perpetual wartime footing,” as he pledged to do over two years ago.”


3. It is the failure of this policy which led to the need for a shift in the policy…some of the highlights of which I will simply mention

a. A key turning point is where Obama refused to take military action against Syria in the aftermath of the August, 2013 Syrian gas attack – the perpetrators of which have still not been verified – but the existing evidence strongly suggests it came from pro-Saudi Islamic militants.
Obama was under strong pressure from the neo-cons – including Hillary Clinton and virtually all of the Republican candidates to engage in a military strike “for humanitarian purposes” – a dangerous formulation – to strike. He didn’t

b. the Iran nuclear deal – it represents a shift in policy – from one trying to overthrow the Iranian government – to one seeking new avenues of cooperation – including on Syria. Without the Iran nuclear deal the stepped up Iranian military presence in Syria would not be politically possible. Iran is, where it concerns Syria, actually working in tandem now with the United States – although it is a tenuous, informal alliance

c. the stepped up Russian military intervention – one must be very clear about this – this is a result of the U.S. policy failure in Syria (which we can talk about if you like – the best piece explaining it recently was published by Patrick Cockburn, first in the London Review of Books, and more recently at “CounterPunch” – one of the best political websites out there.) The current European refugee crisis which only shows signs of intensifying is only one of the direct results of this failure.

The point that I want to make – somewhat lost in the shuffle – is that the Russian military presence is not disapproved by Washington and almost certainly was discussed between Putin and Obama when the former was at the United Nations.

If the usual right-wing elements in the United States – where it concerns foreign policy – the neo-cons, AIPAC and the like, Cold War Dems like Hillary, howl at the enhanced Russian role, that role has great support elsewhere in the world – including in Europe and much of the Middle East even.

The essence of the role is to provide air cover to the Assad government while denying it to Turkey and Israel – both of whose jet fighters have provided such to the Islamic rebels.

Ultimately, though the Russian military presence appears to be boosting the position of the Damascus government some, again, I want to repeat, that there will be no military solution to the Syrian crisis, which can only come to an end through a negotiated political process that will involve compromises on all sides.

Ideas as to how the process might proceed were sketched out this morning in an email from Tom Mayer – who spoke with me here at this church on the Iran deal – in an article that appeared in the Boulder Daily Camera.

Former U.S. President (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Jimmy Carter argues that a peace plan jointly supported by Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United States is the only plausible way of ending the Syrian conflict.

All these countries have an interest in stabilizing the Middle East and in preventing the expansion of ISIS. A mutually acceptable peace plan could have four stages: (1) cease fire along existing military lines, (2) formation of an interim unity government, (3) constitutional reform empowering the majority and protecting minorities, and (4) elections to establish a new government. Carter maintains that such a peace plan, if jointly supported by the five intervening nations, would be acceptable to all Syrian factions other that ISIS.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Les Canges permalink
    November 2, 2015 9:03 am

    So I read this almost word for word and am very happy you posted it. I almost attended the event at the Universalist Church yesterday but this got me up to date. Did Chuck Carlson or Ron Forthover have any interesting points not covered here. Thanks for this…Les

    • November 2, 2015 9:17 am

      Hi Les

      My sympathies for your having read the piece in its entirety…

      Carlson’s comments concentrated on the role of Saudi Arabia as a main funder of ISIS and other Islamic armed groups in Syria; Forthofer spoke about how confusing it is to learn about Syria from reading the mainstream media and again zeroed in on the nefarious ties of Islamic militants in Syria to the Saudis, Qatar and Turkey.

      It was a lively time – very thoughtful questions, participation from the audience as well.

  2. Jamie Roth permalink
    November 8, 2015 6:43 pm

    This is a well organized summation of what’s happening is Syria and a thoughtful critique of US Middle East Policy generally. As usual, we see it the same way. Jamie


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