Eyes Finally Open to Syrian Realities

Exclusive: For the past three years, Official Washington has viewed the Syrian civil war as “white-hatted” rebels against “black-hatted” President Assad, but finally some of the “gray-hatted” reality is breaking through, though perhaps too late, Robert Parry reports.

By Robert Parry

In late summer 2013, Official Washington was rushing to the judgment that the “evil” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had launched a barrage of missiles tipped with Sarin gas to slaughter hundreds of civilians in rebel-held neighborhoods near Damascus.

It was inconceivable to virtually every person who “mattered” in Washington that there was any other interpretation of the events on Aug. 21, 2013. Washington Post national security columnist David Ignatius even explained the “big picture” reason why President Barack Obama needed to launch punitive bomb strikes against Assad’s government for crossing Obama’s “red line” against using chemical weapons.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

“What does the world look like when people begin to doubt the credibility of U.S. power?” Ignatius wrote a week after the Sarin incident. “Unfortunately, we’re finding that out in Syria and other nations where leaders have concluded they can defy a war-weary United States without paying a price.

“Using military power to maintain a nation’s credibility may sound like an antiquated idea, but it’s all too relevant in the real world we inhabit. It has become obvious in recent weeks that President Obama needs to demonstrate that there are consequences for crossing a U.S. ‘red line.’ Otherwise, the coherence of the global system begins to dissolve.”

At the time, there were only a few of us raising questions about Official Washington’s Sarin-attack “group think,” partly because it made no sense for Assad to have invited United Nations inspectors into Syria to examine chemical weapons attacks that he was blaming on the opposition and then to launch a major Sarin attack just miles from where the inspectors were unpacking at their hotel.

I also was hearing from inside U.S. intelligence that some CIA analysts shared those doubts, suspecting that the supposedly high number of Sarin-laden rockets (which represented the strongest evidence against Assad’s forces) was wildly overstated and that public panic might have exaggerated the scope of the attack.

But perhaps the strongest reason to doubt Official Washington’s hasty conclusion blaming Assad was what had been occurring inside the Syrian rebel movement over the prior two years, i.e., its radicalization into a hyper-violent Sunni jihadist force that was prepared to inflict any brutality on civilians to achieve its goal of ousting the secular Assad and establishing an Islamist state in Damascus.

Blinded by Propaganda

Most Washington’s pols and pundits had not noticed this change because of a geopolitical blindness inflicted by neoconservative propaganda, which insisted that the only acceptable way to view the Syrian civil war was to see Assad as the “bad guy” and the rebels as the “good guys.”

After all, “regime change” in Syria had long been near the top of the neocon agenda as it was for Israel, which wanted Assad out because he was allied with Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Early in the civil war, Assad’s harsh response to what he termed rebel “terrorism” had also rallied the Obama administration’s “liberal interventionists” to the side of “regime change.”

Thus, the notion that some vicious Syrian rebel group might willfully kill innocent civilians as a provocation to get the U.S. military to attack Assad’s defenses and thus pave the way for a rebel victory was outside Official Washington’s accepted frame of reference. In August 2013, the rebels were wearing the white hats, as far as U.S. mainstream opinion was concerned.

Over the past year, however, reality has reasserted itself, at least somewhat. The Sarin case against Assad has largely crumbled with a UN report finding Sarin on only one rocket and independent scientists concluding that the one Sarin-laden rocket had a maximum range of only about two kilometers, meaning it could not have come from the suspected Syrian base about nine kilometers away.

Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh also learned from his well-placed sources that inside the U.S. intelligence community suspicion had shifted toward rebel extremists working with hardliners in Turkish intelligence. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Was Turkey Behind Syria-Sarin Attack?”]

But most “important people” in U.S. officialdom, including New York Times and Washington Post editors, still insisted that Assad must have done the Sarin attack. They even report it as flat fact. They are, after all, not the sort of folks who easily admit error.

A Shift in the Paradigm

However, over the past year, the paradigm for understanding the Syrian conflict has begun shifting. In September 2013, many Syrian rebel forces repudiated the political opposition that the Obama administration had organized and instead embraced al-Qaeda’s al-Nusra Front, an aggressive jihadist force which had emerged as the most effective fighters against Assad.

Then, in February 2014, al-Qaeda’s leadership disavowed an even more brutal jihadist force known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. The Islamic State promoted a strategy of unspeakable brutality as a way of intimidating its rivals and driving Westerners from the Middle East.

ISIS got its start after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 when Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi organized “al-Qaeda in Iraq,” a hyper-violent Sunni militia that targeted Iraq’s Shiites and destroyed their mosques, touching off a vicious sectarian war across Iraq.

After Zarqawi’s death in 2006 and the alienation of less-extreme Iraqi Sunnis al-Qaeda in Iraq faded from view before reemerging in Syria’s civil war, refashioned as the Islamic State and crossing back into Iraq with a major offensive last summer.

Amid reports of the Islamic State massacring captives and beheading American and British hostages, it no longer seemed so far-fetched that some Syrian rebel group would be ruthless enough to obtain Sarin and launch an attack near Damascus, killing innocents and hoping that the Assad regime would be blamed.

Even the Post’s Ignatius is looking more skeptically at the Syrian rebel movement and the various U.S.-allied intelligence agencies that have been supplying money, weapons and training even to fighters associated with the most extreme militias.

Opening the Door

In a column on Friday, Ignatius faulted not only Syria’s squabbling “moderate opposition” but “the foreign nations, such as the United States, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, that have been funding the chaotic melange of fighters inside Syria. These foreign machinations helped open the door for the terrorist Islamic State group to threaten the region.”

Ignatius acknowledged that the earlier depiction of the Syrian opposition as simply an indigenous movement of idealistic reformers was misleading. He wrote: “From the beginning of the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011, Syria has been the scene of a proxy war involving regional powers: Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar all wanted to topple Assad, but they competed with each other as regional rivals, too.

“At various points, all three nations provided Sunni rebel groups with money and weapons that ended up in the hands of extremists. The United States, Saudi Arabia and Jordan joined forces in 2013 to train and arm moderate rebels at a CIA-backed camp in Jordan. But this program was never strong enough to unify the nearly 1,000 brigades scattered across the country. The resulting disorganization helped discredit the rebel alliance known as the Free Syrian Army.

“Syrian rebel commanders deserve some blame for this ragged structure. But the chaos was worsened by foreign powers that treated Syria as a playground for their intelligence services. This cynical intervention recalled similar meddling that helped ravage Lebanon, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq and Libya during their civil wars.

“The story of how Syria became a cockpit for rival intelligence services was explained to me by sources here [in Istanbul] and in Reyhanli, a rebel staging area on the Turkey-Syria border. Outside efforts to arm and train the Syrian rebels began more than two years ago in Istanbul, where a ‘military operations center’ was created, first in a hotel near the airport.

“A leading figure was a Qatari operative who had helped arm the Libyan rebels who deposed Moammar Gaddafi. Working with the Qataris were senior figures representing Turkish and Saudi intelligence. But unity within the Istanbul operations room frayed when the Turks and Qataris began to support Islamist fighters they thought would be more aggressive.

“These jihadists did emerge as braver, bolder fighters, and their success was a magnet for more support. The Turks and Qataris insist they didn’t intentionally support the extremist group Jabhat al-Nusra or the Islamic State. But weapons and money sent to more moderate Islamist brigades made their way to these terrorist groups, and the Turks and Qataris turned a blind eye.”

Regarding the rise of these radicals, Ignatius quoted one Arab intelligence source who claimed to have “warned a Qatari officer, who answered: ‘I will send weapons to al-Qaeda if it will help’ topple Assad. This determination to remove Assad by any means necessary proved dangerous. ‘The Islamist groups got bigger and stronger, and the FSA day by day got weaker,’ recalls the Arab intelligence source.”

Selling the Sarin Story

Based on such information, the idea of anti-Assad extremists securing Sarin possibly with the help of Turkish intelligence, as Hersh reported and launching a provocative attack with the goal of getting the U.S. military to devastate Assad’s army and clear a path for a rebel victory begins to make sense.

After all, back in Washington, the propaganda strategy of blaming Assad could count on the ever-influential neocons who in August 2013 did start pushing the rush-to-war bandwagon and shoved aside any doubters of the Assad-did-it conventional wisdom.

Israel took a similar position on Syria, favoring even the victory of al-Qaeda extremists if necessary to oust Assad and hurt his Iranian allies.

In September 2013, then-Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren told the Jerusalem Post in an interview that “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. 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.

So, the danger from the Sunni extremists was played down and the focus remained on ousting Assad. No wonder there was such “surprise” among Official Washington’s “group thinkers” when the Islamic State opened a new front inside Iraq and routed the U.S.-trained Iraqi army. Once again, the neocons had made sure that American eyes stayed wide shut to an inconvenient truth.

But the neocons are not through with the Syrian fiasco that they helped create. They are now busy reshaping the narrative accusing Obama of waiting too long to arm the Syrian rebels and insisting that he switch from bombing Islamic State targets inside Syria to destroying the Syrian air force and creating a no-fly zone so the rebels can march on Damascus.

The recklessness of that strategy should now be obvious. Indeed, if Obama had succumbed to the interventionist demands in summer 2013 and devastated Assad’s military, we could now be seeing either al-Qaeda or the Islamic State in control of Damascus. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Neocons’ Noses into the Syrian Tent.”]

Obama might be wiser to take this opportunity to declassify the U.S. intelligence on the Sarin gas attack of Aug. 21, 2013, including the dissents from CIA analysts who doubted Assad’s responsibility. That information might shed substantial new light on how Turkish and Arab intelligence services — with the help of the neocons — enabled the rise of the Islamic State.

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.

26 comments for “Eyes Finally Open to Syrian Realities

  1. Luther Bliss
    October 7, 2014 at 16:17

    The ‘moderate opposition’ in Syria is in the Syrian parliament working for reforms, foreigners and Islamic fundementalists with assault rifles are fanatics.

    Just another example of the USA smashing a secular, multicultural society that dared to be nominally socialist with the twin hammers of NATO and Islamic terrorists. See Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya.

    I’m glad I was still a kid in the 1980s. I find it hard to imagine that people who resisted the Vietnam war and the bloodbaths in Central and South America are still sane after the last decade on American violence.

    Turn on any news show and you can see the grinning skulls chattering cheering as with each new illegal war launched by press conference, America writes in blood: “We are the enemy of human civilization.”

  2. Masud
    October 6, 2014 at 12:42


    You are very wary of accepting narratives without enough evidence as flat facts. Is there enough evidence to accept”Islamic State” as flat fact. If this is the case could you share that evidence with your readers, please? Many people suspect “IS” is a front to be used as pretence for regeme change in Syria.

  3. jacobo
    October 5, 2014 at 05:59

    In the Mideast as elsewhere, the purpose of U.S. military interventions is to destabilize and bring about regime change in nations that refuse to bow down to U.S. dictates. Invariably the justification for these interventions is something about ridding a people of an evil dictator, so as to give freedom and democracy a chance. That these are not the actual reasons for any given intervention is suggested that dictatorships that accept U.S. hegemonous and free market demands (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Indonesia, among others) never suffer military interventions. Goes to show that these interventions are based solely on geopolitical considerations, and that America’s insistence that it’s all about establishing freedom and democracy is nothing but a fig leaf to cover it’s shameful and illegal practices.

    • Pliskin
      October 5, 2014 at 09:04

      Excellent article. And good analogy Jacobo, I might have to memorize that for my neo-con, brainwashed friends and family the next time they’re calling me a conspiracy theorist. :)

  4. October 4, 2014 at 14:37

    Excellent analysis, entirely on target, an invaluable lesson:
    “if Obama had succumbed to the interventionist demands in summer 2013 and devastated Assad’s military, we could now be seeing either al-Qaeda or the Islamic State in control of Damascus. “

  5. October 4, 2014 at 13:12

    Excellent, well-written article. I had been living under the spell of US propaganda for decades and started to wake up only a few months ago. I am wondering whether my awakening is just a random event or if the year 2014 saw a tectonic shift in the credibility of the corporate news media, with further erosion of that credibility in the eyes of the public yet to come.

    • Joe Tedesky
      October 4, 2014 at 19:36

      John your admission upon your arrival reflects the feelings of myself, and I am sure many others of us. Welcome, and enjoy what you will find here. Joe Tedesky

  6. Gregory Kruse
    October 4, 2014 at 11:54

    I’m sure Paul Jay at The Real News Network will be glad to hear the reality is asserting itself around the issue of Syria.

  7. Joe Tedesky
    October 4, 2014 at 11:38

    What I found most concerning in Mr Parry’s report, is the lack of independent DC thinkers. Often, when I force myself to watch the MSMEDIA news, I cannot help but see (at least in my eyes) how the host and pundits act like we all belong to a college fraternity. I’ll take that back since my college age grand-daughter and her friends act way more smarter than the media hacks who appear on my boob tube. When these stooges talk about a politicians ‘gaff’ I swear they act like they are in fifth grade….once again, I will take that back since my 3 grandchildren who are in fifth grade act much more mature than the media clowns on TV.

    It’s like our governing society needs a cultural change. Why, is the media so lacking of critical thinkers, and why not be more diverse? FOX is for sure a right wing spin machine, but MSNBC in recent times has demonized Putin, has promoted bombing missions in Syria…not one, or at least very few of the media pundits can read from their own script. It’s as though they all rolled off the same assembly line.

    Lastly, what’s with all these retired generals? I assume that all of you reading this realize those ex military dudes (and their all dudes) are on some defense contractors pay roll. Where are the Ed Ansers, the Paul Craig Roberts, the Tarpleys, and what about Robert Parry? We never hear from the likes of those people. Ray McGovern, or Collen Reilly would be a nice relief once in a while. In fact, my idea of good media representation would not just include liberals, I would add some conservatives as well. The only problem with picking right from left, is our country has moved so far from the center that even Reagan on many issues of our day would be considered a commie lefty.

    My one big hope is that my grandchildrens generation may turn this mess around someday when they get their chance at bat. Until then I (maybe you) will continue full time to search out all the news.

  8. toby
    October 4, 2014 at 08:48

    I hope those of you who are not banned from the MSM, Neocon propaganda sites (WP, WT, NYT, etc) are regularly posting on their comment sections, as it is clear the $9 million welfare payment we give to Israel each day is funding a LOT of shills to promote the false narratives…even after they are well proven falsity.

    I see David Cameron is pushing to have 9/11 truth seekers like us to be “treated as harshly as ISIS”….so we are having some effect.

  9. Brendan
    October 4, 2014 at 05:47

    Even the US Vice President admits that America’s allies supported extremists in Syria. During a speech on foreign policy at Harvard Kennedy School on October 2, Joe Biden said:
    “Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. The Turks, we’re great friends … the Saudis, the Emeratis etc. What were they doing? They were so determined to take down Assad that they poured hundreds of millions dollars, and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad, except the people who were being supplied were Al Nusra and Al Qaeda and extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”

    He’s probably trying to distance the US administration from the mess that it was heavilly involved in from the beginning. Two years earlier Biden said:
    “We are working hand in glove with the Turks and the Jordanians, with the Saudis and all the people in the region, attempting to identify the people who deserve the help” (at 1:45 in the link below)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u7Jsu9jp5uc (Biden’s speech at 0:45)


    • Brendan
      October 4, 2014 at 14:00

      Here’s a better recording of that part of the speech:

    • Brendan
      October 5, 2014 at 00:14

      Biden has now apologised for the allegations he made a couple of days earlier.

      Biden’s spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said “The Vice President apologized for any implication that Turkey or other Allies and partners in the region had intentionally supplied or facilitated the growth of ISIL or other violent extremists in Syria”.

      Everything the Obama administration says or does seems confused.

  10. Hillary
    October 3, 2014 at 21:52

    Remember Thomas L. Friedman saying —
    “Many Iraqis have so much distrust for U.S. forces we found they’ve come up with a nickname for our troops,” Scott said. “They call American soldiers ‘The Jews,’ as in, ‘Don’t go down that street, the Jews set up a roadblock.’ ”

  11. Zachary Smith
    October 3, 2014 at 21:40

    Back in July of 2012, Ignatius was on a roll, even writing a column titled “The ‘day after’ in Syria”.


    It was a triumphant gloat about how the “stumbling” opposition was on the verge of victory, and how to ‘handle’ the newly liberated Syria.

    Fast forward to the Oct. 2 piece and we see it’s nothing more than an extended whine, ending with the demand that a single rebel army be created and that it receive piles of money and weapons.

    IMO it’s a little late for that. Syrian forces have finally surrounded Aleppo, and the fall of that rebel stronghold appears to be just a matter of time. No wonder Ignatius sounds so shrill.

    If Syria continues to slog towards victory, the temptation of the people controlling the foreign bombers now flying over that nation to strike targets besides ISIS will grow. There is no predicting the reaction of Iran or Russia in that event.

    But neocon hacks like David Ignatius will applaud, THAT much is clear.

  12. Yaj
    October 3, 2014 at 18:00

    Last week, probably Sept 24, Jon Stewart was clearly trying to sell the idea of a moderate Syrian rebel, when he “interviewed” the night’s guess. Stewart has also repeatedly blame Assad for the sarin attack.

    So not sure the narrative has changed exactly, from the Daily Show’s sins it looks like they are trying to sell ISIS as allied with Assad and fighting moderate rebels who only want Assad gone.

    It was a pack of lies and Stewart fell for it.

    • Villainesse
      October 4, 2014 at 00:38

      Despite Stewart’s apparent personal progressiveness there are two notable political controllers of his thinking. First, he is a well-programmed Jewish American who seldom fails to support Israel. Second, he is an extremely well-paid minion of a massive corporate system that massively profits from the war we taxpayers must buy and sometimes die for.

      His final mind control issue is the one we all must personally battle as it comes from every medium: U.S. Empire propaganda.

      So the fact that he fails on Syria is expected. The same is true of Ignatius.

      • Yaj
        October 4, 2014 at 02:09

        No, that’s simplistic and antisemitic thinking.

        Stewart has pushed Israel on Gaza.

        Anyhow, an unstable and divided Syria run by Sunni extremists isn’t exactly in the interests of Israel. (Unless Israel has very long term plans for invasion and occupation.)

        And Stewart most certainly opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, something Israel wanted the US to do.

        Stewart’s show has done better balanced reporting on Iran, from Iran, too than the New York Times.

        Colbert has also stuck with the claims of sarin use by the Syrian government.

  13. rick sterling
    October 3, 2014 at 17:26

    Another good article by Robert Parry. It’s too bad that David Ignatius and similar warmongering scribes cannot be given one way tickets to embed with their beloved FSA. They might be sold to ISIS where they could become subject not scribe of a final sensational story.

  14. Walter Hart
    October 3, 2014 at 16:47

    Perhaps the author of this article could spend some thought on the barrel bombs and the thousands of civilian lives lost as a result. What do US pilots say to the Syrian pilots they meet over the skies of Aleppo? Good luck with your mission? A no-fly zone is a very good idea indeed.

    • incontinent reader
      October 3, 2014 at 18:42

      No one is questioning that this is a brutal war, but perhaps you should ask the Syrian people who they think is their real enemy. Up to now they’ve rallied behind (and overwhelmingly endorsed more than once) Assad, their President during the past three years of this war – a war we planned, initiated, and have funded, supplied and coordinated. A no-fly zone is the last thing we should be asking for. Better that there be coordination and consensus with Assad, the Iranians and the Russians as well as any other regional players that we’ve excluded from ‘our’ coalition. As for the two from our State Department most responsible for the carnage (and the Libya piece of the puzzle contributing to it), look to Hillary Clinton and former Ambassador Robert Ford. They’re the real criminals.

    • Ron
      October 3, 2014 at 22:28

      Would you rather Assad use depleted Uranium. like the US did in Iraq?

    • Steve
      October 4, 2014 at 01:02

      Re: What do US pilots say to the Syrian pilots they meet over the skies of Aleppo?

      So what are US pilots doing in Syria in the first place. As always, the US sticking its nose and its military and its corporations and its financial machinations absolutely everywhere and creating nothing but misery and chaos. Meanwhile, their domestic situation gets worse every year, thanks to the clueless, ignorant, mentally bone lazy, infantile, decadent, and gullible American citizenry.

    • Brendan
      October 4, 2014 at 03:52

      A no-fly zone was imposed on Libya in 2011 and look at the state that country is in now. Gadaffi, like Assad, was responsible for a lot of brutality, but the warlords and extremists who replaced him are far worse.

      • toby
        October 4, 2014 at 08:37

        Assad was cracking down on the extremists that are obviously a problem. Now we are seeing them shift, joining ISIS and we too see them as extreme. So Assad was right in the beginning and the label of a “brutal dictator” is hardly, if at all correct.

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