Official Washington’s Syrian ‘Fantasy’

Exclusive: It is perhaps not news that the U.S. government bases wars on illusions, such as the nonexistent WMD in Iraq, but it is rare when there is a broad consensus before the conflict begins that a war’s success rests on a “fantasy” like the chimera of “moderate” Syrian rebels, reports Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

What does it say when the capital of the world’s most powerful nation anchors a major decision about war in what every thinking person acknowledges is a “fantasy” even the principal policymaker and a top advocate for foreign interventions?

It might suggest that the U.S. government has completely lost its bearings or that political opportunism now so overwhelms rationality that shortsighted expediency determines life-or-death military strategies. Either way, it is hard to see how the current U.S. policy toward Iraq, Syria and the larger Middle East can serve American national interests or translate into anything but more misery for the people of the region.

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. (Photo credit: Aude)

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. (Photo credit: Aude)

Official Washington’s most treasured “fantasy” today is the notion that a viable “moderate opposition” exists in Syria or could somehow be created. That wish-upon-a-star belief was the centerpiece of congressional action last month on a $500 million plan by President Barack Obama to train and arm these “moderate” rebels to combat Islamic State terrorists who have been plundering large swaths of Syria and Iraq — and also take on the Syrian army.

Yet, as recently as August, President Barack Obama publicly declared that trust in these “moderates” was a “fantasy” that was “never in the cards” as a workable strategy. Then, on Wednesday, David Ignatius, national security columnist for the neoconservative Washington Post and a prominent booster of U.S. interventionism, reported from a rebel staging area in Reyhanli, Turkey, the same reality in nearly the same language.

“The problem is that the ‘moderate opposition’ that the United States is backing is still largely a fantasy,” Ignatius wrote, noting that the greatest challenge would be to coordinate “the ragtag brigades of the Free Syrian Army into a coherent force that can fill the vacuum once the extremists are driven out.”

Ignatius quoted Syrian rebel commander Hamza al-Shamali, a top recipient of American support including anti-tank missiles, as saying, “At some point, the Syrian street lost trust in the Free Syrian Army,” the U.S.-backed rebel force that was the armed wing of the supposedly “moderate opposition” to President Bashar al-Assad. Ignatius added:

“Shamali explains that many rebel commanders aren’t disciplined, their fighters aren’t well-trained and the loose umbrella organization of the FSA lacks command and control. The extremists of the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra have filled the vacuum. Now, he says, ‘the question every Syrian has for the opposition is: Are you going to bring chaos or order?’”

According to Ignatius, Shamali said he rejected a proposal to merge the FSA’s disparate brigades because “we refuse to repeat failed experiments.” He argued that an entirely new “Syrian national army” would be needed to fight both the Islamist radicals and Assad’s military.

But even the sympathetic Ignatius recognized that “the FSA’s biggest problem has been internecine feuding. Over the past two years, I’ve interviewed various people who tried to become leaders, such as: Abdul-Jabbar Akaidi, Salim Idriss and Jamal Maarouf. They all talked about unifying the opposition but none succeeded.

“An Arab intelligence source explains: ‘Until now, the FSA is a kind of mafia. People inside Syria are tired of this mafia. There is no structure. It’s nothing.’ And this from one of the people who have struggled the past three years to organize the resistance.”

In other words, the “moderate” rebels to the degree that they do exist are viewed by many Syrians as part of the problem, not part of any solution.

Favoring Al-Qaeda

Another flaw in Obama’s strategy is that the Syrian “moderates” are much more opposed to Assad’s harsh but secular regime than they are to the Sunni jihadists who have emerged as the most effective fighting force against him.

“If U.S. airstrikes and other support are seen to be hitting Muslim fighters only, and strengthening the despised Assad, this strategy for creating a ‘moderate opposition’ will likely fail,” Ignatius concluded.

That complaint has given new hope to Washington’s influential neoconservatives that they can ultimately redirect Obama’s intervention in Syria from bombing the Islamic State terrorists to a full-scale “regime change” war against Assad, much like the neocons helped convince President George W. Bush to invade Iraq in 2003. [See’s “Neocons’ Noses Into the Syrian Tent.”]

In this regard, Obama appears to be the proverbial deer in the headlights. He’s afraid of being called “weak” if he doesn’t go after the Islamic State for its hyper-violent attacks inside Iraq and its brutal executions of American hostages in Syria. Yet, Obama’s also can’t escape his earlier tough talk that “Assad must go.”

Obama’s core contradiction has been that by providing “covert” assistance to Syrian rebels, he has indirectly strengthened the Sunni extremists who have seized the Free Syrian Army’s weapons depots and won converts from the “moderate” rebels, some of whom were trained, armed and financed by the CIA. Meanwhile, other U.S. allies, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have been helping more extreme Syrian rebels, including al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front.

A year ago, many of the “moderate” rebels publicly repudiated the Syrian political front that the Obama administration had put together and instead endorsed al-Nusra. According to one source with access to Western intelligence information, some “moderate” rebels recruited from Muslim communities in Great Britain and other Western countries have now taken their military skills (and passports) to the Islamic State.

Yet, instead of acknowledging that this strategy of relying on an unreliable “moderate opposition” is indeed a “fantasy,” President Obama and a majority in Congress have chosen to pursue this geopolitical unicorn with another $500 million and much political chest-thumping.

An Alternative Approach

At this late stage, the only practical strategy would be to press the non-extremist Sunni opposition to work out some form of unity government with Assad who retains strong support among Syria’s Alawite, Shiite and Christian minorities. By enlisting Russia and Iran, Obama might be able to secure concessions from Assad, including the possibility of a gradual transition to a post-Assad era.

With such a political settlement in hand, the focus could then be on defeating the Islamic State and al-Qaeda’s Nusra affiliate and restoring some order to Syria. But the problem is that Official Washington’s neocons and their “liberal interventionist” allies are so fixated on “regime change” in Syria and are so hostile to Russia and Iran that any pragmatic strategy is effectively ruled out.

Though Obama may be a closet “realist” who would favor such a compromise approach, he has consistently lacked the political courage or the geopolitical foresight to impose this kind of solution on the powers-that-be in Washington. Any suggestion of collaboration with Russia and Iran or acquiescence to continued rule by Assad would touch off a firestorm of outrage in Congress and the mainstream U.S. media.

So, Obama instead has charted a course into what he knows to be a fantasyland, a costly pursuit of the chimerical Syrian “moderates” who once located are supposed to defeat both the Sunni extremists and the army of the secularist Assad. This journey is not simply a march of folly but a meandering into illusion.

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.

11 comments for “Official Washington’s Syrian ‘Fantasy’

  1. Yaj
    October 2, 2014 at 15:43

    Jon Stewart on the Daily Show bought the ” notion that a viable “moderate opposition” exists in Syria or could somehow be created” last week; it was a real low point for that comedy news 20 minutes.

    • Abe
      October 2, 2014 at 16:32

      For all their highly selective indignation about US politics and world events, the Daily Show and the Colbert Report assiduously avoid damaging criticism of Israel or AIPAC, and neither have mentioned the horror of Kiev’s actions in eastern Ukraine.

      Despite their frivolity, in the end, both comedy news programs dutifully parrot Washington’s positions on Syria, Ukraine, Iran and Russia.

      Let’s not forget that John McCain has been one of Jon Stewart’s most frequent guests, and Stephen Colbert has been devotedly “up all night to get lucky” with Henry Kissinger.

    • Abe
      October 2, 2014 at 21:47

      McCain, who jus’ loves him some ISIS, er, “moderate” rebels, stopped jonesing to appear on the Daily Show after that other guy won back in 2008.

      So who “doesn’t matter” more?

  2. Abe
    October 2, 2014 at 11:55

    The fantasy is not that there are “moderate” rebels in Syrian.

    The fantasy is that the armed opposition forces are “rebels.”

    The Syrian conflict is a regime change project deploying terrorist boots on the ground. They have been operating in Syria since the beginning of the conflict in March 2011.

    The armed opposition forces aim to disrupt, deny, degrade, destroy, deceive and ultimately decapitate the Syrian government.

    The reality is that armed opposition forces in Syria are mostly terrorist mercenaries armed and financed by the enemies of the Syrian people. They don’t give a damn about winning hearts and minds.

    Who benefits? Israel, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and the EU nations. The war parties in these nations are positively obsessed with Syria.

    There has been precious little cogent analysis of the Syrian conflict because the analysts are wedded to the “rebel” fantasy.

    Sadly, as long as writers on Consortium News perpetuate the “rebel” fantasy, despite Mr. Parry’s unquestionably sincere good intentions, this site will continue to function as a disinformation hub.

    • Joe Tedesky
      October 2, 2014 at 13:28

      Abe, I always look forward to reading your comments. You seem to have many a great comment on this Syrian thing. Keep it up! Joe Tedesky

  3. Hans F. Schweinsberg
    October 2, 2014 at 01:20

    6 January 2013
    Dr. Bashar al-Assad, President, Syrian Arab Republic, addresses the nation at Damascus University – Full Speech (55:00)
    Syria’s president has blamed “outside forces” for orchestrating the conflict
    in his country in a rare public address to the nation. He said the conflict
    was not between the state and opposition, but the “nation and its enemies”.
    “We are now in a state of war in every sense of the word. Thus, this is a war
    to defend the nation. This war targets Syria using a handful of Syrians
    and many foreigners. This conspiracy is spreading all over Syria.
    We meet today and suffering is overwhelming Syrian land. There is no
    place for joy in any corner of the country in the absence of security and
    stability I look at the eyes of Syria’s children and I don’t see any happiness. …
    At every corner of the Syrian homeland children have been orphaned. …
    There is a dark cloud over this country.”

    Published 15 Aug 2012
    Syria’s President Baschar al Assad gives Interview to German television
    [ARD, 2012-07-08] (18:52)
    In his interview for German television ARD’s “Weltspiegel” with Jürgen Todenhöfer, an important voice in German politics and culture.
    President Bashar al-Assad with admirable aplomb discusses, in English, the major issues in his country, commending the Annan Plan, the relations with the Syrian opposition and manipulations by outside forces, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey with USA at the helm.
    The interview was aired on 8 July 2012.
    Jürgen Todenhöfer:

  4. F. G. Sanford
    October 1, 2014 at 23:31

    I realize that nobody takes these comments terribly seriously. Even if they do, the likelihood of the circulation being sufficient to have any profound effect is probably negligible. After all, who’s gonna believe a guy named F. G. Sanford? And who’s gonna believe him when he tells you the key to this whole fiasco can be explained with South Philly street logic? Yes, it’s a hopeless proposition, but I think I’ve provided my fellow readers with a few “told ya so” moments. OK, we haven’t invaded Cuba yet, so I’ve been wrong once. But hey, I feel like it’s worth a try. Hope I’m wrong again.

    Look, this is REALLY simple. These guys keep their “plans” secret, but not their “strategies”. Once they start, it’s a matter of deciding which comic book superhero they think they are, then just read the latest episode. You can pull their best stuff right off the internet. But first, we have to dispose of the formalities. That would comprise “The Powell Doctrine”, which includes the following critical parameters: vital national security interest, attainable objective, risks analyzed, all other non-violent means exhausted, exit strategy, consequences fully considered, supported by the American people, and broad international support. The Mighty Wurlitzer (CIA embedded MSM hacks) will assure us that those parameters have been met. They’ll be mentioning it soon. But they probably won’t mention “THE” Powell Doctrine. That’s the South Philly part.

    Our military intelligence sources have determined there are exactly 32,175 ISIS fighters. We pay $68 billion a year to NSA for that kind of precise information. So, applying “THE” Powell Doctrine, we can calculate the troop commitment they have in mind. It’s based on the South Philly street logic that, “Paybacks are three times even”. Or more clearly stated by Colin Powell himself, “overwhelming force, at least three times enemy strength” is always preferable. So, rounding off and multiplying by three, we’ll be sending 100,000 troops. Yep, thats right. MINIMUM 100K.

    It’ll be just like Korea! Our F-86’s prowled the skies with impunity, safe in the knowledge that American exceptionalism assured us air superiority…until…Holy Shit! MiG-15’s look just like F-86’s! (Their German aircraft designers and our German aircraft designers used the same drawings) But today, things are different. Our F-22 stealth technology will assure no shoot-downs…unless the Syraqians have Russian radar, which could pose a problem. And those MANPADS don’t care about stealth. I hope they don’t have any of those mach 2.5 Granit antiship missiles, either. But I don’t think we’d be dumb enough to send one of those big rubber ducky dare-you-to-sink-me aircraft carriers, would we? Guess we’d better send three. In the meantime, we can approach the “moderate” rebels with the same advice LBJ gave to McGeorge Bundy: “Train ’em up good, Mac, train ’em up real good!”

    • Joe Tedesky
      October 1, 2014 at 23:49

      I take your comments seriously F.G.. Joe Tedesky

    • Zachary Smith
      October 2, 2014 at 00:36

      I realize that nobody takes these comments terribly seriously.

      There may be a way of looking at a site’s stats, but I’ve never bothered to try.

      As I see it, if a dozen thoughtful people read what we’re writing, it was worth the effort. If they try to verify or disprove what was written, the readers will be better off than when they arrived.

      And don’t sell yourself short. I’ve been mighty impressed with some of your posts.


  5. Zachary Smith
    October 1, 2014 at 23:17

    IMO most of the Ignatius piece was a buildup for the last paragraph.

    In framing its Syria strategy, the Obama administration has to face up to a basic political problem, as well as the organizational issues. Most Syrian rebels are fighting because they hate Assad’s regime. They have come to oppose the Islamic State, too, and many rebels appear ready to fight the extremists. But if U.S. airstrikes and other support are seen to be hitting Muslim fighters only, and strengthening the despised Assad, this strategy for creating a “moderate opposition” will likely fail.

    There is that “problem” and those “issues”, but at heart the nice Moderate Rebels want to fight both Assad and the extremists.

    But they’re going to get their feelings hurt if the US airstrikes keep avoiding the Assad regime, and we don’t want that, do we?

    Ignatius is just doing a more-subtle-than-usual pitch for the Neocon dream of Mission Creep.

  6. Larry Piltz
    October 1, 2014 at 22:46

    It’s ALL a fantasy to the warmongers benefitting from the wars they conjure, whether for their faux journalism careers or the outright profiteers. It’s not real unless you have actual skin in the game. The warmongers require only YOUR skin in the game. The only thing real about the warmongers is that their evil is real. They are the real ‘evildoers’.

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