I was looking at “The Nation” headlines on the internet and saw an August 16 piece by Stephen Cohen. I clicked on it and saw a summary of what I realized was another in a series of interviews Cohen has been doing with John Batchelor.
It was mostly about Ukraine, but I noticed his comments about Syria and read, “Putin needs a decision by Obama now as the crucial battle for Aleppo intensifies. Under his own pressure at home, Putin seems resolved to end the Islamic State’s occupation of Syria, Aleppo being a strategic site, without or with US cooperation, which he would prefer to have.”
It didn’t sound right. Cohen was saying the battle of Aleppo was crucial to getting rid of Islamic state. What? So I clicked and listened to the actual audio interview. I was aghast. Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton, was delivering the crudest Putin propaganda on Syria.
The development that brought them to Syria in their talk was the then breaking news that Iran would allow Russian bombers to be based inside of Iran. Cohen says “The battle is now at Aleppo and it’s a very critical battle. It will open the door if the Russians take the city to the Turkish border.” It was an odd formulation, a little naked. Supposedly Russian forces are helping the “Syrian government” retake Aleppo.
A little after 25 minute point he says “Aleppo is forcing the issue. The Russians are going to take this city.” He repeats “They’re gonna to take it.” (sic) He says Obama has made “secret overtures” to Russia to make a deal to cooperate in fighting ISIS and on nuclear weapons issues. “Russia with its Assad allies and Iran has been doing the destruction of the Islamic state in Syria,” he says and Obama, who feared his only foreign policy achievement might be killing Bin Laden, wanted to get in on the Russian war on ISIS. This is the standard Putin line. The U.S. hasn’t fought ISIS seriously (despite bombing it steadily for the last two years). It’s the Assad/Russian/Iran alliance that fights ISIS (though those forces overwhelmingly battle other Assad opponents and not ISIS).
Cohen mentions an offer of the Russians to allow corridors for civilians to leave Aleppo. “Apparently those corridors, they’re only open 3 or 4 hours a day, could not accommodate all the civilians.” Cohen claims, “Russia doesn’t want a slaughter of innocents on its hands. It doesn’t need a PR disaster.” Absurd. Russia routinely bombs hospitals. It drops incendiary weapons. It arms a regime that drops barrel bombs and tortures to death on an industrial scale, but supposedly Putin really is delicate and wants no slaughter.
The Russians allegedly discover the problem about the insufficiency of the corridors (actually it wasn’t a problem, no one used them) and offered a deal to President Obama. Cohen says the Russian basically tell Obama, “Join with us. Let’s minimize casualties by joining with us. Call off these so-called defenders of Aleppo who are themselves terrorists and fighting with American weapons.” This is the standard Assad-Russian position, a claim that all who oppose the Assad dynasty are terrorists, brimming with American weapons. (Some do have some American weapons via the Saudis and Qatar. Much of the opposition’s weapons were captured from fleeing Assad forces or are home made. Very clearly the U.S. has denied all opposition forces the weapons that can be used to defend the population from air attacks. Compare that to the situation in Afghanistan in the ‘80’s when U.S. Stingers were knocking down Soviet helicopters freely.)
Now Cohen says that Putin really wants the deal with Obama about ISIS and nuclear issues, but his hands are being forced. He’s under pressure from unnamed actors in Russia. “The pressure on Putin in Moscow is: it’s time to end this. If the Americans want to come aboard, great. If not, it’s time for you to stop dilly dallying. They’re saying to Putin we’ll just have to take it ourselves. And if there are civilian casualties, well the Americans and their allies have killed thousands in Afghanistan, in Iraq and Syria.” At least since May Cohen has claimed there’s an “influential faction in Kremlin politics” that thinks Putin is weak and is letting the country down when it need to prepare for an attack from the U.S. Proof of the “influence” of this faction on poor Putin is never given.
Cohen goes on, “The presence of Russian aircraft in Iran which illustrates the closeness of the Russian Iranian alliance at least against in Syria the Islamic State indicates the time for negotiations and diplomacy is over. That Putin has resolved to destroy the Islamic state in Syria.” It indicates no such thing. It means Putin wants a shorter bombing run (not to mention what it means for the “anti-imperial” Iranian regime to base Russian troops on its soil).
Then Cohen goes into the standard lesser of two evils argument “Who do you think will come to power in Damascus? The best scenario is the chaos in Libya that came after Mrs. Clinton thought it was a great idea to assassinate Qaddafi. This is the worst scenario, and this is what the Russians believe: it’s either Assad in Damascus or the Islamic State in Damascus.”
He ends by saying, “I can tell you that Israel accepts that alternative and they are supporting Russia. They don’t want the Islamic State in Damascus, Israel doesn’t.” Good to know. The sound judgment of the apartheid state is always a solid way to buck up your arguments.
One could go on but there’s a breathtaking error in Cohen’s whole analysis. He claims that the Russians are fed up and they’re going to finish off ISIS by winning the crucial battle of Aleppo. The problem with this thinking is that ISIS isn’t in Aleppo. It was kicked out of the city of Aleppo in 2014. Its forces were pushed away from areas northeast of Aleppo in 2015. Jabhat Fath al-Sham which was an open al-Qaeda affiliate (it’s claimed to have broken away) is indeed a power in Aleppo, but ISIS and al-Qaeda are violently at odds with each other. Only the crudest mouthpieces for Assad or Putin claim that in 2016 al-Qaeda and ISIS are the same thing.
I really was shocked by this Cohen interview. I shouldn’t have been. Back last September he had the gall to condemn the entire “Arab Spring,” the 2011 revolutions against tyrannical rule, in an audio interview entitled “Has Russia Been Right All Along about the Arab Spring?” Cohen answers in the affirmative. With more than a tinge of racism he says Putin “warned from the beginning that the Arab Spring with its toppling of governments would not lead to democracy, but would kick over ancient tombstones and release terrible forces, partly in the form of the very radical murderous Islamic type of movement.” Still, as hundreds of thousands in eastern Aleppo struggle against the siege and images of devastated Syrian children go viral, this Cohen/Batchelor conversation marks a new low.
Needless to say none of this excuses Obama Administration conniving, blundering and inaction in Syira or NATO provocations of Russia in Eastern Europe. We, the Left, the anti-war movement, should not be part of geopolitical games between brutal world powers. We should stand in support of democratic and popular struggles and make the demand: #DropFoodNotBombs
(Note about the cartoon that illustrates the article. It’s by the Brazilian cartoonist Carlos Latuff. Note the colors of the Russian flag and the stunned Syrian boy Omran Daqneesh injured in Aleppo.)