Exclusive: Neocons are so obsessed with their dream of Syrian “regime change” that they are castigating President Obama for not sharing their hallucination of nearly invisible “moderates” taking power when the near-certain result would be a victory for Sunni terrorists, as Jonathan Marshall explains.
By Jonathan Marshall
President Barack Obama has an unfortunate genius for picking advisers who oppose his better instincts. Recall his choice of General Stanley McChrystal, who was openly contemptuous of the President and other civilian leaders, to head operations in Afghanistan; and his appointment of the hawkish Victoria Nuland, one of Dick Cheney’s top foreign policy advisers, to oversee policy in Eastern Europe. She systematically sabotaged U.S.-Russia relations over the issue of Ukraine, just when the United States needed Moscow’s cooperation on a range of vital issues from Afghanistan to Iran to Syria.
Add now to the long list of examples Frederic Hof, who was appointed by Obama in 2012 as “special adviser for transition in Syria” with the rank of ambassador. He’s currently a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, named after a corrupt business tycoon and former Saudi adviser who became prime minister of Lebanon in the mid-1990s (and died in a still-unsolved bombing in Beirut in 2005).
Hof is today busy churning out emotional articles blaming Obama for “a humanitarian abomination and policy catastrophe” in Syria. Blasting the administration for “leav[ing] millions of Syrians subject to barrel bombs, starvation sieges, mass terrorism, and collective punishment so as not to offend Iran,” he lays the horrendous Syrian refugee crisis, “pictures of dead children” and all, directly at Obama’s door.
The source of the administration’s fecklessness, he asserts, is Obama’s single-minded “courtship” of Iran to achieve a dubious nuclear deal at the expense of “fully enabling the mass homicide strategy of its Syrian client.” He adds, “Iranian policies in Syria and Iraq have made vast swaths of both countries safe for jihadis,” a remarkable conclusion that must please the Atlantic Council’s Saudi government funders.
You would never know from his writing that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are the main backers of radical Islamists in Syria and indeed throughout the world. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton observed in a 2009 cable, “Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”
Hof, like other neo-conservatives, insists that “removing Assad” must be “the first step” in a fundamental reorientation of U.S. policy toward Syria. He maintains that grassroots democracy would then flourish thanks to “hundreds of local councils” and “a vast network of civil society organizations, the kinds of voluntary professional associations that undergird Western democracies.”
You really have to wonder what planet he’s on. Weren’t we similarly promised that regime change would usher in pluralistic democracy in Iraq and Libya? Does anyone besides Hof really believe that pro-Western liberals would step into the vacuum to replace Assad? Just how are these local council members supposed to take on heavily armed and battle-hardened terrorists from ISIS and other Islamist militia who gain ground in Syria nearly every day?
President Obama last year ridiculed as “fantasy” the “idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah.”
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Hof’s Atlantic Council in 2014 that removing Assad would leave Syria “consumed with terror, chaos and starvation”, and that was before the recent military gains by ISIS.
Another expert who disputes Hof’s rosy view of Assad’s opposition is Aron Lund, a Syria analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “You are not going to find this neat, clean, secular rebel group that respects human rights and that is waiting and ready because they don’t exist,” he told the New York Times last year.
Consider the recent fate of some 54 U.S.-trained “moderate” Syrian rebels, graduates of a $500 million CIA program to foster a non-Islamist alternative to Assad. The hapless rebels were grabbed by the Nusra Front, a Syrian affiliate of al-Qaeda, as soon as they entered Syria this July possibly with connivance from Turkish intelligence, which has long supported Islamist forces in Syria.
In December 2014, the secular Syrian Revolutionaries Front, with an estimated 7,000 fighters, was wiped out by the Nusra Front, with Turkish and Saudi support. Other U.S.-backed “moderates” with the Free Syrian Army have simply defected to ISIS or the Nusra Front, handing over millions of dollars worth of U.S. weapons in the bargain.
Earlier this year, Robert Ford, former U.S. ambassador to Syria, disavowed his longstanding support for providing weapons to the rebels. “The people we have backed have not been strong enough to hold their ground against the Nusra Front,” he admitted. “It becomes impossible to field an effective opposition when no one even agrees who or what is the enemy.”
The Obama administration began promoting “regime change” as early as the spring of 2011, when the protest movement against Assad was only weeks old. The reason had nothing to do with human rights: “the White House has concluded that it has much less to lose than the Iranians do if Mr. Assad is swept away,” according to David Sanger of the New York Times.
From the beginning, as I showed in a previous story, the opposition to Assad turned violent with a strong Islamist presence. By the summer of 2012, a Defense Intelligence Agency report stated flatly that “the Salafist (sic), the Muslim Brotherhood, and (al-Qaeda) are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria,” a finding independently confirmed by Reuters. The New York Times reported the same year that “Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists.”
Three years ago, in other words, it was already clear that the fall of the Assad regime would lead either to worse violence or to the victory of radical Islamists. Somehow, Ambassador Hof, Obama’s “special adviser for transition in Syria,” never got the memo, or maybe, like many neoconservative ideologues, he just didn’t want to believe the facts.
Jonathan Marshall is an independent researcher living in San Anselmo, California. Some of his previous articles for Consortiumnews were “Risky Blowback from Russian Sanctions”; “Neocons Want Regime Change in Iran”; “Saudi Cash Wins France’s Favor”; “The Saudis’ Hurt Feelings”; “Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Bluster”; “The US Hand in the Syrian Mess”; and “Hidden Origins of Syria’s Civil War.” ]