The incoherence of Western policy toward Syria goes back decades to Cold War covert schemes that thwarted a democratic turn — and to more recent neocon insistence on “regime change,” not negotiations. Those choices have now left the West with a set of unpalatable options, says Ted Snider.
By Ted Snider
In Syria, the West finds itself stuck between the Islamic State and President Bashar al-Assad, fighting a war that the West doesn’t want either side to win. It fights the Islamic State enough to weaken it without a victorious Assad staying in power; it opposes Assad but not enough to take him and his forces out of the fight against the Islamic State. It is a war in which our “allies” fund and arm our “enemies,” and our “enemies” are our “allies.”
But it is worth remembering that it didn’t have to be this way. We didn’t have to get stuck with the choice of extremists or unfriendly dictator. Even leaving aside the contribution America’s war and post-war policies in Iraq made to the genesis of the Islamic State, the West didn’t have to be facing such a powerful network of extremists today.
As Vice President Joe Biden confessed during a 2014 talk at Harvard’s Kennedy School, “[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.”
This financing and arming of extremist jihadis by our Mideast “allies” was not being done in secret, hidden from Washington by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and other Sunni-ruled states. The Obama administration knew of it and tolerated it.
As David Ignatius of the Washington Post has reported, President Barack “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.” Obama did not order them to stop funding the rebels, but to keep them under just enough control that they can defeat Assad without accomplishing an outright victory for the Islamic State or Al Qaeda.
By August 2012 at the latest, the U.S. government knew of the dominant influence of the Islamic State in the forces opposed to Assad but went on funding them. Former U.S. Special Forces chief and Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Mike Flynn says that the US “totally blew it” in preventing the rise of the Islamic State “in the very beginning.”
He says that when he was the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the U.S. was deliberately backing the extremists in the Syrian opposition. Since the Obama administration knew extremists were driving the opposition, Flynn calls supporting the extremists a “willful decision.” How does Flynn know that the Obama administration knew it was backing extremists? Because he’s the one who told them.
The Defense Intelligence Agency had written and widely circulated a classified report that clearly stated that “The salafist [sic], the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq, later ISIS and the Islamic State] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.”
It also clearly stated the seriousness of the Islamic State’s role: “If the situation unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared salafist principality in eastern Syria.” The report even goes on to warn that “ISI could also declare an Islamic State through its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria.”
So the U.S. is stuck between extremists and an uncooperative dictator because of a “willful decision” it made regarding the extremists, fully aware of the possible consequences. But it is also stuck in this predicament because it rejected opportunities to develop better relations and even cooperation with the dictator.
The West’s current position is to eliminate the risk of Assad prevailing in a democratic vote by removing or disqualifying him before Syrians get a chance to participate in an internationally observed election. In contrast, the Russians want to let the Syrians decide for themselves and not have Assad’s removal imposed externally and inevitably.
Though President Obama has continued to insist on Assad’s removal as part of any negotiated peace agreement, Kerry recently indicated that there could be some flexibility on timing.
Historic U.S. Meddling
Syria may be a dictatorship today, but it didn’t necessarily have to be that way. Syria had a brief tryst with democracy in the early years of its independence from French colonial rule after World War II, but that experiment was quickly snuffed out by American interference.
In 1949, before the birth of the CIA, two U.S. secret agents, Stephen Meade and Miles Copeland, both later CIA officers, helped the Syrian military pull off a coup. That coup triggered a series of coups and countercoups, with the U.S. frequently changing sides.
Then in 1956, with Syria moving closer to Egypt and its president Gamal Abdel Nasser, with his ideas of neutralism and a pan-Arab United Arab Republic that Cold War America could not bear, President Dwight Eisenhower initiated Project Wakeful, an unsuccessful covert action for regime change in Syria, to be followed by Operation Wappen in 1957, which failed just as badly: the CIA agents were caught in the act and thrown out of Syria. [See John Prados, Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA, p.163-4.]
So, the U.S. government played a role in preventing popular democracy from taking root in Syria. Instead, Syrian authoritarianism was preserved. However, even as a dictatorship, Syria could have become something of an ally. But Washington prevented that too.
For many years prior to the current civil war, Syria had been anxious to do everything the West wanted her to do in order to move closer to both the U.S. and Israel. According to Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, in 2000, Israel and Syria came very close to a peace agreement.
Upon succeeding his late father Hafez al-Assad in July 2000, Bashar al-Assad requested that those talks resume, but the Israelis and Americans turned him down. Later, in 2005, the Israelis and Syrians actually began drafting a peace treaty. Two years later, after the Israeli-Lebanese war, Israel asked the U.S. about resuming those talks, but the Americans said no.
Syria continued to solicit cooperation with Washington, but U.S. officials continued to spurn those solicitations. According to Zunes, as recently as 2007, the Bush administration continued to bar Israel from resuming peace negotiations with Syria.
Syria, Zunes says, was eager for international legitimacy and was willing to give security guarantees and full diplomatic relations to Israel in exchange for a peace agreement. But Zunes says President George W. Bush was more interested in changing the regime in Syria — as part of the neoconservative scheme for “regime change” in Mideast countries deemed troublesome — than in dealing with Assad’s government.
And Syria’s outreach didn’t stop in 2007. According to investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, prior to the war in Gaza, Syria and Israel with the help of Turkey “had been engaged for almost a year in negotiations.” Hersh says many issues had been resolved and that Israel and Syria had reached “agreements in principle on the normalization of diplomatic relations.”
Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the ruler of Qatar, told Hersh that “Syria is eager to engage with the West.”
Ironically, Hersh quotes then-Sen. John Kerry, who met with Assad on several occasions, as saying that Assad “wants to engage with the West . . . . Assad is willing to do the things he needs to do in order to change his relationship with the United States.”
According to Hersh, informal exchanges between Washington and Syria also took place under the Obama administration. But those talks, as is now apparent, failed.
When I asked Stephen Zunes why those talks failed, he did not blame the Syrians but “[t]he new hard-right Israeli government that consolidated power in 2009” under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Nothing could happen, Zunes said, “without the return of the Golan, which Netanyahu refuses to do.”
So, the U.S. government had the opportunity to help Syria to transition from dictatorship to democracy after World War II and, later, to transition Syria from an unfriendly dictatorship to a friendly one, but chose instead different options that have paved the way to the current crisis.
Because of “willful decision[s],” America is now stuck with violent extremism on one side and an unfriendly dictatorship on the other. But history shows that it didn’t have to be that way.
Ted Snider writes on analyzing patterns in U.S. foreign policy and history.