In the mind of State Department spokesman John Kirby, Russia should not back Syria against the terrorists, president Assad is to blame for ISIS, Iraq is much better off because of the US invasion, and it’s ‘absolutely astounding’ anyone would dare to disagree.
That is what the press briefing at the State Department on Tuesday amounted to in a nutshell. The retired US Navy admiral, now speaking on behalf of the US foreign ministry, repeatedly blamed Syrian president Bashar al-Assad for the very existence of Islamic State terrorists.
“He is the reason ISIL, and other terrorist groups, have been allowed to fester and grow and sustain themselves inside Syria,”Kirby said. “Assad regime has allowed groups like ISIL to fester and grow inside the country.”
How, exactly, is the government in Damascus to blame for the sudden appearance and viral growth of Islamic State, Kirby did not explain. For almost three years prior to the emergence of IS, Assad has fought against an armed rebellion by a collection of rebel groups, backed by the US – currently dominated by Islamist factions like Jabhat Al-Nusra. US efforts to raise a “moderate” fighting force have so far been without success.
Meanwhile, over 80 percent of Syrians believe ISIS to be a creation of the US, reveals a recent poll cited by the Washington Post.
— Joshua Landis (@joshua_landis) September 15, 2015
Kirby ruled out any role for the Syrian Army in battling IS, and claimed that Russian support for Damascus in that struggle would “isolate” Moscow in the world. His remarks came following the statement by Russian president Vladimir Putin that Moscow was providing military aid to the Syrian government against Islamic State (IS, formerly known as ISIS/ISIL) terrorists, and invitation to other countries to do the same.
“It is necessary to set aside geopolitical ambitions, drop so-called double standards, the policy of direct or indirect use of separate terrorist groups for achieving own goals, including removing the governments and regimes,” Putin said at the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.
“I’ll let [Russian] comments speak for themselves on that,” Kirby countered. “We don’t want to see the Assad regime getting any support.”
“What we’re concerned about is any support that bolsters the Assad regime’s ability to continue to have within their means the capabilities of rendering further violence inside the country,” the State Department spokesman added, to the confusion of the press corps.
There was no need for another coalition against IS, he said, “when 62 nations are already aligned and having an effect”against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Kirby did not elaborate on the effect the coalition had achieved. According to the Pentagon’s own information, some 6,700 air strikes have been launched against the group, along with ground offensives by local proxy forces, at the cost of $4 billion, without any sign of slowing IS down.
Our bombs and theirs
“People are fleeing Syria, first of all, because of military actions … from atrocities of terrorists – we know they are committing brutalities there, and destroying cultural heritage,” President Putin said in Dushanbe on Tuesday, adding that it wasn’t Russia that destroyed government institutions and backed rebellions that created conditions for terrorists to flourish.
Yet the State Department spokesman absolutely refused to even consider the possibility that US interventions may have had anything to do with the mass displacement of people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Syria, or elsewhere.
“I’m not going to dignify that with an answer,” Kirby replied when a journalist brought up the issue.
“Is Iraq better off without Saddam Hussein, and with a democracy? Yes, they are,” he said. But when asked about Libya and other places, he suddenly cut the reporter off. “I’m not going to answer any more questions on this from you.”
While refusing to even consider the role of US bombs in destabilizing countries, Kirby repeatedly referred to Assad’s use of“barrel bombs” as the self-evident proof the Syrian president’s rule was unacceptable.
“We still see the man dropping barrel bombs on his own people,” Kirby said of Assad at one point. As for the Syrians streaming towards European countries with generous welfare programs, “They are leaving because they are being barrel-bombed.”
The term refers to low-tech, improvised projectiles, made out of barrels or similar containers (such as oil drums) and dropped from aircraft. Pioneered by Israel in 1948, these improvised bombs have also been used by the US in Vietnam, by the Sri Lankan government against the Tamil rebels, and by various factions in Sudan, among others. The devices have also been used by the US-backed Iraqi government forces, both against Sunni tribal militias and civilians in IS-held areas.
Root causes, jobs and no military solution
If Assad is such a problem, asked AP’s diplomatic correspondent Matt Lee, why doesn’t the US take him out? Kirby appeared startled by the question, saying that the US was “working hard” on achieving “a political transition inside Syria away from Assad.”
President Obama – whom Kirby referred to as the Commander-in-Chief – has been “crystal clear” that there won’t be a military solution to the conflict in Syria, only a political one, and “there has been a lot of energy applied to that,” the spokesman explained. The key to defeating IS was “good governance,” and that means replacing the government in Damascus, he maintained.
At another point, however, he insisted, “There are military solutions … and we’ve been doing it, quite effectively.”
The astounded admiral
“Frankly, I find it incredible that today, there are lines of questions being posed to me that would implicate that people actually think Bashar al-Assad is good for Syria and that his continued tenure in the country is a healthy thing,” Kirby complained at one point, calling such questions “absolutely astounding.”
AP’s Lee countered that the questions – posed by several journalists – were related to US policy and the apparent disconnect between Washington’s stated goal of opposing Islamic State while at the same time insisting on overthrowing the government in Damascus that is most opposed to it.
“I do think there is an implication in some of these questions” that the US should give up overthrowing Assad, Kirby retorted.“That’s not how we feel, have not ever felt, and have no intention of changing.”
He dismissed the notion that US weapons intended for “pro-coalition” fighters falling into the hands of Islamic State fighters could have anything to do with the refugee crisis, calling it a “huge stretch.” Sure, he said, IS has been brandishing M16s and driving around in US-made Humvees captured from the crumbling Iraqi army, but Washington cannot absolutely guarantee its aid won’t end up in the wrong hands. “I get it,” Kirby said, shrugging. “We’re doing the best we can.”