Exclusive: President Obama’s “regime change” policy in Syria has rested on a hopeful fantasy about the existence of a “moderate” rebel force and a willful blindness toward the jihadists who actually stand to gain power a dangerous mix of make-believe and denial as Ted Snider explains.
By Ted Snider
Attempts at “regime change” always involve three parties: the foreign government that desires to carry out the regime change, the regime that is targeted for changing, and the domestic group meant to replace the current regime or at least facilitate the coup. But regime change is a complex and messy business with the history of attempted American coups littered with disasters that resulted from a favored third party that was as nefarious than the regime it replaced if not more so.
In that way, America’s initial reaction to the attempts by the Islamic State to topple the regimes in Iraq and Syria was bizarre and unexpected. As first “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” and then as “the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (or ISIS), the Islamic State was the very kind of force that the “war on terror” was supposed to eliminate from the region. However, initially as ISIS cut its own state out of the Levant (and especially Syria), America was largely silent.
In ISIS: the State of Terror, terrorism experts Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger say “the Obama administration gave the problem short shrift” and “dismissed concerns about [ISIS] and other jihadists fighting in . . . Syria.” The authors cite a 2014 interview in which President Barack Obama compared ISIS to a junior varsity team masquerading as major league. His administration seemed not to be noticing the ISIS threat and appeared “caught off guard” by its success and viciousness.
Such a failure of intelligence would be bizarre enough. But it was not an intelligence failure; it was policy. What was truly strange was not that the Obama administration hadn’t noticed but that it had. U.S. intelligence had informed the policymakers about ISIS, and the policymakers chose silence.
So, why would the Obama administration allow the metastasis of the very terrorist force “the war on terror” was committed to cauterizing? Since the United States “the world’s indispensable nation” does whatever it wants, one has to assume that it did not initially oppose ISIS because it chose not to oppose ISIS. And, if it did not want to oppose ISIS, that’s because, somehow, the ISIS advance was considered consistent with U.S. interests, which have been focused on ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in another “regime change.”
In that endeavor, the Obama administration has long claimed to be backing “moderate” Syrian rebels, rather than ISIS or other jihadi groups like Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al Nusra. However, in The Rise of the Islamic State, Patrick Cockburn says that Vice President Joe Biden revealed the lie in that claim when he stated that “in Syria the US had found ‘that there was no moderate middle.’”
Biden’s honest admission came on Oct. 2, 2014, when he also said: “[O]ur allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. . . . They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad, except that the people who were being supplied were Al Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis. . . .
“All of a sudden everybody’s awakened because this outfit called ISIL which was ‘al-Qaeda in Iraq,’ which when they were essentially thrown out of Iraq, found open space in territory in eastern Syria, work with Al Nusra who we declared a terrorist group early on and we could not convince our colleagues to stop supplying them.”
But there were lies embedded in Biden’s revelation. It is not true that “all of a sudden everybody awakened” to the Islamic extremists fighting in Syria, and it is not true that America tried but “could not convince our colleagues to stop supplying them.”
A Prescient Report
The Obama administration did not wake up too late to the reality of ISIS: the U.S. was wide awake but willing to let it happen. It was not that the U.S. government didn’t take ISIS seriously. The reality is worse: America knew the gravity of the situation and allowed it to happen. The U.S. was getting into the mess of another third-party disaster with eyes wide open.
As early as Aug. 12, 2012 a classified Defense Intelligence Agency Information Intelligence Report made the rounds through the U.S. intelligence community, including the CIA, FBI, State Department and CENTCOM, revealing that America knew that, despite its insistence that the Syrian insurgency that the U.S. was supporting was dominated by secular moderates and not jihadi extremists, the insurgency was driven by jihadists.
Point B of the section of the report called “The General Situation” unambiguously declares that “The salafist [sic], the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [Al-Qaeda in Iraq, later ISIS and then the Islamic State] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.”
The DIA report not only reveals that the Obama administration knew that the Islamic State was a major part of the insurgency, but that Washington was well aware of the possible outcome of that support. Section 8.C. of the report astonishingly predicts that “If the situation unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared salafist principality in eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime.”
In the preceding section 7.B., the “supporting powers” are identified as “Western countries the Gulf States and Turkey.” Section 8.D.1. of the report goes on specifically to say that “ISI could also declare an Islamic State through its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria.”
So the Obama administration knew that the Islamic State was a driving force in the insurgency that the U.S. supported, and U.S. intelligence analysts had a surprisingly accurate idea what the possible outcome of that support would be. It even seems, according to the report, that the West and its Saudi and Turkish allies relished that outcome, relished the birth of an Islamic caliphate, as an instrument for isolating the Assad regime.
It is also not true that the U.S. tried but could not convince the allies to stop supporting and supplying the Islamic State and Jabhat al Nusra. Journalist and historian Gareth Porter has reported that when Obama invited the Gulf Cooperation Council to Camp David in May, the Gulf princes smelled an opportunity. Obama was hungry to assuage the Sunni states over his impending nuclear deal with Shiite-ruled Iran and wanted to win their silence and acceptance. The trade-off, it seems, was Syria.
And so, Porter reports, “the Gulf States stopped complaining about the Iran nuclear agreement,” and “no one in the Obama administration said anything about Sunni coalition backing for al-Nusra.” Porter then quotes David Ignatius of the Washington Post, who, Porter says, “had clearly been briefed by his administration sources,” as revealing that “Obama and the other US officials urged Gulf leaders who are funding the opposition to keep control of their clients so that a post-Assad regime isn’t controlled by extremists from Islamic State or al-Qaeda.”
Notice that the Obama administration did not try to “convince our colleagues to stop supplying” the jihadi forces, as Biden had earlier asserted. The U.S. accepted the Gulf’s funding of the extremist insurgents for the purpose of “regime change” in Syria as long as the Gulf states somehow could assure Washington that their jihadi clients did not end up running the new regime.
But as the U.S. government has seen in Iraq and Libya “regime change” can be an unpredictable business. If Assad and his military are defeated, there’s no guarantee that the Islamic State or al-Qaeda’s official affiliate (or a combination of the two) won’t be in charge of Syria, in the heart of the Middle East, precisely what the “war on terror” was supposed to prevent.
Thus, one has to assume that the Obama administration allowed the Islamic State to advance because the U.S. was more focused on eliminating Assad’s government than on preventing a major terrorist victory. Only belatedly after the Islamic State’s high-profile decapitations of Western hostages and the public outrage that followed did Obama begin a limited air campaign against Islamic State targets.
Nevertheless, the Islamic State has advanced through Syria and Iraq and has knocked on the door of Lebanon, which is home to Hezbollah, another political force that U.S. and its ally Israel fiercely oppose. Indeed, what Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon have in common is that they are Iran’s three great allies in the region. So, the pattern is not a coincidence. ISIS’s interests coincide perfectly with the U.S.-Israeli-Saudi goal of removing Assad from Syria and isolating Iran.
The overlap of Islamic State and U.S.-Israeli-Saudi interests in this regard is revealed in section 8.C of the DIA report: “there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared salafist principality in eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran).”
In other words, the advance of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria is consistent with the regional interests of the U.S., Israel and the Sunni Gulf states because it cuts off Iran’s geopolitical reach, what former U.S. national security officials Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett have called Iran’s soft, or proxy, power in the region.
But at the beginning of the Islamic State’s push through the Levant, Syria was not even Iran’s greatest ally in the region. By then, that status had been assumed by Iraq’s leader Nouri al-Maliki. But the Obama administration was seeking a change in that regime as well. In pressing for Maliki’s removal, Obama made it clear that Iraq was “going to have to show us that [they] are willing and ready to try and maintain a unified Iraqi government that is based on compromise.” Ultimately, Maliki was replaced by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
This overall pattern suggests that America’s seemingly bizarre initial acquiescence to ISIS and Obama’s subsequent tolerance of Gulf State support for al-Nusra were because ISIS and al-Nusra were simultaneously doing America’s and Israel’s work: advancing regime change in Syria and weakening of Iran’s allies in Iraq and Lebanon.
Notice that America was willing to let the Gulf States support al-Nusra (and to a degree the Islamic State) up to the point that it no longer coincided with U.S. goals, the outright establishment of a terrorist caliphate in the center of the Middle East. “We’re not going to let them create some caliphate through Syria and Iraq,” Obama said. “But we can only do that if we know that we have got partners on the ground who are capable of filling the void.”
In other words, Obama used the threat of the Islamic State as leverage for a leadership change in Iraq. A similar approach is playing out in Syria, where Obama has insisted the “Assad must go.” On the regional chessboard, U.S. policy is to allow Sunni jihadi groups to make gains to ratchet up diplomatic pressure on Iran and to appease Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Israel.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.