One of the most amusing things about Russia’s headlong plunge into Syria’s five-year conflict is the extent to which it effectively represented Moscow calling time on Washington’s strategy of seeking to bring about regime change in the Mid-East by intentionally destabilizing otherwise strong (if not always benign) governments.
Until September 30 - which is the day a three star Russian general strolled into the US embassy in Baghdad and informed the staff that airstrikes in Syria begin “in one hour” - Washington, Riyadh, Ankara, and Doha seemed perfectly content to simply wait around for one group of rebels or another to finally succeed in taking Damascus. In the meantime, the US embarked on what one might call a “containment” strategy as it related to ISIS - the idea, basically, was to keep Frankenstein confined to the lab, but not to hit the monster hard enough to render it ineffectual in the fight to destabilize the Assad government.
Once Assad fell, the US would march in and “liberate” the country before promptly installing a puppet government - with the help of the Saudis of course.
All of that changed when the Russians arrived in Latakia.
Once Moscow’s warplanes began to turn the tide in favor of the SAA with the help of Hezbollah ground forces and the IRGC, Putin promptly moved to blow the whole charade wide open by asking (loudly) why the US wouldn’t partner with Russia in the war on terror. He of course knew the answer, but the point was to make the general public question why, if ISIS really is the greatest threat to humanity since the Reich, Washington was unwilling to partner with Moscow and also with Tehran. Between that and the seemingly endless stream of Russian MoD clips depicting hundreds upon hundreds of airstrikes against terrorist targets, The Kremlin made the White House look as though the US was not serious about eradicating the very groups the Western media were holding up as public enemy number one.
Since around mid-October, the US has embarked on a desperate attempt to counter the notion that maybe - just maybe - there’s a nefarious explanation for America’s perceived disinterest in eradicating terror. First, Washington released helmet cam footage of a raid on an ISIS prison which resulted in the first US combat death in Iraq since 2011. Next, the White House announced SpecOps would be sent to Syria. The Pentagon followed up by offering to send Apache helicopters and their crews to assist Baghdad in retaking Ramadi (assistance which PM Haider Abadi, under pressure from Shiite lawmakers and Iran to rollback American influence in the country, refused). Finally, the US began hitting ISIS oil tankers.
Previously, the US claimed it didn’t destroy the oil convoys because The Pentagon was concerned about collateral damage. Once Putin blew the whistle on the Turkey-ISIS oil connection and began posting video clips of oil tanker trucks streaming across the border with apparent impunity, Washington was forced to drop the “collateral damage” excuse and start bombing the trucks (although Russia will tell you that there’s not much bombing going on from the US side of things). All in all, this reinforces the notion that Washington has no strategy. Actually, that’s not true. There’s probably a strategy, but it doesn’t involve an all out effort to degrade and defeat ISIS and so, the narrative needs to be spun in way that makes sense to an increasingly incredulous public.
As The Hill reports, the US is now scrambling to craft a "new narrative" to feed to the impatient electorate. “Military officials on the Operation Inherent Resolve task force have recently formed a working group to formulate a ‘new narrative,’ The Hill writes, citing defense officials.
“The steps are preliminary, and are part of a larger effort to better communicate the U.S.'s military strategy amid heavy criticism from Republican presidential candidates who say Obama is losing the battle against the terrorist group,” the article continues.
"To say there's no strategy is just flat out wrong," Army Col. Christopher Garver, public affairs officer for the Combined Joint Task Force -- Operation Inherent Resolve insists.
“The new working group will look at how best to articulate what it is we're trying to do ... and do it in a concise easy to understand way," he adds.
Yes, the US wants to “articulate what it is they’re trying to do,” because as it stands, it’s Vladimir Putin, Sergei Lavrov, and Maria Zakharova that are doing the articulating when it comes to explaining what Washington is up to in Syria. The US desperately needs to recapture the narrative or else end up like Turkey, which is now widely understood to be what amounts to Islamic State’s number one state sponsor, all thanks to Moscow’s PR blitz in the wake of Erdogan’s move to shoot down a Russian Su-24 last month.
Here’s Obama: "There is a legitimate criticism of what I've been doing and our administration has been doing in the sense that we haven't, you know, on a regular basis I think described all the work that we've been doing for more than a year now to defeat ISIL," he said.
Here’s a list of steps the US has taken in the mad scramble to counter the notion that the US military has either failed, or is under orders to avoid eradicating the group:
- On Nov. 30, the White House announced the president had tapped a new ISIS czar, Robert Malley. He held a Twitter chat two weeks later, answering questions from the general public and journalists.
- On Dec. 6, the president addressed the nation on ISIS from the Oval Office, reiterating and defending his strategy.
- On Dec. 8, the National Security Council press team began emailing to journalists daily summaries of "key developments" "in our unyielding campaign to degrade and destroy ISIL."
- On Dec. 14, the president himself visited the Pentagon, to convene a National Security Council meeting on ISIS. While he issued remarks afterwards, he did not take any questions from journalists.
- On Dec. 15, a senior State Department official briefed Pentagon reporters on efforts to target ISIS's oil assets.
- And on Dec. 16, Adam Szubin, Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial crimes, briefed White House reporters on efforts to shut down ISIS's financing.
For his part, Paul Ryan says the problem isn’t the messaging, it’s the strategy itself.
"This isn’t the first time the president has stressed that the American people just don’t get it, blaming poor communication for America’s discontent rather than the failed policies themselves," said a statement from Ryan’s office.
The issue was not with "a communications plan" to defeat ISIS but rather over the need for a "comprehensive plan to destroy this enemy and protect our homeland," it said.
Right. But what Ryan apparently either doesn't get or simply can't say, is that this isn't about destroying ISIS, it's about achieving larger geopolitical goals like rolling back Iranian influence in the Arabian Peninsula and helping ensure that the Mid-East balance of power doesn't shift too dramatically towards Iran once sanctions are lifted next year. As Amb. James Jeffrey, a former Army infantry officer put it, “if you're not willing to change policy ... or you're not willing to change your goals, then what you do is you reorganize the deck chairs on the Titanic."
In other words, the only way the US is going to reclaim some shred of its lost credibility is to simply stop trying to overthrow the Assad government and focus on "the terrorists." Of course that isn't going to happen despite the best efforts of Tulsi Gabbard and the handful of other lawmakers inside the Beltway who actually "get it."