Why Syria’s Options Are So Bad

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.

A scene of destruction after an aerial bombing in Azaz, Syria, Aug. 16, 2012. (U.S. government photo)

A scene of destruction after an aerial bombing in Azaz, Syria, Aug. 16, 2012. (U.S. government photo)

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.

11 comments for “Why Syria’s Options Are So Bad

  1. Bob
    December 11, 2015 at 22:20


    This article is not accurate. Assad is no dictator and Jew-S-A has no right to interfere in Syria.

    Assad won by a popular vote, more than Obama.

    The Zionist thugs and their puppets Jew-S-A and Jew-rope have illegally invaded Syria, using their creation ISIS.

    There is only one option–Jew-S-A and the NATO thugs must get out of Syria. Obama must be impeached for this illegal war he is conducting for his Zionist owners and operators. A special prosecutor should also be appointed to prosecute him and his Zionist owners and operators after he is removed from office.

  2. Mortimer
    December 8, 2015 at 17:52

    “Why Syria’s Options Are So Bad”

    — Syria’s ‘options’???

    Does Syria have “options” -?

    Did you mean Obama’s Options to exterminate Assad to install the dictator of choice?
    Or to go Against Saudi/Turkey/Israeli/GCC coalition?
    Or to fight with or against Russia’s sophisticated electronic systems?

    Syria has the “option” to surrender or Stand it’s Ground as the ‘attackee’ not the attacker.

    How arrogant we are !!!

    • Mortimer
      December 8, 2015 at 22:01
      • Dean
        December 9, 2015 at 13:18

        Yes Mortimer, that article is very telling of the true history of the “dictator” who has a 73% support rating amongst the Syrians. And even Al jezera from Qatar found in their surveys that he had over 50% public support.
        It is a shame that these articles are researched is such a biased way. The MSM line is never challenged as incorrect information. Here is a link to Bashir al Assad being interviewed it is enlightening to hear the views from the horse’s mouth. See the interview section.

  3. Mortimer
    December 8, 2015 at 15:55

    It is a war in which our “allies” fund and arm our “enemies,” and our “enemies” are our “allies.”

    In “The Mask of Sanity,” published in 1941, Cleckley distilled what he believed to be the key behavioral characteristics that defined psychopathy. Most of these factors are still used today to diagnose sociopaths/psychopaths and others with antisocial disorders.
    (Psychopathy and sociopathy are terms with an intertwined clinical history, and they are now largely used interchangeably.)
    Superficial charm and good intelligence
    Absence of delusions and other signs of irrational thinking
    Absence of nervousness or neurotic manifestations
    Untruthfulness and insincerity
    Lack of remorse and shame
    Inadequately motivated antisocial behavior
    Poor judgment and failure to learn by experience
    Pathologic egocentricity and incapacity for love
    General poverty in major affective reactions
    Specific loss of insight
    Unresponsiveness in general interpersonal relations
    Obama/Brzezinski + Power and Rice and next Hillary or GOP nutcase = exponential chaos and possible cataclysmil nuclear war.
    Yes, the bastards are just that insane… .

  4. Abe
    December 8, 2015 at 13:33

    The opening sentences of Ted Snider’s article:

    “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.”

    The West “finds itself stuck”, darn it. Or so Snider would have us believe.

    Snider then gets busy “analyzing patterns”.

    The most visible pattern in the article is Snider’s use of the words “dictator” (3 times) and “dictatorship” (8 times), all with reference to the embattled government of Syria.

    Snider is charitable, however. He reminds us of Syria’s efforts to become “cooperative” and “friendly”, you know, like our “allies” in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

    No need to remind us of what happened to the “uncooperative” dictators, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi.

    Snider then turns his attention to the one little matter that would have made this whole sad affair unnecessary: the Netanyahu government in Israel.

    Netanyahu’s refusal to negotiate the Golan Heights, the area captured from Syria and occupied by Israel during the Six-Day War, territory which Israel effectively annexed in 1981.

    Snider suggests that solution is a “willful decision” on, um, somebody’s part.

    Let’s look at the “patterns” a bit more carefully, shall we?

    In June 2007, it was reported that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had sent a secret message to Syrian President, Bashar Assad saying that Israel would concede the land in exchange for a comprehensive peace agreement and the severing of Syria’s ties with Iran and militant groups in the region. On the same day, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that the former Syrian President, Hafez Assad, had promised to let Israel retain Mount Hermon in any future agreement.

    In April 2008, Syrian media reported Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan told President Bashar al-Assad that Israel would withdraw from the Golan Heights in return for peace. Israeli leaders of communities in the Golan Heights held a special meeting and stated: “all construction and development projects in the Golan are going ahead as planned, propelled by the certainty that any attempt to harm Israeli sovereignty in the Golan will cause severe damage to state security and thus is doomed to fail”. That year, a plenary session of the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution 161–1 in favour of a motion on the Golan Heights that reaffirmed Security Council resolution 497 and called on Israel to desist from “changing the physical character, demographic composition, institutional structure and legal status of the occupied Syrian Golan and, in particular, to desist from the establishment of settlements [and] from imposing Israeli citizenship and Israeli identity cards on the Syrian citizens in the occupied Syrian Golan and from its repressive measures against the population of the occupied Syrian Golan.” Israel was the only nation to vote against the resolution. Indirect talks broke down after the Gaza War began. Syria broke off the talks to protest Israeli military operations. Israel subsequently appealed to Turkey to resume mediation.

    In March 2009, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad claimed that indirect talks had failed after Israel did not commit to full withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

    During his first term (1996-1999) as Prime Minister, Netanyahu said in May 2009 that returning the Golan Heights would turn it into “Iran’s front lines which will threaten the whole state of Israel.” He said: “I remember the Golan Heights without Katzrin, and suddenly we see a thriving city in the Land of Israel, which having been a gem of the Second Temple era has been revived anew.”

    In August 2009, al-Assad said that the return of the entire Golan Heights was “non-negotiable,” it would remain “fully Arab,” and would be returned to Syria.

    In June 2009, Israeli President Shimon Peres said that Syrian President Assad would have to negotiate without preconditions, and that Syria would not win territorial concessions from Israel on a “silver platter” while it maintained ties with Iran and Hezbollah. Syrian President Assad claimed that there was “no real partner in Israel.”

    In 2010, Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman said: “We must make Syria recognise that just as it relinquished its dream of a greater Syria that controls Lebanon … it will have to relinquish its ultimate demand regarding the Golan Heights”.

    Unsuccessful that its efforts to efforts to secure regional hegemony were being thwarted by an “uncooperative” Syria, Israel recruited its “allies” and resorted to more drastic measures. Armed attacks on the government of Syria started in Daraa in May 2011.

    Examining the “patterns” it becomes rather obvious that Israel is trying to achieve through terror what it was unable to achieve through non-negotiation.

    The West (Israel’s “allies”) “finds itself stuck” in Syria, not due to some unfortunate series of accidents or diplomatic fumbles, but because of its well-established patterns of “cooperation” with Israel.

    When a nation fails to be “cooperative” with Israel’s hegemonic agenda, “Islamicâ„¢ terror” pays it a visit.

    Europe, notorious for limping in its “cooperation” with Israel, requires frequent visits.

    Snider’s rather incomplete “analysis” could easily leave the reader with the impression that peace would reign o’er the Holy Land if only a certain “uncooperative dictator” found the “will” to make the right “decision”.

    A more careful analysis of the “patterns” leaves one with the distinct impression that the dictator is Netanyahu.

    Perhaps that is what Snider meant to say.

    • Abe
      December 8, 2015 at 14:28

      Suggested re-title for Snider’s article: “Why Israel’s ‘Options’ Are So Bad”


    • Kiza
      December 8, 2015 at 23:32

      Abe, you write much better than some of the authors on Consortium, because you are much closer to reality than the embellishers. But when I criticized one similar article before, I got censored out. Only Robert Perry writes articles clean of suggestive qualifications such as the “dictator”.

  5. David Smith
    December 8, 2015 at 12:43

    This article contains a serious historical error. Syria was never a French colony. The Ottoman Empire recognized Syria as an independent nation, but part of the Empire. Syria’s borders encompassed present day Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and State of Palestine. During WW1, the Syrians approached the Allies, offering aid to defeat the Ottomans in return for independence. Lawrence of Arabia was the go-between. He should be called Lawrence of Syria. After the war the Syrians were betrayed. France and England divided Syria into two mandates. They further divided Syria into four sub-mandates: Lebanon, Syria, Transjordan, and Palestine. Later, France severed a Syrian province (on NW coast) and gifted to to Turkey. England severed Golan Heights from Palestine and gifted it to the French submandate. Historians now refer to the historical territory of Syria as Greater Syria. Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Syria were the three original ancient nations of the middle east,all with 8,000 year histories. Today only Egypt and Iraq enjoy their historical borders.

  6. Abe
    December 8, 2015 at 12:28

    Turkey’s downing of a Russian Su-24 bomber inside Syrian airspace, with Turkish-backed terrorists then gunning down one of the parachuting pilots – a blatant war crime – before ambushing a subsequent rescue mission which left a Russian Marine dead, was the first major provocation. While the United States has attempted to distance itself publicly from Turkey’s actions, it is clear that Turkey would never have undertaken such a brazen move without coordinating it with the US directly.

    In the days and weeks before the incident, US Senators openly called for the shooting down of Russian planes over Syria. Their goal has been clear since 2011, overthrow the government of Syria before moving on to Iran, then finally Russia and China.

    Turkey then moved troops and heavy armor into northern Iraq to begin what it claims will be a permanent occupation. It has carried out a “beta test” for its long-sought after “safe zone” the US has engineered and attempted to implement in northern Syria since at least as early as 2012.

    And now reports indicate that the US itself has struck Syrian troops near Deir ez Zor City, Deir ez Zor province. There are also unconfirmed reports that the airstrikes which the Syrian government claims killed several of its soldiers, was also followed up by a coordinated ISIS counterattack.

    The UK Independent reported in its article, “Syria calls US-led coalition air strike on Assad regime forces an ‘act of aggression’,” that:

    “An air strike carried out by the US-led coalition in Syria is reported to have targeted regime forces for the first time, killing at least three soldiers and destroying a number of vehicles.

    “The Syrian government said four warplanes bombed its Saega military camp in Deir al-Zor province, describing it as an ‘act of aggression’ by coalition forces.”

    Whether reports of a counterattack are true or not, the US strikes appear to have happened. While the US denies that carried out the strikes, it has refused to coordinate with the Syrian Arab Army throughout its illegal operations in Syrian airspace. And just as in the case of the downed Russian bomber, US senators had also been eager to see US strikes against Syrian forces carried out as “retaliation” for Russia striking US proxies in the region.

    With the US and its axis of collaborators attempting to normalize the violation of foreign nations’ airspace, territory, and now the normalization of striking at forces unrelated to its alleged mission to “fight” ISIS, we see a pattern developing that indicates an escalation toward direct confrontation between the West and Syria which includes a direct confrontation between the West and Syria’s allies as well.

    The Need to Raise American Costs in Syria

    The inability of Syria and its allies to fully secure Syria’s territory has invited these incremental transgressions. The fact that US warplanes are not only still violating Syrian airspace with absolute impunity, but being joined by French and British planes who equally have no real intention of stopping the terrorist menace of their own creation is a sign of hesitation on Syria and its allies’ part that they lack the will to draw a risky line and then enforce it.

    Indeed, it would be a risky line to draw – to declare Syria’s airspace and territory off-limits to all nations not formally permitted by the Syrian government. To enforce such a line while legally sound, would require Syria or its allies to eventually target and shoot down Western planes that would inevitably continue violating Syria’s airspace. Such a confrontation could serve as ample impetus for the West to make a limited, full-scale invasion of certain parts of Syria where Syrian forces and their allies are weakest, thus effectively carving Syria into pieces.

    America’s Creeping War in Syria
    By Tony Cartalucci

  7. Christene
    December 8, 2015 at 11:21

    Oh we have been oh so busy in the Middle East since 1945. We have treated it like our personal sandbox in the world playground. From Operation Ajax in Iran in 1953 to our current relentless regime changes, the hellhole that is the Middle East is one of our own making and Karma has come to call.

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