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Why Do None of Our Politicians Understand Syria?

By       Message John Kiriakou     Permalink
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One major complaint I had about the George W. Bush administration when I was a CIA officer was that I had never seen a president work so hard to not talk to other countries. Don't like Iraq? Don't talk to Saddam Hussein; just invade. Don't like the political positions of western European countries? Insult them as "old Europe" and court eastern European countries in their place.

When Washington has poor relations with other countries, that makes the CIA's job of collecting intelligence to inform policy harder. And, frankly, the CIA is not as good as it likes to think it is at getting the lay of the land in countries around the world in the first place. That failure to collect intelligence leads to poor analysis, which leads to poor policy decisions at the State Department and the White House. And then the circle repeats itself.

I thought that would change when Barack Obama was elected president. After all, he had already won the Nobel Peace Prize. But under the leadership of Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, the State Department and American diplomatic policy have proven to be little more than extensions of what we had under George W. Bush. This is most clearly exemplified in U.S. policy toward Syria.

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To put things simply, here's Obama's Syria policy: The Islamic State is bad. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is bad. Moderate Syrian rebels are good. In a perfect world, that would indeed be the case. But it's not a perfect world, and that's not the reality of today's Syria.

We can all agree that the Islamic State is a dangerous terrorist group with a bankrupt, extreme, pseudo-religious, neo-Baathist ideology, and that it must be stopped before it wreaks its murderous havoc over what's left of the Syrian and Iraqi populations. But at what cost? Why is it up to the United States to send troops to fight in a foreign civil war? We've been at war for the past 14 years. Isn't it past time to stop fighting?

And what about Assad? He's a ruthless dictator, certainly. And the civil war he helped set in motion already has claimed the lives of something like 220,000 Syrians and has forced nearly 12 million more to flee their homes as refugees or internally displaced people.

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With that said, he's also the only one protecting religious minorities like Alawites, Druze, and Christians in Syria, the latter of whom make up about 10 percent of the population, including notable minorities in both the Syrian parliament and cabinet. Unlike many people elsewhere in the region, Syrians of all religious traditions were generally free to practice their faith before the war began.

This also used to be the case in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, despite his own ruthlessness. By now most Iraqi Christians have fled the country. Church leaders have been kidnapped and murdered. And you're more likely to meet an Iraqi Christian in Detroit than in Baghdad.

And what about those "moderate" Syrian rebels, the ones John Kerry seems to be so fond of? There might be a handful of freedom-loving secularists in Syria. But most are hardcore Islamists like the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, a group rumored to be armed and supported by the CIA. They aren't any more interested in democracy than Assad or the Islamic State.

There is, however, a solution. And it doesn't involve killing more people, stumbling into other countries' civil wars, sending troops, or initiating no-fly zones. It's called diplomacy.

The United States has national security interests in Syria. We want to stop the Islamic State. The Russians and Iranians have interests there, too. They want to support and defend their friend Assad, who, by the way, is the internationally-recognized head of state, whether or not we like his politics. The Turks, too, have an interest in protecting their border. The Jordanians have an interest in resettling Syrian refugees back in Syria.

Doesn't it make sense, then, to work toward peace talks that would include Moscow, Damascus, Ankara, Amman, and other regional capitals? Doesn't it make sense to support a policy that doesn't demand the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad, a move that would certainly lead to the kind of long-term chaos we've seen in the wake of Washington's failed policies in Iraq and Libya? Doesn't it make sense for the international community to work together to bring peace and stability to the region?

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Assad is not a choirboy. But we should be talking to him, too, and we should reopen our embassy in Damascus. There's no way to defeat the Islamic State while this war is still underway.

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News.

 

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John Kiriakou spent 14 years at the CIA and two years in a federal prison for blowing the whistle on the agency's use of torture. He served on John Kerry's Senate Foreign Relations Committee for two years as senior investigator into the Middle East. He writes and speaks about national security, (more...)
 

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