How War on Syria Lost Its Way

Exclusive: What looked like another U.S. march to war in the Mideast has turned toward a peaceful accord that carries hope of getting Syria to relinquish its chemical weapons and achieving a cease-fire, maybe even an end to the civil war. But some want to resume the drive toward a U.S. attack, ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern says.

By Ray McGovern

The just announced U.S.-Russia agreement in Geneva on a “joint determination to ensure the destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons (CW) program in the soonest and safest manner” sounds the death knell to an attempt by Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to get the U.S. into the war in Syria.

Equally important, it greatly increases the prospect of further U.S.-Russia cooperation to tamp down escalating violence in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. That the two sides were able to hammer out in three days a detailed agreement on such highly delicate, complicated issues is little short of a miracle. I cannot remember seeing the likes of it in 50 years in Washington.

resident Barack Obama holds a bilateral meeting with His Highness Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al Sabah, the Amir of Kuwait, in the Oval Office, Sept. 13, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Just two short weeks ago, the prospect of a U.S. military strike against Syria looked like a done deal with Official Washington abuzz with excitement about cruise missiles being launched from American warships in the Mediterranean, flying low toward their targets and lighting up the night sky of Damascus like the “shock and awe” pyrotechnics did to Baghdad in 2003.

On Aug. 30, Secretary of State John Kerry seemed to seal the deal with an impassioned address that declared some 35 times that “we know” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had crossed President Barack Obama’s “red line” against using chemical weapons with an Aug. 21 attack and needed to be punished.

Along with Kerry’s speech, the White House released a four-page “Government Assessment” declaring with “high confidence” that Assad’s regime was guilty of the attack on a Damascus suburb that killed precisely “1,429” people and “at least 426 children.” Though the white paper included not a single verifiable fact establishing Assad’s guilt nor did it explain where its casualty figures came from the assessment was accepted as true by most of the mainstream U.S. news media.

At that moment, Israel and its many backers had every reason to believe they had won the day and that at least the first stage of the retribution would be delivered before President Barack Obama flew off on Sept. 3 to Europe and to the G-20 summit. But then came a series of disappointments for them, beginning with Obama’s abrupt Aug. 31 decision to seek congressional authorization.

Still, the prevailing attitude was that the Israel Lobby would simply get to work whipping members of Congress into line with a variety of arguments (and a mix of threats and inducements) to ensure that a use-of-force resolution was passed and sent to the President’s desk.

The confidence was so high that there was no need to disguise what was afoot. Usually the mainstream media avoids mentioning the extraordinary influence of the Israel Lobby on Congress, but this time the New York Times displayed unusual candor describing who was egging on the march to war.

An 800-Pound Gorilla

In an article posted online Sept. 2, the Times reported, “Administration officials said the influential pro-Israel lobby group Aipac was already at work pressing for military action against the government of Mr. Assad. … One administration official, who, like others, declined to be identified discussing White House strategy, called Aipac ‘the 800-pound gorilla in the room,’ and said its allies in Congress had to be saying, ‘If the White House is not capable of enforcing this red line’ against the catastrophic use of chemical weapons, ‘we’re in trouble.’”

This warning about “loss of credibility” is a familiar one, artfully promoted in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal in an article by Leon Aron titled “America, Syria and the World.” Aron quotes a long list of Israel loyalists like Brookings Saban Center’s Kenneth M. Pollack, who warn that foreigners may come to view us as wimps if strong action is not taken against Syria.

A contrary point of view was expressed by former U.S. Ambassador Chas Freeman, who commented: “There is another possibility, however. And that is that they have come to see us as bullies, prone to resort to force rather than diplomacy when problems arise. The latter possibility puts a whole different face on Obama’s hesitation to go to war with Syria.”

In any case, to the surprise of many Washington insiders, the dreams of U.S. bombs raining down on another Mideast country began to slip away as many members of Congress listened to their constituents speaking out against war, and some even disbelieving the administration’s assessment because no hard, checkable evidence was being revealed to the American people.

Morose at CNN

As the march toward war began meandering off in unexpected directions, I was lucky enough to observe, up-close and personal, the angry reaction of some of Israel’s top American supporters on Monday evening. That was after Russia drew Obama a new map for how to reach the desired destination of removing chemical weapons from Assad’s arsenal without going to war.

After doing an interview on CNN International, I opened the studio door and almost knocked over a small fellow named Paul Wolfowitz, President George W. Bush’s former under-secretary of defense who in 2002-2003 had helped craft the fraudulent case for invading Iraq. And there standing next to him was former Sen. Joe Lieberman, the neocon from Connecticut who was a leading advocate for the Iraq War and pretty much every other potential war in the Middle East.

Finding myself in the same room with two gentlemen responsible for so much misery in the world, I fell back on my recent training in non-violence, as we watched Piers Morgan try earnestly to spin the day’s astounding events. On the tube earlier, Anderson Cooper sought counsel from Ari Fleischer, former spokesman for George W. Bush, and David Gergen, long-time White House PR guru.

Fleischer and Gergen were alternately downright furious over the Russian initiative to give peace a chance and disconsolate at seeing the prospect for U.S. military involvement in Syria disappear when we were oh so close. After some caustic and condescending outbursts, an almost surreally disconsolate mood set in. It looked like these fellas were not going to get their war.

Later remarks by Lieberman and Wolfowitz reflected a distinctly funereal atmosphere. I felt I had come to a wake with somberly dressed folks (no pastel ties this time) grieving for a recently, dearly-departed war.

Among Lieberman’s vapid comments was the hope-against-hope assertion that President Obama, of course, could still commit troops to war without congressional authorization. I thought to myself, wow, here’s a fellow who was a senator for 24 years and almost our vice president, and he does not remember that the Founders gave Congress the sole power to declare war in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution.

So I dug into my back pocket, pulled out my little copy of the Constitution, and carefully tore out Article 1. Then I lurked in the ornate elevator waiting area for Joe and Paul to come out. After the usual pleasantries (all politicians feel compelled to “remember” you once you say your name as though they should), I said, “Joe, I couldn’t believe what you said about the President not being required to get the approval of Congress before attacking a country like Syria. So, here; I tore out Article 1 of the Constitution for you; I have another copy, so you can keep it. Go home, read it, and see if what you just said is correct.”

It was a bad evening for war and for those pundits who like to joke about “giving war a chance.” For those of us who think war is not such a good idea and truly should only be considered as an absolutely last resort it was an uncommon day for rejoicing at the failure of the warmongers to again send young men and women to kill folks who pose no threat to us.

Salt in the Wounds

As sad as the war proponents were including the cable news channels cheated out of some great video of flashing bombs illuminating the shattered buildings of ancient Damascus they would face another humiliation in reading Thursday’s New York Times, which published an op-ed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. He made sensible points about the value of international law prohibiting one country from attacking another except in self-defense or with approval of the United Nations Security Council.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee and an Israeli favorite, spoke for many Washington insiders by saying, “I was at dinner, and I almost wanted to vomit.” [For more on this topic, see’s “Rewarding ‘Group Think’ on Syria.”]

Menendez had just cobbled together and forced through his committee a resolution, 10-to-7, to authorize the President to strike Syria with enough force to degrade Assad’s military. Now, at Obama’s request, the resolution was being put on the shelf.

Events were now moving swiftly away from a U.S. missile strike. Obama dispatched Kerry to Geneva to work out an agreement with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. But the hope for war still was not fully extinguished.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was still rooting for a chance to revive the military option and like Lieberman suggesting that the President didn’t really need congressional approval and shouldn’t be deterred by popular opposition either.

At a breakfast session with reporters on Sept. 11, Levin said, “I just don’t think you can be guided, when it comes to this kind of an issue, by public opinion polls. … It would not be a surprise at all to me, even if there were no congressional authority, that he [Obama] would use his Article 2 authority” as commander in chief. (Not incidentally, Levin has been the recipient of more money from AIPAC-related organizations than any other member of Congress.)

At this point, Israel and its lobby had every reason to be disappointed in another longtime close friend, John Kerry. He had succeeded in driving the war, which was to be fought over Obama’s “red line,” into what football fans might call the “red zone” but Kerry was unable to push the plan for missile strikes over the goal line.

Instead, Kerry clearly is under new orders from President Obama to figure out a way in cooperation with Minister Lavrov to defuse the crisis. Putin, Obama, Lavrov and Kerry have just won some laurels from the people around the world hoping to advance the cause of peace. But they won’t have the luxury of resting on them, while so many others in and around Syria have powerful incentives to reverse the progress made.

One still has to wonder what might revive prospects for U.S. missile strikes. Some in the Middle East are worried about the possibility that radical jihadists among the Syrian rebels might try to derail peace talks by launching a chemical weapons attack against Israeli targets with the hope that the provocation will be blamed on the Assad regime and set off a rush to retaliate.

Whether likely or not, it is a threat that the cooler heads in the Obama administration should anticipate and be ready to head off.

Ray McGovern works for Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington.  He served as an Army Infantry/Intelligence officer prior to working for 27 years as a CIA analyst.  He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

23 comments for “How War on Syria Lost Its Way

  1. paul
    September 19, 2013 at 16:08

    I find it truly bizarre to see Mcgovern claiming that Obama and Kerry deserve credit for stopping a war that they themselves had been pushing for. How interesting it is, in light of Mcgovern’s claim that Obama was dragged all unwillingly towards war that both Obama and Kerry have not only continued to threaten Syria, but have begun to threaten Iran as well!!!

  2. Peter Loeb
    September 17, 2013 at 05:40


    The “rebels” (including extremists etc.) must negotiate in good faith.
    So far there has not been the slightest hint that they are now or ever
    will be willing to do this.

    The Syrian regime must be permitted recognition for its agreements as a
    sovereign state and must be allowed to defend itself against all rebels/
    rebel groups who uncompromisingly refuse any such negotiation with the
    Syrian regime whatsoever. Such groups are NOT “the Syrian People” by
    any stretch of the imagination.

  3. Del Vezeau
    September 16, 2013 at 04:08

    There is something I don’t quite understand about this. I have watched with interest the youtube link posted above published on the 13th of this month, and of course, the article as well. Now while I’m one for giving credit where and when it is due, there is something about this narrative, this stream of information and recall of facts, faces, times, hallways, elevators, etc, and the clear cut – jury back in – took em only five minutes – ‘body of evidence’ that is surfacing hailing the commander in chief as the only chess player capable of thumping ‘Deep Blue’ and succeeding where Gary Kasparov couldn’t..well..okay.. so maybe I shot my mouth off on facebook a few hours ago and derisively ran with a much different interpretation of recent events ..and I don’t like the taste of crow more than the next guy, but will eat it nonetheless…if Mr. McGovern, you can just address this one little question. You said something on the youtube vid about holding no office, having enough money and all that. That was musical to me. If ever any truth should reach the light of day before the ink is dry on the latest review of history, we would all do well if the authors had no dogs they favored at the track. I made a comment the other day on FB that, in light of everything I’ve learned here, now seems patently untrue. I suggested that Mr. Obama would appreciate Mr Kerry’s head on a stick. Your suggestion that Mr. Kerry is in fact, in the ‘back pocket’ of Israel, furthering the point that his sales pitch for the strike was predictable, well I suppose this head on a stick business requires a reversal of roles somewhat. The implications of this scenario are simply staggering. The president, in his love of all things chess, played the Secretary of State of the USA like a fiddle? AND beat ‘Deep Blue’ aka Putin?
    And here I was…entertaining this patently paranoid idea that the ‘gaffe’ that changed the game might be perceived as a momentary crack in the wall that sheds new light on what could soon be considered by the public as a mere myth, namely that the boys who run the show have always had, and will always have, their hands firmly at the wheel.
    Ok I’m nuts…
    still though, could you address my question?

    • Del Vezeau
      September 16, 2013 at 17:11

      Devil in the details…and mixing metaphors..

      My suggestion that Ray was suggesting Putin was duped was flat wrong..
      it came from here

      and the polarized exchange I had on Facebook..

      Apparently, 8 hours of sleep per day IS a good thing..I’ll try to remember that..

      The spin about Obama as a grand strategist in the above however, seems like the new ball many are happy to run with. Ray’s analysis does better than just make plausible sense that there are these fly on the wall moments he recounts, which leads me to another point that requires some refinement, namely my illustration of hallways and elevators. CNN International. Greenroom. Bingo…sorry about that also; I’m no stranger to greenrooms and that filled a big skeptical hole for me..Initially, I was like huh? Why is he running into Wolfowitz and Leiberman? I thought retired guys went fishing..

      But…the point on Kerry..

      if Obama did in fact get some good advice that changed the game, Kerry was not informed? The implications still go beyond anything we’ve seen on Westwing..

      • Del Vezeau
        September 17, 2013 at 12:51

        Might be worth the mention that it is the on camera interview I am referring to and not the written article. In the interview Ray, there seems to be a lack of any mention that Kerry had new orders…perhaps forgotten innocently enough..but even with the hindsight of your written word, does this not bring the ‘gaffe’ into a whole new light? Should we nominate Kerry for a Tony Award? If so…I’ll stand in the ovation this performance deserves…toss a few flowers..dab tissue to eyes…you know..the whole nine yards..
        I don’t think so. The gaffe that changed the game looked entirely genuine to me. Either way you cut it, there is another story here.

        I’m glad I didn’t bank on the answers these guys offered back in the day..
        I wasn’t a fly on the wall here (that was a different incident) but amusing in the sense that it puts into some context this ‘firm grip on the wheel’ that many of the conspiracy camps would suggest these dudes (and others) have..

        Charlie Rose – An hour with Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft & Henry Kissinger June 15, 2007

        Of course, the crash of 08 was yet to happen, ‘Hope and Change’ was not yet on the scene, and the DOW was dancing. Still, bright as they be, they never ventured beyond their specialties. It might appear easy to criticize them given the 20/20 of nearly seven yrs of hind sight, but even at that time, there was plenty of chatter about the derivatives bubble, inflated stocks and the mathematical certainties of the ‘economic adjustments’ to follow. The question in those circles was simply ‘when’. ( Perhaps a few investment firms on Wall St had a loose idea) The nonconservative snot wads had brought everyone closer to the abyss by this point. A few critiques were brandied about, but if ever they missed the chance to speak directly to their own strengths, surely it was the foreign policy of the Bush administration. Collectively, (from what I understand) their vision is a polar opposite to that of the Straussian inspired hegemony the neocons covertly put in motion (whilst offering the masses an episode of Gun Smoke to ponder) so, assuming they had read every word and footnote of the ‘Progress for the New American Century’ document or PNAC, as it later became known, (which they most certainly did) why so MUM? Did they feel it would sound too partisan? Did they equate the open dissection of the neocon play-book with say, ..making fun of a mentally challenged individual and decided it really wouldn’t be in good taste? Or did the idea of shooting this blimp in the bathtub beg a follow up question from Charlie once they had shared their conclusions?

  4. F. G. Sanford
    September 16, 2013 at 00:43

    Great article, Ray! I submitted what I thought was a pretty funny comment, but Spam Free WordPress flushed it. Maybe I should take a hint. BUT, I also wanted to let everyone know that your interview with Gary Franchi of WHDT World News covering the substance of the article is available on YouTube, and it’s a great piece:

    I hear Paul Wolfowitz also insists that CNN grant Floyd R. Turbo a rebuttal to your piece.

  5. Samm Simpson
    September 15, 2013 at 19:52

    Oh, Ray, another home run for the truth team. We love you!!

  6. George Collins
    September 15, 2013 at 16:34

    As a veteran of many Ray McGovern epistles, I would rate this one with the best: nice blend of humor, irresistible sarcasm, exactitude on the facts and a victory lap for the tentative putative good results toward the elusive goal of peace. I’m mildly surprised that Ray did not expose the Russia and the US for their own undisputed use of chemical weapons or their moralistic posing as aiming to eliminate the possibility of future chemical weapon victims. Undoubtedly that would be impolitic.

    But, might it be reasonable to propose that Putin and Obama each agree to turn their own nation’s chemical weapons over to the UN for supervision and destruction?

    Without intended Kerry mockery: Of course they won’t do that, it’s impossible. Can’t be done. Let me be perfectly clear….This is just rhetoric!

  7. david schermerhorn
    September 15, 2013 at 16:24

    Ray- A fine article. Particularly enjoyed the zingers to Lieberman&Wolfowitz, that dynamic duo for all things Israeli.

  8. Otto Schiff
    September 15, 2013 at 14:09

    A:A great report.
    B: A great step forward in world politics.

  9. Randal Marlin
    September 15, 2013 at 13:48

    Great work, Ray McGovern! I share with the apprehension about the many things that could go wrong in the pursuit of diplomacy instead of militarism, when so many powerful interests are at work to ensure the triumph of the war-making machine. The U.S. and Russia together should be able to work out a solution, provided they both negotiate in good faith. Pacta sunt servanda!!

  10. Larry
    September 15, 2013 at 13:29

    “Later remarks by Lieberman and Wolfowitz reflected a distinctly funereal atmosphere.” They vastly prefer actual funerals, which energizes the Geritol in their veins, instead of merely a funereal atmosphere, which prevents their limp dicks from getting a nostalgic phantom rise.

    Also, “(Not incidentally, Levin has been the recipient of more money from AIPAC-related organizations than any other member of Congress.)” So I guess that makes him a high-priced one.

    Lastly, “At this point, Israel and its lobby had every reason to be disappointed in another longtime close friend, John Kerry.” Well, then I suppose half of John Kerry must be very self-hating about now. How does he live with himselves? That’s a joke, zun!

    Note: I think Kerry was playing the role of war hawk very well (too well! even consorting with Henry Machiavellia, on 9/11!) but that the search for a way out was ensuing the entire time, culminating in his supposed ‘gaffe’ and Russia’s and Syria’s immediate positive responses to what had been becoming the intended resolution of the bomb-or-not-bomb crisis. Note also that Obama met in the White House with the Kuwaiti delegation 9/13/2013. Like they say, things were in motion.

  11. John G Morris
    September 15, 2013 at 13:24

    Great, speaking as the Life London editor who was responsible for the coverage of
    D-Day (Robert Capa) and one who later worked in the outer ring of the Pentagon, I wholeheartedky agree with the views expressed here . I shall continue to support our President, the first who has said that our country has a moral responsibioity to lead the world to abolish atomic weapons – as a first step in world disarmament.

    John G. Morris, Paris (google me for further identification)

  12. Regina Schulte
    September 15, 2013 at 11:03

    When, oh when, is the U.S. going to stop reverencing Israel to the point that we do its bidding? What makes Israel so sacred to the U.S. that we insist on “hands off” when the situation should require “hands on” insisting that
    Israel step up to the plate rather than merely calling the plays for others?
    Syria is its neighbor. If Israel wants so badly to stir up a war against Syria (and I adamantly oppose the insanity of such a war), why doesn’t it handle that war itself—and then take responsibility for the devastation it will create?

  13. September 15, 2013 at 00:28

    I think the world might be close to peace like after World War I and World War II, the major difference is the lack of a road map toward obtaining this goal. Many reasons that peace might be close such as fewer hawks then any time in all our lifetimes,

    The following is a more clicked on blog but comments close on long important posts,

    • CJ Sazdad
      September 15, 2013 at 11:14

      One shouldn’t forget the Wahhabi/Sunnu agenda re Iranian Shiites coincides with thst of Israel

  14. Gengass Con
    September 15, 2013 at 00:19

    Lost in all this talk about the USA, Russia, Syria, Israel, Kuwait, etc. is the 8000 pound gorilla in the room – China. A White House source says that President Xi Jinping gave Obama a call Sept. 7th and angrily reminded him that he will be the last American President to have a full term presiding over the largest economy on the planet (China will surpass the U.S. sometime from 2016 to 2020). If International Law is not treated with more respect in these American twilight years, things will go very poorly for the next generation – “father’s debt, daughter to pay”. There was some discussion of a new Cold War that would cost each side about $2 trillion per year – a noble struggle for the 21st century, Jinping called it, that would make the US/USSR rivalry look like children sparring.

    China said their SCO member Russia would be the public face on the subsequent diplomacy, if Obama wanted to reconsider the consequences to America of an illegal attack.

    • EthanAllen1
      September 15, 2013 at 04:17

      Gassious one – You know not of what you speak!

    • incontinent reader
      September 15, 2013 at 15:46

      Gengass- Where did you get all of this? From a Mossad/NSA faux intercept? If you can confirm and source it, then do so. Otherwise drop it.

      • Gengass Con
        September 17, 2013 at 01:18

        I forgot to mention I got this from an “anonymous Government official”, like the professional journalists.

        You’re free to give it the same credence as a NYTimes article. Of course, my source isn’t as well placed as Judith Miller’s was…

  15. incontinent reader
    September 14, 2013 at 22:21

    Wonderful article. The Russian proposal calls to mind the lifeline Khrushchev threw JFK when so many of his advisors at the NSC, State, Defense/Pentagon/JCS, and even a retired Acheson who was wheeled in to counsel JFK to help ‘stiffen his backbone’, all counseled military action to take out the missiles in Cuba (in a surgical – my eye- attack no less). We should feel fortunate that Putin and Lavrov had the presence of mind to offer this. While the hawks (neocon and neo-liberal) and their sponsors fumed, it seems most Americans breathed a sigh of relief. Guys like Menendez, Lieberman, McCain, Levin, wannabe guys like Feinstein and Boxer, Clinton (H), Rice and Power are not working in the nation interest- they are working for special interests, and they need to be reminded that no matter how much money and power their sponsors have and wave about, they will be out the door. (Lieberman’s gone but it doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be challenged and demolished in public debate whenever he promotes any of his favorite wars.

    • BillB
      September 15, 2013 at 13:27

      Lieberman is gone from the senate, but he is not gone.

      • incontinent reader
        September 15, 2013 at 15:43


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