Why the Idea of Cracking Syria into Pieces Would Be America’s Latest Imperial Disaster

Far away from Syria, in the air-conditioned offices of think tanks and war rooms sit the intellectuals of our current order. They gaze at maps of Syria – a country to which they have no emotional ties or on whose land they might not have walked. They are not the first men driven by the fantasy of seizing resources and solving problems by drawing new borders. They follow in the 1916 tradition of the British diplomat Mark Sykes and his French counterpart François Georges-Picot, who carved up Ottoman Syria into zones of influence for their respective countries. A hundred years later, the men who follow Sykes and Picot couch their imperial ambitions in humanitarian rhetoric. Their lines begin with ‘safe zones’ and then move to a confederation and finally to a dismembered Syria. Partition, guaranteed by American airpower and troops, they argue, is the solution to the Syrian crisis.

Deeply battered by the civil war, with half its population displaced and over half a million dead, Syria is weakened to the point of virtual collapse. The fall of the government of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus would not be – as many of these intellectuals of the American Empire agree – the best possible outcome. ‘Realistically,’ as Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institute put it in 2015, ‘the replacement of Assad’ does not ‘appear within reach’ given the lack of palatable alternatives. Moderate forces – as far as the US determines – are simply not available. Therefore, the ouster of Assad in a precipitous way is considered foolhardy.

Instead of removing Assad, then, the United States should – argues O’Hanlon – push for the establishment of ‘one or two safe zones in relatively promising locations,’ backed by ‘perhaps 1,000 American military personnel.’ In these ‘safe zones, local forces – moderates, it is hoped – could be trained to put pressure on Assad’s government. ‘Ultimately, and ideally,’ O’Hanlon argues, ‘some of the safe zones might merge together as key elements in a future con-federal arrangement.’ This dynamic could very well lead to the ‘outright partition of the country if necessary.’ The partition is envisaged along the lines of sect and ethnicity – a Sunni zone, an Alawite zone, and a Kurdish zone. O’Hanlon calls this ‘deconstructing Syria.’

In a recent column, New York Times’ Thomas Friedman muses over the possible futures for Syria. ‘The least bad solution is a partition of Syria,’ Friedman suggests, ‘and the creation of a primarily Sunni protected area – protected by an international force, including, if necessary, some US troops.’ The gap between O’Hanlon and Friedman is merely in that the former recognizes that in the large mixed cities of Damascus and Aleppo, Hama and Homs, a partition would not be easy. ‘Prudence would have to be the watchword,’ writes O’Hanlon.

Neither O’Hanlon nor Friedman – both influential voices in Washington, DC – seem bothered by their imperial gestures. They are quite happy to speak for Syrians, to offer tutelage to Syria which cannot seem to define its own destiny. These are men who will speak of democracy and human rights when it suits them, but then transform just as easily into imperial bureaucrats with their crayons ready to draw lines on someone else’s map.

The influence of these men can be felt quite palpably in the corridors of power. Late last year, CIA Director John Brennan said quite casually, ‘I don’t know whether or not Syria and Iraq can be put back together again. There’s been so much bloodletting, so much destruction, so many continued, seething tensions and sectarian divisions.’ The outcome of this, he suggested, is the partition of Syria. Former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford has said that there is already an ‘emerging partition’ of Syria into six zones leading to the ‘Somalization of Syria.’ Amos Gilad, the Strategic Advisor to the Israeli Defense Ministry and well-regarded in US intelligence circles, said, ‘Syria has reached its end.’ They – quite cavalierly – call for the dismemberment of the country.

Last month, before the US strikes on a government airfield, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested that once ISIS is removed from the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, it would be ‘governed by local forces’ with US backing. What is being considered is that the US would create – in northern Syria – an analogous development to the Kurdistan Regional Government, which is autonomous of the Iraqi government. This statement was made in Turkey, where there is fear of a Syrian Kurdish state on its border. Turkey is not bothered by the break-up of Syria. What it fears is the concrete reality that this fracturing shall produce a Syrian Kurdish autonomous region with US support long the length of its southern border. Even here Turkish sentiments are over-read. Last November, US General Joseph Dunford and Turkish General Hulusi Akar agreed that ‘the coalition and Turkey will work together on the long-term plan for seizing, holding and governing Raqqa.’ This means that the US and the Turks would adopt this region, with the Turks eager to make the Kurds marginal to their occupied zone.

In sum, all the major players who speak the syrupy language of democracy are quite willing to undemocratically plan for the dismemberment of Syria.

Weaken Syria To Weaken Iran.

Iran, since 1979, has confounded the West and its West Asian allies – Israel and Saudi Arabia. The point for these powers has been to find a mechanism to weaken Iran. Saudi Arabia and the West backed Iraq’s long war against Iran precisely to hem in the Islamic Republic.

In 1979, right after Iran’s Revolution, US embassy official Talcott Seelye wrote from Damascus that his government should exaggerate the Alawite hold on the Syrian state so as to break the legitimacy of Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current president. It was important to get rid of Assad, Seelye wrote, to dent Iran’s role in the region. ‘We are inclined to the view that his days are numbered,’ Seelye wrote, even if by ‘the assassination of Assad.’ Although there is not really an Alawite control over the government, Seelye noted, ‘perception is more important than reality.’

During the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), the United States wished to hit Syria as a way to weaken Iran. In a revealing cable from 1983, CIA chief Graham Fuller urged his paymasters to bring ‘real muscle to bear against Syria.’ Fuller suggested that ‘the US should consider sharply escalating military threats against Syria from three border states hostile to Syria: Iraq, Israel and Turkey.’ He hoped that if these countries simultaneously attacked Syria, it would weaken its position and its prestige. If Syria’s position was dented, Fuller argued, Iran would be forced ‘to reconsider bringing the war to an end.’ What is important is that the regional countries – such as Iraq – ‘still need to remain on guard against Iranian influence and power throughout the Gulf.’ Hitting Syria would weaken Iran. That was the posture in 1983 as it was in 1979 and as it is today.

Twenty years later, in 2006, the US political officer in Damascus, William Roebuck, wrote that his country should join with Saudi Arabian intelligence to stoke fears of sectarianism in the country. Their stick would be to suggest to the Sunni community that Iran was promoting a Shiite agenda in Syria. Roebuck’s cable reveals the continuation of fear mongering around Iran to increase sectarian feeling to weaken Syrian society and the state. ‘There are fears in Syria,’ Roebuck wrote, ‘that the Iranians are active in both Shia proselytizing and conversion of, mostly poor, Sunnis.’ What is startling is that Roebuck then conceded that this is ‘often exaggerated.’ The Americans, Roebuck said, against all evidence, should join with the Saudis to ‘better publicize and focus regional attention to this issue.’

The evidence actually showed that Saudi preachers had entered Syria in large numbers and they had established themselves in the slums. It was in these mosques that they preached virulently sectarian rhetoric and prepared society for the outbreak of sectarian violence. This is precisely what overran Syria in 2011. Roebuck advised his paymasters to encourage splits in the military, advised the Gulf Arabs to stop investing in Syria and encouraged any mischief that would deprive the regime of any support. In other words, Roebuck insisted on preparing the terrain for regime change which would harm – as US intelligence openly said a decade ago – both the Lebanese political-military group Hezbollah and Iran.

Two years ago, the US State Department noted in a memorandum, ‘The best way to help Israel deal with Iran’s growing nuclear capability is to help the people of Syria overthrow the regime of Bashar Assad.’ Fear of Iran saturates this document. The basic argument is that Iran has its grip on West Asia through Syria and into Hezbollah. These have to be brought to heel. If Assad’s government falls, then Iran’s conduit to Hezbollah would break. It was – therefore – essential to overthrow Assad. This has nothing to do with the Syrian people or their needs, but everything to do with the Washington and Tel Aviv’s hallucinations about Iranian power. The fall of Assad, the US diplomats calculated, would mean that ‘Iran would no longer have a foothold in the Middle East from which to threaten Israel and undermine stability in the region.’

If Assad falls and a new – perhaps radical Islamist – regime comes to power in Damascus, how would this help Israel? A US intelligence official told me this week that the word of this period is ‘Yugoslavia.’ The break-up of Yugoslavia, he said, left behind minor states with no regional power. Balkanization, he said with a smile, would be the appropriate solution for Syria. Break it up and Iran would lose its foothold and no powerful state would remain on Israel’s border to pose a threat. Israel could permanently claim the Golan Heights, a US-backed state would emerge on the Syrian border, Jordan could help itself to the totality of the Hawran plateau, an Alawite state would take the coastal plain, leaving a series of Sunni states from the al-Ghab valley to the Hamad desert. A weak Syria would be easy to dominate.

Mischief surrounds Syria. Partition is seen as a way to destroy that state and offer Israel relief on its borders with Syria and Lebanon. The rights and ambitions of the Syrian people are irrelevant to these plots and schemes.

Vijay Prashad is professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He is the author of 18 books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press, 2012), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013) and The Death of a Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016). His columns appear at AlterNet every Wednesday.


Zealandia – pieces finally falling together for continent we didn’t know we had

Zealandia – a new continent submerged in the southwest Pacific – is a step closer to being recognised, the authors of a new scientific paper claim.

A paper published in GSA Today, the journal of the Geological Society of America, contends that the vast, continuous expanse of continental crust, which centres on New Zealand, is distinct enough to constitute a separate continent.

The paper’s authors argue that the incremental way in which it came to light goes to show that even “the large and the obvious in natural science can be overlooked”.

Zealandia covers nearly 5m square km, of which 94% is under water, and encompasses not only New Zealand but also New Caledonia, Norfolk Island, the Lord Howe Island group and Elizabeth and Middleton reefs.

A map showing the outline of Zealandia Photograph: GNS Science

The area, about the same size as the Indian subcontinent, is believed to have broken away from Gondwana – the immense landmass that once encompassed Australia – and sank between 60m and 85m years ago.

“This is a big piece of ground we’re talking about, even if it is submerged,” said Nick Mortimer, a New Zealand geologist who co-authored the paper.

Geologists have argued in favour of Zealandia being recognised as its own continent intermittently over the past 20 years.

The American geophysicist Bruce Luyendyk was the first to apply the name Zealandia to a south-west Pacific continent in 1995. Since then, the paper’s co-authors say, it has had “moderate uptake” but was still not broadly known to international scientists.

Mortimer and his fellow co-authors from the GNS Science research institute and Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand; the Service Géologique of New Caledonia; and the University of Sydney’s School of Geosciences contend that Zealandia has the necessary geological elements to be considered a continent.

Mortimer told Guardian Australia that it was the first robust, peer-reviewed scientific paper to define and describe Zealandia, but its findings would offer “nothing new” for most New Zealand geoscientists. “They probably wonder what all the fuss is about.”

He said he and other researchers began to piece together the submerged continent with the release of a bathymetric map in 2002.

“That’s when the penny dropped, really … From that point, that map was literally our road map for some crosses, just trying to get rocks out of all the four corners of Zealandia that we could, so we could prove up the geology.”

There had been no formal Zealandia project, he said; it had been “a gradual process … [of] joining the dots”.

“It was a question of confidence, fundamentally, I think, with the accumulation of data and what to do with it.”

Zealandia shown on a map of world continents. Photograph: GNS Science

Zealandia would be the world’s seventh and smallest continent, after Eurasia, Africa, North America, South America, Antarctica, and Australia. (Europe and Asia are sometimes recognised separately, despite being the same landmass.)

“It turns out New Zealand isn’t just a couple of small islands at the bottom of the world,” Fairfax Media New Zealand triumphantly reported.

Barry Kohn, a professor of earth sciences at the University of Melbourne, who had done work with Mortimer on Zealandia in the past, said there was a “fair consensus in the scientific community” in favour of its existence.

“It’s pretty clear that that whole area is not part of the ocean. It’s got all the hallmarks of a continent.”

He said rock dredged up from the area was clearly continental crust, “fairly continuous” and defined. More data had been gathered over the past decades to confirm its existence.

“Like anything in science, the penny doesn’t always drop straightaway. You build up a body of evidence.

“It was all once part of a big continent that’s all broken up into little pieces of the puzzle.”

But despite the evidence in support of it, whether or not Zealandia would come to be widely recognised as the seventh continent was dependant on history, said Mortimer.

“If you want to name a mountain, there are certain procedures you have to go through to get it formally ratified. With this, it will just come with time.

“If Zealandia makes its way into popular culture and onto maps, that’s all the validation that we’ll seek.”

ISIS says it destroyed archaeological pieces from Palmyra


Islamic State group jihadists have destroyed a famous statue of a lion outside the museum in the Syrian city of Palmyra, the country’s antiquities director said Thursday.

Maamoun Abdelkarim said the statue, known as the Lion of al-Lat, was an irreplaceable piece and was apparently destroyed last week.

“IS members on Saturday destroyed the Lion of al-Lat, which is a unique piece that is three meters (10 feet) tall and weight 15 tons,” Abdelkarim told AFP. “It’s the most serious crime they have committed against Palmyra’s heritage,” he said.

The limestone statue was discovered in 1977 by a Polish archaeological mission at the temple of al-Lat, a pre-Islamic Arabian goddess, and dated back to the 1st century BC. Abdelkarim said the statue had been covered with a metal plate and sandbags to protect it from fighting “but we never imagined that IS would come to the town to destroy it.”

IS captured Palmyra, a renowned UNESCO World Heritage site, from government forces on May 21, prompting international concerns about the fate of the city’s antiquities. So far, the city’s most famous sites have been left intact, though there are reports IS has mined them. Most of the pieces in the city’s museum were evacuated by antiquities staff before IS arrived, though the group has blown up several historic Muslim graves in recent weeks.

Also on Thursday, the group released photos showing its members in Aleppo destroying several statues from Palmyra that were being smuggled through the northern province.

“An IS checkpoint in [the] Wilyat [region of] Aleppo arrested a person transporting several statues from Palmyra,” the group said in an online statement. “The guilty party was taken to an Islamic court in the town of Minbej, where it was decided that the trafficker would be punished and the statues destroyed.”

The statement included photos showing several carved busts being destroyed with sledgehammers.

Abdelkarim said the busts “appear to be eight statues stolen from the tombs in Palmyra.”

“The destruction is worse than the theft because they cannot be recovered.”

IS’s harsh version of Islam considers statues and grave markers to be idolatrous, and the group has destroyed antiquities and heritage sites in territory under its control in Syria and Iraq. On Wednesday, the head of the UN cultural organisation UNESCO urged a campaign against IS’s “culture cleansing.”

“Extremists don’t destroy heritage as a collateral damage, they target it systematically to strike societies at their core,” Irina Bokova said in a speech at the Chatham House think tank in London. “This strategy seeks to destroy identities by eliminating heritage and cultural markers.”