- Jonathan Steele
former Moscow correspondent for The Guardian. He is chief reporter at the website Middle East Eye. He is the author of Eternal Russia: Yeltsin, Gorbachev, and the Mirage of Democracy.
- Stephen Cohen
professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University. His most recent book, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War, is out in paperback. He’s a contributing editor at The Nation magazine.
At the United Nations, Russia blocked a Security Council resolution Wednesday to denounce last week’s chemical attack in Syria. Russia and Syria have both claimed the Syrian government was not behind the attack. Meanwhile, Russia has accused the United States of violating international law by bombing a Syrian air base last week. We speak to Jonathan Steele, former Moscow correspondent for The Guardian, and professor Stephen Cohen.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Donald Trump’s adult son Eric Trump cited mounting tensions between the U.S. and Russia as evidence that top Trump associates weren’t colluding with Russia to sway the 2016 election. In an interview with The Telegraph, Eric Trump said, quote, "If there was anything that Syria did, it was to validate the fact that there is no Russia tie."
We’re joined now by two guests. Here in New York, Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University.
AMY GOODMAN: And joining us from London, Jonathan Steele, former Moscow correspondent for The Guardian. He is chief reporter at the website Middle East Eye, author of Eternal Russia: Yeltsin, Gorbachev, and the Mirage of Democracy.
Jonathan, thanks for joining us again. You spent years in Moscow. The significance of what Donald Trump’s son said—it’s really what Professor Cohen was also pointing out—that perhaps this bombing was about, given what’s happening right now in Washington, questioning Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia, that they wanted to prove something once and for all?
JONATHAN STEELE: Well, I think the people who’ve benefited from this terrible gas incident in Khan Sheikhoun last week were certainly not Assad, certainly not the Russian government. The people who’ve benefited are, as you suggested in the question, the people who were defending themselves against the allegation that Trump is somehow a puppet of Moscow. It was the military-industrial complex in Washington, what we would now—it’s Eisenhower’s phrase, but what we would now call the deep state, you know, the kind of alliance between the top military brass in Washington, the arms manufacturers and the intelligence agencies, who were really worried that Trump was somehow getting out of control and opening up good relations with Russia, and they wanted to get him back on the traditional track of confrontation with Russia.
And, of course, a third group that’s really benefited are the armed opposition to Assad, because they’ve suddenly got a new lease of life, when it looked as though they were on the verge of losing their last sliver of territory around Idlib in northwest Syria. They’ve been given the option, the—perhaps the option of being defended militarily by NATO with airstrikes. They’ve had one airstrike, and they’re obviously hoping for more. And they’re certainly not going to compromise in the Geneva talks. So everybody who’s benefited is on the non-Syrian, non-Russian side.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: But there are those who argue, Jonathan Steele, that the Assad regime has benefited, simply by warning the rebels not to continue their fight against the regime.
JONATHAN STEELE: Well, but not by the use of chemical weapons. I mean, that’s why it seems so unlikely that the Syrians would have used chemical weapons. Of course, they’re still using conventional bombing, and they’re using their ground forces to try and push them out of Idlib. But the gas attack was the last thing they wanted. But it’s important to point out, too, that although the Russians vetoed the resolution in the U.N. Security Council last night calling for Syria to cooperate, the element of cooperation which the West wanted, the U.S., Britain and France, was that they should show their flight logbooks of all their aircraft. That’s a huge violation or intrusion of sovereignty, which the Syrians couldn’t accept.
But as Lavrov pointed out in his remarks with Tillerson when they were having their joint press conference, the Syrian government has written to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, offering an inquiry, offering access to the airfield that was hit by the American cruise missiles, but also calling, quite legitimately, for the rebels to give access to the site where the sarin gas was used, to see whether indeed it was caused by an airstrike or caused by somebody on the ground who was doing a dirty trick to try and discredit the Syrian government.
AMY GOODMAN: The Guardian's Kareem Shaheen was the first Western reporter to visit the site of Khan Sheikhoun, the chemical weapons attack. In a piece headlined "'The dead were wherever you looked’: inside Syrian town after gas attack," The Guardian examined the warehouse and silos directly next to where the missile had landed. And Shaheen says they, quote, "found nothing but an abandoned space covered in dust and half-destroyed silos reeking of leftover grain and animal manure." He went on to write, quote, "Residents said the silos had been damaged in air raids six months ago, and had stood unused since then." Your response?
JONATHAN STEELE: Well, that’s true. I mean, that report is accurate. But the crucial evidence is: Where did the sarin gas come from? And Professor Theodore Postol of MIT has just come out with a report trying to discredit the White House statement of the day before, a four-page White House statement. And Postol argues that the 122-millimeter rocket tube that is lying on the ground, that has been shown to reporters and others who’ve come to the site, was not broken open by impact with the ground, but by something that crashed onto it from above. That suggests it has to have been broken by somebody standing on the ground, putting explosives onto it from above, rather than being something that was dropped from an aircraft from on high.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Stephen Cohen, I’d like to ask you: If, in fact, as Russia and the Assad regime claim, they had nothing to do with this chemical weapons attack, what do they believe—who do they believe is responsible?
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, we come back to where we began. That’s what they asked Tillerson. They showed him their intelligence, which corresponds to what Jonathan says. And, by the way, Jonathan Steele is one of the preeminent journalistic authorities on Russia and knows a lot about the Middle East. I take very seriously what he told you.
Putin went on to say—maybe he shouldn’t say it, but the one thing about Putin is, everybody says he dissembles. The fact is, he’s very candid. He usually says what’s on his mind. And he said twice yesterday—sometimes I get the days confused because of the time difference in Moscow—it was a provocation. He used the Russian word—it’s the same, provokatsiya. He said somebody is trying to provoke war between the United States and Russia. He did not say who. But Jonathan has given us a suggestion, that powerful forces in Washington did not like Trump’s stated policy of detente, as we used to call it, with Russia, cooperation, and have done everything they can to destroy that possibility.
Now, let’s be a little bit grown up here, especially on this program. You had a lot of people on this program over the years who are deeply suspicious of the American intelligence services and what they were up to. But suddenly the whole Democratic Party now seems to think that, quote, "intel reports" are so authoritative that people such as myself, who simply ask a question about them, are Putin apologists. What we do know is that for quite a while, intel has been leaking to The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN and the rest in ways that are highly detrimental not only to Trump as a president, but to Trump’s professed Russia policy. So I don’t think what Jonathan Steele says should be taken off the board of consideration, that powerful forces are out to make sure that there will be no improved relationship with Russia.
Now, let me just mention one thing that you may not have noticed. The one achievement that President Obama has, in my judgment, in addition to the agreement with Iran to freeze its nuclear weapons capacity, was the agreement he reached with Putin in 2013 to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons. I trust all your folks remember that. And as we look back, that was a major achievement by President Obama, because the option was going to war. And it was made possible because he and Putin joined hands. So it stands as a model, what might be possible in American-Russian relations.
What do we have now? We have a new narrative in the American media that Putin lied, that Obama was tricked, when they said those weapons had been destroyed. But that is a misrepresentation. Obama and Putin turned the issue of the weapons over to the United Nations. The United Nations has a special unit for collecting and destroying weapons of mass destruction. They did that with Assad’s weapons. And it was the United Nations, not Putin, who certified that the weapons had been destroyed. Therefore, if anybody lied—and I don’t think anybody did—when they said Assad no longer had weapons, chemical weapons, it was the United Nations. It wasn’t Putin. So, the least we can do, if we’re on the brink of war, as the number two Russian leader says, is get our facts straight.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Jonathan Steele, who do you think should be the entity that investigates this attack? I also wanted to ask why Russia supports the Assad regime—overall, what they gain by this—and if you see any shift taking place right now, if you see any hope for Syria.
JONATHAN STEELE: No, I think there’s not going to be any change. First of all, I mean, Putin wouldn’t suddenly back down under pressure from the United States telling him to dump Assad. That would just be out of character for Putin to concede under pressure.
The question is: Will he gradually or incrementally withdraw a little bit of support from Assad? I don’t think that’s likely, because, as the Russians say, you know, the question they would have asked Tillerson yesterday, both Putin and Lavrov, is: What’s your game plan for the post-Assad Syria? You know, what are you going to do? Are you going to commit troops? Are you going to commit yourself to the post-Assad reconstruction? What are you going to do to prevent chaos like in Iraq and Libya? I mean, it’s all very well to get rid of an authoritarian ruler, but what happens next? You can’t just leave it to chaos. And that’s the big question that they will have asked. And so, I think there’s no expectation, seriously, that they will dump Assad. The bad things, from the Russian point of view, far exceed the good things that could come out of that.
There’s also the question of reputation. I mean, as one Russian analyst put it to me the other day, Andrey Kortunov of one of the big think tanks in Moscow, you know, "They may not like us very much in the Middle East, outside Syria and perhaps Iraq, but they at least recognize that we stand by our friends, unlike some other countries that dump them."
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, what plan—if the U.S., which is true, doesn’t have a plan for what may happen if Assad goes, what kind of proposal is Russia putting forward for this war, that, after all, has gone on for six years and claimed half a million lives, displaced almost half of Syria’s population, and, by all accounts, it appears that since Russia’s involvement, the number of fatalities, civilian casualties, has increased?
JONATHAN STEELE: Well, they’re trying to implement what was actually agreed by the United States, and even the hard-line Gulf allies, in something called the International Syria Support Group, which met in Vienna 18 months ago. And it came out with a blueprint for a new constitution for Syria, for elections based on the new constitution, for, in the meantime, a coalition government, for a reduction in the powers of the president, i.e. Assad, and handing over more power to an executive government, which would be a coalition government, and that it would be a united, secular—a very important point—secular Syria. That was all agreed, even by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. And Russia has been trying to bring that back into the discussion. It’s all been completely brushed aside and forgotten about.
But it requires compromise, as Lavrov himself said yesterday. There has to be a compromise. There have to be decisions by Syrians themselves, based on a constructive dialogue. And that means, basically, that the United States has to take away the mirage from the rebels that they’re going to win a military victory suddenly, and that they have to compromise. They have to sit down with representatives of Damascus and work out some kind of compromised deal with concessions. And similarly, Russia, for its part, will put pressure on Assad to make serious compromises in the same kind of dialogue. And that’s what they were trying to do. And the Russians organized this conference in Kazakhstan a few months ago, in Astana, the capital, where they got some members of the armed opposition to sit down with members of the Damascus government. And so, that was a very first step. But we hope that will be built on in Geneva. So there is option for compromise, as long as this shouting match between Russia and the United States, and these constant accusations, mutual accusations, are dampened down, and they get back to proper diplomacy.
AMY GOODMAN: Before you leave, Jonathan Steele, I wanted to turn to recent remarks President Trump has made on another sensitive issue between the U.S. and Russia, and that’s North Korea. This is Trump speaking to Fox News’s Maria Bartiromo on Wednesday.
MARIA BARTIROMO: What are we doing right now in terms of North Korea?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You never know, do you? You never know. ... We are sending an armada. Very powerful. We have submarines. Very powerful, far more powerful than the aircraft carrier, that I can tell you. And we have the best military people on Earth. And I will say this: He is doing the wrong thing.
AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, Trump tweeted, quote, "North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them! U.S.A." Jonathan Steele, the connections between Russia, China and North Korea?
JONATHAN STEELE: Well, obviously, Russia is, in some sense, an ally of North Korea. But they will be very worried by those comments that you’ve just played, because they show a kind of unilateralism by the United States instead of going to the United Nations, use of military force rather than diplomacy and negotiation, and unpredictability. This is—these are all the hallmarks of a regime or government in Washington which is, from the Russian point of view, extremely dangerous, provocative and almost out of control.