Once upon a time, the CIA and Washington’s Mid-East Sunni allies had an idea.
The American forces occupying Iraq were handed a bit of a lemon in 2004 when Abu-Mus'ab al-Zarqawi pledged allegiance to Osama Bin Laden and took command of the al-Qaeda cell in Iraq, which grew by recruiting from the ranks of Saddam’s scattered security apparatus.
But you know what they say, “when absurd Mid-East foreign policy decisions end up handing you lemons, make sectarian lemonade,” and so Washington, Riyadh, and Doha eventually decided that AQI might just have a part to play in toppling the Alawite government in neighboring Syria.
And then, somewhere along the way, things went horribly awry. AQI became Islamic State and the “oust Assad” narrative took a backseat to the group’s new goal: establishing a medieval caliphate. Now, a decade after al-Zarqawi’s death, ISIS has metamorphosed into a black flag-waving, sword-wielding, white basketball shoe-wearing, slave-taking, flesh-eating band of marauding desert bandits in what is easily the worst case of blowback in the history of US foreign policy.
Of course Islamic State aren’t the only “bandits” running amok in Syria. The Pentagon as well as the Saudis and the Turks are backing all manner of Sunni extremists in the country and rather than try to identify who’s who, Russia’s strategy is simple: if you are firing assault rifles at government forces, you’re a terrorist and that means you are the target of the Russian air force.
Over the weekend, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev made it clear that even if there’s some manner of agreement with the “moderate opposition” in Geneva, any ceasefire will not apply to “terrorists.” But again, they’re all terrorists in Russia’s eyes so there will be no cessation of strikes until either the opposition surrenders or until they’re all killed.
Medvedev, who racked up a string of headline-worthy quotes at the 52nd Munich Security Conference over the weekend (see here), granted an exclusive interview with TIME and it contains a number of quotable moments including a particularly amusing passage wherein the PM says the following about the Syrian opposition:
"People who run around with automatic weapons should be fair game — not only the terrorists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria. They are all bandits and terrorists. They move around amongst themselves for various reasons: They get paid more somewhere else, or somebody has a falling out with somebody else. So it is very difficult for us to tell the difference between the very moderate ones and the not-so-moderate ones, the good from the bad.”
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From TIME's writeup:
Medvedev left little room to hope that the peace deal would actually take hold. Its hard-won provisions, he said, “at least give us grounds for some cautious optimism in the hope that we will be able to reach an agreement about the future, about the way the resolution process in Syria will go, about intra-Syrian dialogue, its principles, its participants.” He paused before adding, “And about a cease-fire.”
The conditions he listed for such a peace indicate how far out of reach it remains. First, Syrian President Bashar Assad would have to sit down at the negotiating table with the rebel forces “who are capable of reaching an agreement,” Medvedev said. “That circle of people still has to be determined.” After that, the negotiating parties would have to agree on Syria’s political structure and the process of democratic reforms. They would also have to figure out Assad’s role in a future Syria, “because otherwise it would be strange,” Medvedev said. “At that moment,” he added, the fighting “should come to an end.”
Medvedev would not directly answer TIME’s question about whether Russia shares this goal with Assad. “He is not the one who will determine the extent of Russia’s military presence over there,” Medvedev said. The Prime Minister did, however, suggest that Moscow would resist any division of Syria between Assad and the opposition.
“We would like Syria to stay within its historic borders as a unified country,” he said, adding: “None of us need another Libya, which broke up into several pieces, nor do we need the kind of chaos in which various territories are under the control of field commanders or, to put it plainly, bandits, regardless what religious rhetoric they use as cover.”
Continuing on the subject of uncomfortable alliances, the Prime Minister noted that a variety of corrupt and violent despots have enjoyed U.S. support over the years. To make the point, he invoked the famous phrase—“He’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch”— that President Franklin Roosevelt is alleged to have said of the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1939.
The Russian alliance with Syria may not be much different, Medvedev suggested. “Of course, we do our best to honor our contractual obligations. If someone asks us for help, we try to assist. Do we use the famous formula of the United States, about our son of a bitch? Not always,” he said, chuckling. “That’s an American idea.”
Even so, Medvedev warned the U.S. and its Arab allies not to send ground troops into Syria to support any of the opposition forces. “Let’s remember what happened in Afghanistan,” he said, referring to the U.S. invasion of that country in 2001. “They still can’t leave. So, as soon as a conflict moves to the point of ground operations, it becomes endless. This is what’s dangerous. So don’t do it. Don’t even use it as a scare tactic.”
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