Blaming Obama for Syrian Mess

Exclusive: As the Syrian civil war drags on, al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremists are emerging as the fiercest fighters in the rebel coalition and complicating how the conflict can be resolved. So, U.S. neocons are trying to pin the blame on President Obama, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

The neocons, who provided the propaganda framework for the disastrous Iraq War, are creating a new and dangerous conventional wisdom on Syria, blaming the emerging hardline jihadist dominance of the anti-government opposition on President Barack Obama’s failure to intervene militarily much earlier.

Official Washington is now awash in the message that Obama’s grudging agreement to deliver some light weapons to non-Islamist rebels is a case of “too little, too late.” A corollary of this neocon analysis is that only a much more aggressive U.S. military policy, including air strikes against Syrian government targets, can now salvage the situation by forcing President Bashar al-Assad into negotiations preconditioned on his surrender.

National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice briefs President Barack Obama on foreign policy developments during Obama’s summer break on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, on Aug. 12, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

In other words, the neocons, who survived the Iraq War debacle with amazingly little harm to their standing within the Establishment, are offering their usual response to every political crisis in the Muslim world: U.S. military intervention and forced “regime change” of a leader deemed hostile to Israel.

However, the neocons are again living in their own reality. The truth is that it has been the Syrian opposition that has been the chief obstacle to peace negotiations, not Assad’s government. Earlier this year, talks scheduled for Geneva were blocked not by Assad, who agreed to participate, but by the opposition, which insisted on a fresh supply of weapons and a delay until rebel forces had reversed their recent string of military defeats.

Even earlier, however, when the rebels seemed to have the upper hand in the conflict, they showed little interest in a negotiated, power-sharing agreement. Then, the rebels were set on an outright defeat of Assad’s government and rebuffed Assad’s overtures of constitutional and political reforms.

That is not to say that Assad’s military did not respond to the civil unrest in 2011 with excessive force or that the Assad dynasty has not been among the most unsavory Arab dictatorships over the decades. The Assads, like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, have represented some of the worst examples of repression in a region that has been long known for repression.

However, as with Iraq’s Hussein, the U.S. news media has painted the Syrian situation in blacks and whites. The opposition is noble and the government is evil. Every extreme claim about Assad, as with Hussein, is accepted as fact with almost no skepticism allowed. That pattern of journalistic malpractice contributed to the unprovoked U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 when little credence was given to Iraq’s denials that it possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Hussein also received little credit for maintaining a secular government that cracked down on Islamic extremism. Instead, President George W. Bush’s administration sold to the U.S. news media the myth that Hussein was ready to share WMDs with al-Qaeda. It was only after Bush’s invasion and the failure to find the WMDs that Iraq did become a home for al-Qaeda extremists and the U.S. press corps came to understand how the neocons had sold a false bill of goods.

But that awareness has slipped away as neocon commentators still dominate the op-ed pages and the think tanks, enabling them now to define the parameters of the debate over Syria.

The Neocon Strategy

It has long been central to the neocons’ geopolitical strategy to seek “regime change” in Muslim countries that are considered hostile to Israel and by doing so to undermine Israel’s close-in enemies, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestine’s Hamas. The neocon thinking was that if pro-U.S. governments could be installed in Iraq, Syria and Iran, then Israel would have a freer hand to dictate a final “peace” to the isolated Palestinians, who would have little choice but to accept the final borders demanded by Israel. [See’s “The Mysterious Why of the Iraq War.”]

However, the neocons have operated with a cartoonish view of the Muslim world. They have shown no sophistication about how the geopolitics of their schemes might actually play out.

For instance, their dreams about the Iraqis welcoming U.S. invaders as “liberators” didn’t exactly go that way. Ultimately, a Sunni autocrat (Hussein) was replaced by a Shiite autocrat (Nouri al-Maliki) with Iran gaining more influence than the United States, the erstwhile occupying power. Similarly, the overthrow-murder of Libya’s secular dictator Muammar Gaddafi a bloody demise cheered by the neocons has created new space for Islamic militants to expand their influence in northern Africa.

The neocons’ only real argument for “success” is that their mischief-making over the last decade has inflicted so much violence and destruction in the Muslim world that the region’s wealth and unity has been sapped, thus limiting how much support can be provided to the embattled Palestinians.

Likewise, the shattered nation of Syria is now preoccupied with its own devastating civil war, leaving little time and money to bolster the Palestinians. But the neocon strategy to press for a military victory over Assad also carries grave risks. The Sunni-led rebellion against Assad, an Alawite representing a branch of Shiite Islam, has been an invitation for al-Qaeda militants to cross the border from Iraq into Syria, a move that was inevitable whether Assad surrendered or resisted.

Perhaps the best hope for Syria would have been for the opposition to have entered into serious power-sharing negotiations in 2011, but then the scent of outright victory was too strong. The opposition’s hubris urged on by American neocons who smelled Assad’s blood overwhelmed any thoughts of reconciliation. The view was that the only viable solution required ousting Assad and eradicating any remnants of the Assad dynasty.

But that uncompromising position spread fear among many of Iraq’s Alawites, Shiites and Christians who foresaw possible revenge from Sunni extremists. The hardline rebel stance also forced the Assad regime to stiffen its spine and push back against the gains of the rebels. The prospect of another “Western-engineered” ouster of an Arab leader following the violent “regime change” in Iraq and Libya also raised alarms in Iran and Russia as well as inside Lebanon’s Hezbollah Shiite militias.

An Internationalized Conflict

Iran and Russia stepped up military supplies and Hezbollah dispatched reinforcements, enabling Assad’s forces to gain the upper hand. That, in turn, drew in even more al-Qaeda and other Sunni militants. Journalists from the region are now reporting that these extremists have emerged as the dominant military force among the rebels.

Anne Barnard and Eric Schmitt reported for the New York Times that “As foreign fighters pour into Syria at an increasing clip, extremist groups are carving out pockets of territory that are becoming havens for Islamist militants, posing what United States and Western intelligence officials say may be developing into one of the biggest terrorist threats in the world today.”

Similarly, Liz Sly reported for the Washington Post that “A rebranded version of Iraq’s al-Qaeda affiliate is surging onto the front lines of the war in neighboring Syria, expanding into territory seized by other rebel groups and carving out the kind of sanctuaries that the U.S. military spent more than a decade fighting to prevent in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

So, like a case of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the neocons have helped whip up another new flood of trouble in the Middle East. But the neocons are not about to accept blame for the mess that is now sloshing around Syria. Thus, an alternative narrative is necessary: that it’s all President Obama’s fault for not committing the U.S. military to another invasion of a Muslim nation.

That is indeed the new conventional wisdom spreading across Official Washington: If only Obama had dispatched the U.S. Air Force to shoot down Syrian planes and bomb government troop positions while also arming the anti-Assad rebels with modern weapons all would be well. The opposition would have prevailed and a pro-Western (and pro-Israeli) democracy would be governing Syria.

Instead, according to this conventional wisdom, Obama dithered, dragging his heels on committing U.S. warplanes and weapons, even now only approving some light weapons if they can be channeled to carefully vetted moderate elements of the opposition.

But the neocon narrative ignores how messy and how dangerous a violent overthrow of another Arab government would have been. There would have been no assurance that the Sunni-led rebels would not have taken bloody revenge on the Alawites, Shiites and Christian sects that have been the backbone of Assad’s regime.

There likely would have been Libyan-style chaos with Islamic militants still swarming into Syria to fill the political void. Indeed, the outcome might well have been the establishment of an Islamist regime representing the country’s Sunni majority, replacing the relatively secular Assad government backed by the various Muslim and Christian minorities.

If indeed such an expectation would have been more realistic than the neocons’ rosy scenario, Obama could be criticized more for his failure to press the Syrian rebels into accepting some power-sharing compromise with Assad’s forces in 2011 or 2012 when the opposition’s prospects were brighter.

However, Obama was involved in a bitter reelection battle with Republican Mitt Romney, who was assiduously courting the Israelis and portraying Obama as lacking sufficient ardor for the Jewish state. By the time Obama was sworn in for a second term in 2013, the battlefield had begun to swing toward Assad’s advantage.

When the Obama administration did begin a push for a negotiated settlement this year, Assad was quick to agree but the splintered rebel coalition balked, demanding instead an escalation of military support from the West so the war could be tilted again into the rebels’ favor.

That wishful thinking, however, has expanded the opening for al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremists, a development that was always predictable but one that the neocons don’t want blamed on them. Thus, the new conventional wisdom pinning the evolving Syrian disaster on Obama.

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 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.

9 comments for “Blaming Obama for Syrian Mess

  1. mike
    August 20, 2013 at 22:18

    we are in the steel grip of a financial industry dictatorship. The single party of the dictatorship includes Obama, all of Congress, the Courts. We supported Al Qaeda in Libya and we knew we were supporting Al Qaeda in Libya. We assisted the flow of Al Qaeda fighters to Syria. We have funded, armed, trained and recruited for Al Qaeda. This is not a partisan issue. I wonder “why aren’t we calling it treason?”

  2. dahoit
    August 16, 2013 at 11:29

    Jeez,the idiot Obomba is the POTUS,the allegedly most powerful man in the world,of course he’s responsible.
    A feckless loser,never has the world had such a nobody in charge of so much,and that includes the shrub,who at least seemed to concern himself with our issues,and not led by the ring in his nose by these dual citizen traitors,the Zionists.
    How many Muslims must die so Israelis can sleep well at night?

  3. Kevin Schmidt
    August 15, 2013 at 15:36

    How sad that no one mentioned Russia, Syria’s ally. Russia has their fleet in nearby waters, and they will not let the US or Israel invade Syria overtly. The US is risking a third world war, simply because they have to first illegally take out Syria before they can illegally invade Iran, another Russian ally.
    In the end, this is all about the oil, again. If you add up the cost of the illegal wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now our covert war in Syria, the true cost of gasoline at the pump is over $15.00 a gallon.

    If instead of propping up the earth destroying fossil fuel industries and illegal imperialist invasions started after the false flag 9/11 attacks, and instead shifted over to alternative renewable, clean, safe energy and fuels, we would now be paying far less for our energy. Plus we would have stopped the maddening ecocide caused mostly by the US terrorizing war mongers.

  4. Otto Schiff
    August 15, 2013 at 15:32

    I am astonished at all the wild charges with no real proof regarding the mess in
    the Near East. Obama, Israel, neocons etc.
    There are many problems in many countries including this one.
    But the armchair strategist don’t seem to have the answers.
    Lots of charges and no proof.

  5. incontinent reader
    August 15, 2013 at 14:28

    Bob- You’re right in your criticism of the neocons (though your headline as crafted would appear to give a pass to the President), but so are the commentators above. That is, Obama SHOULD be blamed, but for his clandestine and not so clandestine war to destroy and remake Syria, and the duplication of this policy in so many other hotspots we have ignited in the world.

    The Administration’s promotion of ‘human rights’ and the neocons’ and neoliberals’ advocacy of ‘humanitarian intervention’ has been so disingenuous and hypocritical that most people don’t really believe it anymore, at least as it applies to Syria, and so much so that Assad’s brutal putdown of demonstrations in early 2011, are beginning to pale in the context of what has happened elsewhere, such as: (1) the Egyptian military junta’s and Turkish Government’s repression and killing of protestors in their own countries; (2) the fanaticism and brutality of the Saudi supported jihadists in Syria, and, (3) as a matter of ‘democracy’ and ‘political legitimacy’, the support Assad has seemed to enjoy among the majority of his people, battered and displaced as they have been- at least according to reported CIA and NATO estimates, and what the Syrian electorate made clear over a year ago in their February, 2012 national referendum.

    If our aim is human rights, peace, stability and prosperity, we could easily shut off the money-arms-intelligence spigot, and lean on our proxies (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel) to do the same- and not only in Syria, but also Iraq- and push the parties to the table. Why not, for example, amnesty in exchange for (1) the laying down of arms, (2) meaningful negotiations between the indigenous opposition parties and the Government, (3) an internationally monitored multiparty election in 2014, and (4) no preconditions for Assad to step down, or not to run for reelection? Moreover, it could be done in the context of a larger negotiation with Iran, Russia and China to solve the regional nuclear issues, and the reconstruction of Iraq and Syria, and Egypt.

    Who would be hurt by this? Maybe, the neocons and neo-liberals, Israelis, Saudi royal family, Turkish government and our military and energy contractors? Who stands to gain? Maybe everyone else? Whether or not this is politically unrealistic at home, we must begin to think of our own national interests, and do so under a different paradigm than the neocon-neo-liberal one that has inspired such devastation, and we must keep raising the questions and issues in a public context and public fora again and again until they cannot be ignored.

    There are now so many issues that intersect, whether it is the ‘war on terror’, the wars in Syria and Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Iran and its nuclear program, NSA surveillance, corporate ‘Deep State’ (i.e., bank, energy & mining, and military-national security contractors, foreign lobbies) power over our government, proliferation of non-nuclear and nuclear weapons, that all must be addressed. The public needs to know who are the special interests, and know it in specific terms and detail- e.g., the names, addresses of those organizations and people who are making the decisions inside and outside the Government that have resulted in such catastrophic consequences to everyone except themselves, what they have done, and what they are advocating, where the money is coming from, who will bear the cost and who will benefit, etc.

    So, if they have committed war crimes or other crimes, the public should know, and should keep the spotlight on them to ensure some measure of accountability. These people can make money, they can buy off the system and use it to plunder and murder, but they should not be able to do it in secrecy. There are 7.5 billion people in the world being manhandled directly or indirectly. A few hundred thousand shouldn’t be able to get away with it and our government shouldn’t be facilitating it.

  6. hillary
    August 15, 2013 at 11:10

    ” U.S. military intervention and forced “regime change” of a leader deemed hostile to Israel.”
    Yes indeed and the neocons are drunk with success everything they planned for has come to fruition.
    Two civilizations ( RELIGIONS)Christianity and Islam are at each others throats as orchestrated by the “neocons”.
    It is/was an “open secret” with General Wesley Clarke openly telling of the ” pre 9/11 US Plan ” to go to war against 7 countries including Syria and Iran.

  7. F. G. Sanford
    August 14, 2013 at 19:29

    After a government has been destabilized, it takes about twelve to fifteen years to reconstitute itself as a functioning sovereign entity with legitimate governing mechanisms–even more if outside meddling is maliciously applied. That can be beneficial if the goal is to eliminate regional competition. But, the greatest threat to ME stability has ALWAYS come from non-state actors. Sure, there have been a few exceptions. But what the Neocon strategy has actually accomplished is to place states in the hands of non-state sponsored terrorists. Now that they’ve got states, they’re not terrorists anymore. They’re hostile governments. I wonder what Robert Fisk would make of all this. If he wanted to talk to a real expert, The President could just give him a call.

    The picture associated with this article tells the whole story. The President is shown receiving what he thinks is sound advice from someone who has been endorsed by “think tank” accolades. This amounts to a form of nepotism, or credentials conferred by consensus. A “baronial system” of this nature is not merit based. It’s based on connections and catering to mutual self-interests. I can’t remember exactly how many millions of dollars Susan Rice is currently worth, but it’s nothing to sneeze at. She couldn’t have earned that much as an appointed public official, or as an academic in teaching or research, or as a respected journalist, or even, for that matter, as an expert on foreign relations. She’s simply providing the appearance of legitimacy to a bad set of policy decisions by serving as the “expert witness” who concurs with the strategy that has already been mandated by whomever actually calls the shots. It’s kinda like making Penny Pritzger the Secretary of Commerce or Samantha Power the U.N. Ambassador. It’s an incestuous way of “fixing” the advisors around the policy, in much the same way the Downing Street Memo referred to “fixing” the intelligence around the case for war. As a consequence, none of the things being discussed in that picture are likely to end well. And therein lies the rub.

  8. Hans
    August 14, 2013 at 14:38

    Right in the beginning of the uprising by the Syrian people Obama and the rest of the weak Western leaders should of supported the FSA and help them to send Assad in to the Dessert. Most likely because of Israels leaders whining, who hold the strings behind the curtains in numerous country’s, the West left the Syrians in the cold. In the meantime the FANATICS HAD PLENTY OF TIME TO MAKE THEMSELVES COMFORTABLE IN SYRIA and reduce the chances of solutions in Syria.Israel didn’t wanted weapons flowing in to Syria because like always Israel always want’s everything just for themselves.The problem now is that the well supported Fanatics will give everybody headaches including Israel.

  9. Greg Driscoll
    August 14, 2013 at 13:44

    Libya – specifically eastern Libya – has been and still is a main source for foreign fighters in Syria; the situation now in Syria has a lot to do with the U.S., British, and French governments’ feckless policy of dealing with and using jihadist groups in Libya in the effort to topple and eliminate Ghaddafi. So to portray Obama as a “victim” of the neocons is a bit of a stretch. The whole U.S. establishment – right, so-called left, and “moderate” – is led around by the nose by a handful of Israeli-support groups like AIPAC and Israeii “intelligence”, to the point where the government of the United States can no longer look at events realistically and with an eye to what is really in the best interests of the people of the United States; what is in the interests of the Israeli government is not necessarily in the best interests of the people of the United States, and, as demonstrated many times over, not even in the best interests of the people of Israel.

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