Obama’s Syria Strategy at a Crossroads

Exclusive: The Islamic Front’s capture of a U.S.-stocked supply depot in northern Syria prompted a suspension of those shipments to “moderate” Syrian rebels. The incident also drove home how Islamists are gaining ground — and why President Obama may shift U.S. strategy, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

The CIA has been emptying the shelves of its secret warehouses where it stores light weapons whose origins can’t be easily traced back to Washington, sending the materiel to the supposedly “moderate” Syrian rebels. But that “covert operation” is now at a crossroads after Islamists seized a rebel supply depot in northern Syria.

One of President Barack Obama’s longtime fears about providing lethal assistance to the Syrian rebels was just that possibility, that U.S.-supplied weapons would fall into the hands of Islamists, even some tied to al-Qaeda, and thus help to make Syria a new base for terrorism aimed at the West.

President Barack Obama speaks by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Jan. 12, 2012. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama speaks by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Jan. 12, 2012. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

That nightmare appears to be fast becoming a reality as jihadists swarm into Syria from around the Muslim world, drawing financial and military support from Saudi Arabia and other right-wing Persian Gulf states, and pushing aside the more secular rebels opposing President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus.

The latest example of this jihadist trend was the Islamic Front’s seizure of the U.S.-backed Supreme Military Council’s headquarters and its supply depot – containing food, trucks and ammunition – near the Turkish border last Friday. The State Department announced on Wednesday that non-lethal supplies to the Syrian rebels would be suspended.

Though the Obama administration presented the suspension as temporary – and it does not apparently affect the CIA’s lethal supply routes to rebels mostly in the south – I’m told that U.S. policy is poised to take what could be a dramatic turn, possibly bringing together an anti-al-Qaeda alliance involving Assad’s army, non-Islamist rebels and even Hezbollah forces.

Obama’s shift in thinking may become more apparent during upcoming peace talks in Switzerland as U.S. and Russian diplomats look for ways to achieve a power-sharing agreement between Assad’s Alawite-dominated regime and the more moderate opposition, which is mostly Sunni. Syria’s Alawite minority is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Many of Syria’s Christians also continue to back the secular Assad.

However, if Obama moves toward a political agreement that gives the Sunni majority more power without dismantling Assad’s government, the President is sure to be confronted with fierce opposition from the new Saudi-Israeli alliance which has formed around a joint determination to shatter the so-called Shiite Crescent, which now reaches from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon.

Both Saudi Arabia and Israel see Iran as their principal adversary in the region and view the Assad regime as the keystone of Iran’s influence. Though Saudi Arabia and Israel might have preferred less extremist Sunni jihadists to win Syria’s civil war, both countries have indicated a preference for radical Sunnis ruling Syria over Assad, the Iranian ally.

In mid-September, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren announced that Israel wanted Saudi-backed extremists to win if the other possible outcome was continuation of the Iran-backed Assad.

“The greatest danger to Israel is by the strategic arc that extends from Tehran, to Damascus to Beirut. And we saw the Assad regime as the keystone in that arc,” Oren told the Jerusalem Post in an interview. “We always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran.” He said this was the case even if the other “bad guys” were affiliated with al-Qaeda.

Obama’s Reluctance

But President Obama has grown increasingly leery of the Saudi-Israeli alliance and its obsession with Iran. Over the past several months, he has tilted more toward the Russian position favoring power-sharing concessions from the Assad regime, perhaps even Assad’s eventual departure, but to hold the line against a jihadist victory.

That recognition was a factor in Obama’s decision last summer not to launch military strikes in response to a chemical weapons incident on Aug. 21. The President came to realize that even a limited series of missile attacks to “degrade” Assad’s military might have played into the hands of the jihadists who were being encouraged by the Saudis to seize that moment for a major, possibly decisive offensive.

Obama also feared that U.S. military intervention in Syria might have led to a regional conflagration fought along sectarians lines, pitting the Sunnis against the Shiites, with the Israelis siding with the Sunnis under the old theory that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” Instead of a possible rapprochement with Shiite-ruled Iran, the United States might have found itself joining Israel in aerial bombardments of Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Peering down that dark alleyway, Obama recoiled. He began searching for a different route, one that would use diplomacy to rid the Syrian government of its chemical weapons and get Iran to accept more restrictions on its nuclear program to ensure that a nuclear bomb would not be built.

Now, I’m told, Obama’s thinking has evolved into a vision of a new strategic order in the Middle East, with Iran and Russia joining with the United States to tamp down the violence across the region and forcing the Israelis to choose between Saudi Arabia (and its jihadist clients) or Obama’s diplomatic initiative to address longstanding problems, including the Palestinian issue.

One source familiar with the Obama administration’s approach said the recent shifts put Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a tough – and possibly untenable – spot, either abandoning his hard-line attitudes or facing a political challenge from more moderate Israelis.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been particularly open in his criticism of Netanyahu for alienating the Obama administration. Recently, Olmert accused Netanyahu of “losing his head,” “declaring war on the United States” and trying to incite the Congress against Obama. But Olmert is far from alone in his opinions. Several ex-Mossad officials have challenged Netanyahu’s obsessive and belligerent approach toward Iran, too.

But it seems unlikely that Netanyahu will back down from this fight. He has yoked up his defenders in the U.S. news media and Congress and gotten them to pull together with hopes of toppling Obama’s diplomatic initiatives. Members of Congress, in thrall to the Israel lobby, are pushing for new economic sanctions against Iran which the Iranians warn will destroy the interim nuclear accord.

Neocons Fight Back

Official Washington’s still-influential neocons also haven’t abandoned their long-range strategy – dating back to their work on Netanyahu’s 1996 campaign – to make a “clean break” with frustrating diplomacy and replacing it with an aggressive “regime change” approach across the region.

The plan to dump negotiations in favor of dumping adversarial leaders was outlined in a 1996 policy paper, entitled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm” and prepared by prominent neocons, including Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, for Netanyahu’s campaign for prime minister.

In the document, the neocons wrote: “Israel can shape its strategic environment … by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq – an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right — as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Mysterious Why of the Iraq War.”]

The overriding point of this neocon strategy, as it has evolved over nearly two decades, is that by imposing “regime change” in Muslim nations that are deemed hostile to Israel, new friendly governments could be put in place, thus leaving Israel’s close-in enemies – Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon – without outside sponsors. Starved of money, these troublesome enemies would be forced to accept Israel’s terms. “The Realm” would be secured.

But that strategy always required a U.S. president who was either onboard or could be steered in the desired direction. Bill Clinton could only be pushed so far toward invading Iraq, but George W. Bush – eager to prove his mettle as a post-9/11 “war president” – went all in on the neocon strategy, starting by ousting Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Syria and Iran were always the neocons’ next targets, but the Iraq War went badly, leaving phase two and phase three on the drawing boards, not implemented but not forgotten.

When Barack Obama was elected president, Prime Minister Netanyahu chose to play hardball with the newcomer and achieved some success in pushing Obama around during the first term. But Netanyahu knew that Obama was a reluctant ally when it came to finishing the neocon plan. Obama resisted war with Iran and dragged his heels on intervening in Syria.

So, Netanyahu publicly threw his support behind Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who made it clear that he would align U.S. foreign policy with whatever Netanyahu wanted to do. However, Romney lost to Obama and Netanyahu had to revert to his old tactics of browbeating Obama and edging him toward the conflicts.

A major turning point came last summer when Obama was nearly stampeded into a military assault on Syria over a murky chemical weapons incident outside Damascus on Aug. 21. The Israelis, the neocons and many liberal interventionists (including some of Obama’s top aides) jumped to the conclusion that Assad’s regime was to blame for the attack. Obama weighed the possibility of a limited military reprisal.

But some U.S. intelligence analysts had serious doubts about who caused the deaths from sarin gas and they refused to sign on to an intelligence estimate that rushed to the Assad-did-it judgment. At the last minute, even as many White House aides expected U.S. missiles to start flying, Obama abruptly reversed course and began looking for a diplomatic way out. He was helped by the Russians who persuaded Assad to destroy his chemical arsenal even as he continued denying blame for the Aug. 21 attack.

That turnaround on attacking Syria was followed by an interim agreement with Iran to constrain its nuclear program — and now a plan for Syrian peace talks. Suddenly, it seemed like cooler heads might prevail. But Saudi Arabia, particularly its energetic intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and Israel, at least as personified by Prime Minister Netanyahu, won’t give up on their determination to shatter the Shiite Crescent.

Yet, it is becoming harder and harder to sell the American people on why they should spend billions and billions of dollars more and send more of their young men and women off to kill and be killed because of some Islamic sectarian struggle that dates back 1,400 years – or because some Israeli leaders want to continue a violent strategy of “regime change.”

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

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8 comments on “Obama’s Syria Strategy at a Crossroads

  1. F. G. Sanford on said:

    “The State Department announced on Wednesday that non-lethal supplies to the Syrian rebels would be suspended…and it does not apparently affect the CIA’s lethal supply routes to rebels mostly in the south…”
    It’s pretty hard to avoid the conclusion that we have a State Department with one policy and a clandestine service with another…and they are working at cross purposes. The intact, rational military mind which confronts this reality has to ask the question: “Who’s in charge here”?

    A story recently published recounts the tale of Robert Levinson, a CIA asset engaged in an unsanctioned mission to Iran who was captured/kidnapped by factions unknown. The U. S. Government has sought to suppress this story, and in the meantime, the CIA has apparently paid $2.5 million to Levinson’s family in “hush money”. I can’t help but wonder how that squares with hungry children who face cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. We’re cutting essential social programs to finance cockamamie shenanigans like this?

    The quandary America faces isn’t “National Security”. The quandary is, “Who’s running the show”? It looks like the motor is running, but there’s nobody behind the wheel.

  2. ” George W. Bush – eager to prove his mettle as a post-9/11 “war president” – went all in on the neocon strategy ”
    The illegal war against Iraq about which Susan Lindauer ex C.I.A. claims that her boss at the C.I.A. was Richard Fuisz and he received millions of dollars after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
    http://www.veteranstoday.com/author/lindauer/

  3. Gregory Kruse on said:

    This analysis fits very well the rational and dispassionate regard of the remote observer. The neocon devotion to the “New American Century” and the “Securing the Realm” is less like a thread than a cord or rope winding through the history of the US Middle East policy. There have always been people who furtively, and I mean furtively, believe that something must be done, even if it is wrong. Just look at Dick Cheney’s face. They constantly think the glass is 3/4 full and ignore the 1/4 empty part except to scheme how to fill their cup of joy to the brim, even if it means they break a lot of other people’s cups. My cup is 1/4 full and it is leaking, but Parry’s writing gives me hope that repairs can be made in time to save whatever is left and perhaps to contain some influx of change in our politics. Meanwhile, I hope that everyone who reads ConsortiumNews will have the decency to send a few bucks in to keep this enterprise going.

  4. Randal Marlin on said:

    There are some administration-friendly commentators who push the U.S. into war and they need to be recognized for the war-mongers they are. Which pundit published the following passage in a newspaper opinion piece on August 13, 2002? If a correct answer is posted, I’ll donate $50 to this site.
    “It is the personal assessment of President George W. Bush that Mr. Hussein is preparing a biological and chemical revenge against the United States. Mr. Bush is therefore determined to act first to remove the danger. While the chattering classes continue to ask irrelevant questions about the future of Iraq after a successful war, the issue for Mr. Bush is America’s security, not Iraq’s. And while conventional-minded army officers keep leaking stories to argue that Mr. Hussein cannot be defeated by air power, commandos and rag-tag exiles, but only by 265,731 army troops deployed over many months, actual preparations have made much progress.”

    • F. G. Sanford on said:

      Just a guess here, because I can’t find the “smoking gun”. I was thinking in terms of some outwardly moderate, even-handed weenie who is really just a tool of the corporate media, like Peter Jennings or Tom Brokaw.

      But then, I thought about one of the widely respected but definitely think-tank circle subversives. Anybody remember that weird movie with Mickey Rourke and Robert DeNiro? DeNiro plays Louis Cypher, who gradually metamorphoses into Lucifer as Rourke descends on “The Elevator to Hell”.

      Born William Lewis Safir, William Safire was a mercurial character who may have succumbed to the psychological self-deception of projection, thereby accusing the “chattering classes” of his own paranoid suspicion. Surely, he must have intuited that things were more diabolical than they seemed. But intimidation by intellectuals with an agenda can mollify public opinion.

      Bush spoke at an economic forum on the 13th, so opinion pieces on that date are hard to track down. But Gideon Alon apparently wrote “Sharon to Panel: Iraq is Our Biggest Danger” in Ha’aretz on that day. Maybe that’s the story; I couldn’t find a transcript.

      But on an interesting note, references to the Iran nuclear weapons negotiations as another “Munich Betrayal” have been plentiful lately. I found a reference to the same old canard from the New York Times on October 5, 2001: “Sharon Invokes Munich in Warning U.S. on ‘Appeasement’” by James Bennet. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

      Hey, if I’m wrong, you could still give CN a consolation prize. It’d be lewisafirian to hold them accountable for the failings of their readership.

      • Randal Marlin on said:

        None of the suggestions are correct.
        The commentator in question is (or was) a member of a think tank, called the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.