Exclusive: For five years, President Obama has resisted neocon/liberal-interventionist pressure to go to war against Syria, but – as his departure grows near – the hawks see more “regime change” wars coming into view, says Joe Lauria.
By Joe Lauria
Through five years of war in Syria, President Obama has been in a constant internal struggle with hawks in his administration who want the U.S. to directly intervene militarily to overthrow the Syrian government.
On at least four occasions Obama has stood up to them, although at other times he has compromised and gone half way toward the hawkish position. Now, with less than three months to go in office, Obama appears to be leaving his Syria policy to those aligned with the lead hawk who might soon take Obama’s place.
As Secretary of State until early 2013, Hillary Clinton failed to convince Obama to consistently take a tough line on Syria. She wanted him to realize her two main policies, which she still clings to: a “safe zone” on the ground and a “no-fly zone” in the air – meaning that Syrian government forces and their allies, including the Russians, would be barred from operating in those areas.
Protected by U.S. air power and other military means, rebels seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would, in effect, have an untouchable staging area to launch attacks on the government without its ability to hit back. Clinton has called removing Assad a top foreign policy priority.
Clinton followed a similar model in 2011 when she convinced a reluctant Obama to adopt a plan in Libya to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi under the pretext of “protecting civilians” when Gaddafi launched an offensive against rebels in eastern Libya whom he identified as terrorists. After the U.S. and European military intervention, Gaddafi was ousted, tortured and murdered – prompting Clinton to quip “we came, we saw, he died” – but the “regime change” turned Libya into a failed state.
Indeed, the Libyan chaos – now with three rival governments and terrorist enclaves – has become emblematic of the disarray following “regime change” that has marked nearly two decades of neoconservative influence in Washington, a strategy of dividing and weakening defiant states while U.S. contractors profit from the chaos that bleeds the locals to death.
Obama learned from Libya, which he deemed his biggest regret for having no plan for the aftermath. The fiasco left him deeply skeptical about intervention in Syria, although – given his prescient opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq – he should have already understood what happens after the U.S. overthrows regimes these days.
In the early years of the CIA — in Syria in 1949, Iran in 1953, and Guatemala in 1954, as illegal and as unjustified as those coups were — the agency had viable leaders groomed to take over. But all that changed after the Cold War ended. Then careless wishful thinking — or intended chaos — replaced any careful planning for the future of the countries that were at the receiving end of “regime change.”
“We can use our military in the Middle East and the Soviets won’t stop us,” arch-neocon Paul Wolfowitz boasted before the Iraq invasion.
Today neoconservatives and liberal interventionists (such as Clinton) act like gamblers who can’t leave the table. Disasters for Iraqis, Libyans and others haven’t dissuaded these American war advocates from pushing more chips onto the table over Syria. Indeed, their failures – and the lack of any personal accountability for their catastrophes – seem to have only emboldened them to keep gambling.
These “regime change” schemes – in the guise of “spreading democracy” in the Middle East – have only spread chaos and terrorism, but those conditions give the hawks more reasons and excuses to intervene, thus creating more chaos and making more money, while weakening nations defying Washington.
Clinton began laying a bet on “regime change” in Damascus by pushing to arm rebels in the summer of 2012. One of her leaked emails explains her motive: to break up the Teheran to Damascus to southern Lebanon supply line to Hezbollah — a longstanding Israeli objective.
At that point, Obama refused to arm the rebels, but the President apparently didn’t have full control over his national security bureaucracy, which seemed to have found ways to aid the Syrian rebels despite Obama’s reluctance, possibly by encouraging U.S. regional allies, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Israel.
An August 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency document, which was made public last year, showed that U.S. intelligence agencies were well aware of where these operations were headed, with or without Obama’s approval.
Ret. Gen. Mike Flynn, who ran the DIA at the time, has said it was a “willful decision” in Washington to support a “Salafist principality” — a safe area for jihadist rebels — in eastern Syria to put pressure on Assad’s government in Damascus. Flynn didn’t say who in Washington ultimately decided on this risky scheme, but the DIA document warned that the Salafists could join with jihadists from Iraq to form an “Islamic State.” And indeed two years later, that was exactly what happened.
While this “Salafist principality” was gestating in summer 2013, Obama again showed some independence on Syria after assessing the disastrous consequences of the Clinton-led “regime change” in Libya, i.e., a failed state radiating arms and jihadis to Syria and the Sahel.
However, at this point – battered by think-tank and media commentaries decrying him as “soft” and “weak” – Obama compromised with the hawks and eventually agreed to arm and train some of the rebels, supposedly the “moderate” kind. But he resisted pressure to launch cruise missiles against Syrian government targets after his “red line” was supposedly crossed by a chemical weapons attack outside Damascus that killed hundreds of people.
As we now know, the CIA did not think it was a “slam dunk” that the Syrian government did it, though the mainstream U.S. media imposed a “group think” blaming the sarin attack on Assad. But significant evidence pointed to the rebels trying to create an incident that would draw the U.S. military into the war directly on the jihadist side.
Sensing that a trap was being laid to entice the U.S. into another Mideast war, Obama instead took Russia’s offer to have Syria give up its chemical weapons stocks, which in time it did, infuriating the neocons.
An Even Bolder Putin Offer
Russian President Vladimir Putin followed with another offer to the United States in September 2015, delivered from the podium of the U.N. General Assembly. He proposed joint U.S.-Russian airstrikes against the now fully formed Islamic State and associated jihadists.
More than three years earlier, I reported that Russia’s motive to support Assad was to stop the spread of jihadism that threatened the West and Russia. Before the U.N., Putin put it on the record, invoking the World War II alliance between the Soviet Union and the West to confront a greater threat, Nazism.
“Similar to the anti-Hitler coalition, it could unite a broad range of parties willing to stand firm against those who, just like the Nazis, sow evil and hatred of humankind,” Putin said.
By then, the jihadists had clearly become the greater evil in Syria with their practice of decapitating Western hostages as well as locals deemed religious “apostates.” In time Islamic State also would plan or inspire terror attacks in France, Belgium, Germany, Egypt and the United States. By contrast, Assad was an undemocratic leader governing a police state but he posed no threat to the West.
However, by 2015, the demonization of Vladimir Putin was well underway and his offer was spurned by Western leaders. Obama, who faced mainstream ridicule for “failing to enforce his red line” in Syria and for not being tough enough on Russia, joined in rejecting Putin’s offer.
We now know why. In a leaked audio conversation with Syrian opposition figures in September, Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S., rather than seriously fight Islamic State in Syria, was ready to use the growing strength of the jihadists to pressure Assad to resign, just as outlined in the DIA document.
“We know that this was growing, we were watching, we saw that Daesh [a derisive name for Islamic State] was growing in strength, and we thought Assad was threatened,” Kerry said. “We thought however we could probably manage that Assad might then negotiate, but instead of negotiating he got Putin to support him.”
Russia began its military intervention in late September 2015 without the United States, with the Kremlin’s motives made abundantly clear by Putin and other Russian officials.
For instance, last month, Putin told French TV channel TF1: “Remember what Libya or Iraq looked like before these countries and their organizations were destroyed as states by our Western partners’ forces? … These states showed no signs of terrorism. They were not a threat for Paris, for the Cote d’Azur, for Belgium, for Russia, or for the United States. Now, they are the source of terrorist threats. Our goal is to prevent the same from happening in Syria.”
Such clear explanations are rarely reported clearly by Western corporate media, which instead peddles the line from officials and think tanks that Russia is trying to recover lost imperial glory in the Middle East.
Worries about Damascus
But Kerry knew why Russia intervened. “The reason Russia came in is because ISIL [another acronym for Islamic State] was getting stronger, Daesh was threatening the possibility of going to Damascus, and that’s why Russia came in because they didn’t want a Daesh government and they supported Assad,” he said in the leaked discussion. Kerry’s comment suggests that the U.S. was willing to risk Islamic State and its jihadist allies gaining power in order to oust Assad.
Kerry’s comments echoed those of senior Israeli officials who have pronounced the “Shiite crescent” from Iran through Syria to Hezbollah’s territory in Lebanon as Israel’s greatest strategic threat and have expressed a preference for an Al Qaeda or even an Islamic State victory in Syria to shatter that centerpiece of the “Shiite crescent.”
In September 2013, in one of the most explicit expressions of Israel’s views, its Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, then a close adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told the Jerusalem Post that Israel favored the Sunni extremists over Assad.
“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,” Oren told the Jerusalem Post in an interview. “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 “bad guys” were affiliated with Al Qaeda.
In June 2014, Oren reiterated his position at an Aspen Institute conference. Then, speaking as a former ambassador, Oren said Israel would even prefer a victory by Islamic State, which was then massacring captured Iraqi soldiers and beheading Westerners, than the continuation of the Iranian-backed Assad in Syria.
“From Israel’s perspective, if there’s got to be an evil that’s got to prevail, let the Sunni evil prevail,” Oren said.
Israel’s preference extended into a tacit alliance with Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front in Syria, with which the Israelis developed essentially a non-aggression pact, even caring for Nusra fighters in Israeli hospitals and mounting lethal air attacks inside Syria against Lebanese and Iranian advisers to the Syrian military.
In hoping that the jihadists could spearhead the overthrow of Assad while somehow not achieving a full-scale victory, U.S. officials may have thought they could somehow eat their cake and have it, too.
Yet, that represents a major risk, essentially assuming that Assad would step down in some orderly transition of power rather than be ousted in a chaotic fight to the finish. But U.S. officials were apparently willing to take the chance of an Al Qaeda/Islamic State victory in Damascus.
Putin warned the General Assembly about such a gamble with terrorism: “The Islamic State itself did not come out of nowhere. It was initially developed as a weapon against undesirable secular regimes.” He added that it was irresponsible “to manipulate extremist groups and use them to achieve your political goals, hoping that later you’ll find a way to get rid of them or somehow eliminate them.”
Stopping the Jihadists
Russia’s intervention seriously reversed the jihadists’ advances, alarming Saudi Arabia and Turkey. In February, they demanded that the U.S. support their invasion of Syria. It was a momentous moment for Obama: Would he risk war with Russia to save another “regime change” project?
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, a committed neocon, “welcomed” the Saudi-Turk plan to launch an invasion by air from Turkey’s Incirlik NATO air base and by land through the wastelands of Jordan or western Iraq. The Saudis staged a 30,000-man invasion war game in the desert. But Obama again stood up for reason and stopped it, at least for a time.
In July, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his backers crushed an attempted coup. Erdogan seized the opportunity to eliminate almost all opposition to his near-total one-man rule. By late August, Erdogan was ready to make his next move with no one left in Turkey to oppose him.
On Aug. 24, with U.S. air cover, Turkey invaded Syria. This time Obama did not stop him. Washington clearly approved as its planes protected Turkish tanks and infantry rolling across the border. Vice President Joe Biden was in Ankara a day before the invasion.
The pretext was to fight Islamic State, but it became clear immediately that Turkey’s main target was to block advances by the Syrian Kurds, one of Islamic State’s toughest foes on the ground. The U.S. protested those attacks, but Washington surely knew what Turkey’s intentions were.
The date – Aug. 24 – was significant because it was the 500th anniversary of the start of the Ottoman empire when the Ottomans left Turkey and invaded their first country — Syria.
It was hardly a coincidence when one considers Erdogan’s history. He spurred a violent police crackdown in Istanbul’s Ghezi Park in 2013 against demonstrators protesting his plan to build a replica of an Ottoman barracks in the park. In April, Erdogan named a new bridge over the Bosphorus after Osman, founder of the Ottoman Empire.
An initial target of the invasion also was significant. On Oct. 16, Turkish-backed rebels captured the Syrian town of Dabiq from Islamic State, the site of a victory in 1516 that established the Ottoman Empire.
Listening to Russia
Still, Obama continued to drag his heels regarding a deeper U.S. role in Syria. Obama resisted the hawks again this summer by allowing Kerry to negotiate with Russia on Putin’s offer at the U.N.: to form a military alliance against Islamic State and Al Qaeda in Syria. Russia’s 2015 entry had turned the tide of the war in Syria’s favor but the war against the insurgency has stalled in Aleppo, where a third of the city remains largely under Al Qaeda control.
While Obama publicly slammed the Russians, projecting that they were on an imperial adventure that would wind up in a quagmire (exactly what has afflicted U.S. imperial adventures in various theaters), he kept plans for a safe zone and no-fly zone on hold.
Nearly a year after Putin’s U.N. offer and after months of intermittent talks, Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Sept. 9 finally reached a deal to jointly fight terrorists in Syria. It was clear the agreement would ground the Syrian air force, resume humanitarian aid and agree on the identity of rebels to be jointly attacked, but U.S. officials insisted the terms remain secret.
But Defense Secretary Ash Carter made no secret of his objection. On Sept. 8, he said: “In the current circumstance, it is not possible for the United States to associate itself with — let alone to cooperate in — a venture that is only fueling violence and civil war.”
It was an extraordinary act of insubordination for which Carter was not punished. Once again Obama chose not to completely stand up to the hawks while authorizing a policy that they opposed.
But then Carter’s objection to the deal went beyond words. Two days before it was to go into effect, warplanes from the U.S. military coalition killed more than 60 Syrian soldiers near Deir ez Zor in an air strike the Pentagon later said was an “accident.” U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power was hardly repentant as she condemned Russia’s attempt to discuss the incident at the Security Council as a “stunt.”
Four days later, a U.N. aid convoy was attacked near Aleppo, killing more than 20 aid workers. The U.S. immediately blamed Russian air strikes without presenting any evidence. Russia says rebels were responsible. The U.S.-Russia deal was dead.
Moscow eventually revealed the deal’s terms. At its heart was the separation of U.S.-backed rebels from Al Qaeda, which dominates a third of Aleppo. But once again, despite repeated pledges to do so, the U.S. government failed to separate them. Indeed, some “moderate” groups double-downed on their alliance with Al Qaeda.
Syria and Russia had enough and declared all rebels fighting with Al Qaeda to be fair game. They commenced a furious bombardment of east Aleppo to crush the insurgency there once and for all. Putting all of Aleppo back into government hands would be a major turning point in the war but it has not proven easy. Instead the fierce aerial assaults have claimed numerous civilian lives, handing Russia’s opponents a public relations coup.
Complaints of War Crimes
Washington, London and Paris are leading the chorus of war crimes accusations against Russia (though the U.S. and Britain invaded Iraq without Security Council authorization in an act of aggression that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and can reasonably be seen as the supreme war crime.)
Russia’s actions in Aleppo have been compared to Israel’s in Gaza. Two U.N. reports have said Israel may have been guilty of war crimes in 2012 and 2014 attacks on Gaza, but Israel has not been prosecuted at the International Criminal Court.
The differences between Gaza and Aleppo are stark, however. Gazans are an indigenous people attacked by an Occupying Power. Syria and Russia are attacking the occupiers of east Aleppo – many of them foreign-backed mercenaries.
People in Gaza cannot escape the city because of their attackers, while people in east Aleppo can’t escape because civilians who attempt to leave come under sniper fire. Also, rebel rockets fired from east Aleppo into west Aleppo kill large numbers of civilians, unlike Hamas’ rockets fired into Israel.
But the most significant difference between the two cases of terrible human suffering is that the West defends Israel and deflects charges of war crimes while it accuses Russia and Syria of war crimes.
Isolated from the context of the entire Syrian war against a foreign-backed rebellion, the battle for east Aleppo (usually reported as the whole city) has been framed by Western liberal media in the same way Sarajevo was in the 1990s.
Then a highly complex war was boiled down to one battle, where Bosnian Serbs fired into civilian areas as part of a larger war aim (although the attacks were portrayed as simply a lust to kill civilians). Today it is Russia that Is accused of acting out of the pure intent to kill civilians with no other motive.
The media’s reaction to the bombardment of east Aleppo has led to a sharp increase in rabid calls for Western military intervention against the Syrian government and possibly against Russia. The British parliament held a Russia-bashing session in October, including calls for war against Moscow. Neocon newspapers, such as The Washington Post, are itching for battle. A British general said the U.K. would be ready to fight Russia in two years — enough time for a Clinton administration to prepare.
Already, U.S. neocons and liberal hawks are dreaming about “regime change” in Moscow with Putin replaced by a Wall Street-friendly leader like Boris Yeltsin who let Western interests plunder Russia’s resources during the 1990s. Yet, that may be just another example of the U.S. failure to anticipate the likely consequences of interventions.
Even if Russia could be destabilized sufficiently to unseat Putin, the more likely result would be the rise of a fierce Russian nationalist, not a pro-Western “liberal” in the mold of Yeltsin. That might increase the risks of nuclear war, rather than give the West another compliant Russia.
Plus, Putin would not be easily ousted, especially given his strong popular support, according to opinion polls. Indeed, some internal criticism of Putin has been that he has tried too hard to accommodate the West.
But Washington’s modus operandi has been to continually provoke and blame a country until it becomes an adversary and stands up for itself, as Putin’s Russia has done. Then, the West accuses the country of “aggression” and justifies attacks against it as “self-defense.”
We see these winds of war blowing in Ukraine, the Baltics, Poland and the Balkans — with NATO’s military posturing to counter “Russian aggression” — and in Syria, where neocon calls are increasing for the U.S. to strike the Syrian government.
One More Stand
Obama, apparently for the fourth time, kept the hawks at bay after a White House meeting last month in which military action was turned down in the face of Russia’s warning that it would target attacking U.S. aircraft.
Over the past five years, Obama has been almost the only brake on keeping the Syrian conflict — and relations with Russia — from spiraling completely out of control. But his voice is fading as he prepares to leave office on Jan. 20, 2017.
Into this fevered environment steps Hillary Clinton who may win the White House within the week. She continues to call for a safe zone and a no-fly zone, despite the warning last month from Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the joint chiefs, that that would mean war with Russia.
Still, Hillary Clinton has continued pushing for a military intervention as recently as the last presidential debate.
“I’m going to continue to push for a no-fly zone and safe havens within Syria … not only to help protect the Syrians and prevent the constant outflow of refugees, but to gain some leverage on both the Syrian government and the Russians,” Clinton declared.
She said this after admitting in one of her paid speeches, released by Wikileaks, that a no-fly zone will “kill a lot of Syrians.”
The “safe zone” is supposed to shelter internally displaced Syrians to prevent them from becoming refugees. But it could also be used as a staging ground to train and equip jihadists intent on regime change, as was done in Libya. A safe area would need ground troops to protect it, although Clinton says there will be no U.S. ground troops in Syria.
But Turkey also has been clamoring for a safe area on the ground for the past few years. Erdogan called for one (as well as a no-fly zone in northern Syria) as recently as last September in his address to the U.N. General Assembly.
Russia’s reaction has been defiant, setting up an ominous game of chicken that could go nuclear. Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Russia would shoot down any American plane attacking the Syrian government. Russia has also deployed sophisticated air defenses in the country. This has given U.S. brass deep pause about confronting Russia in Syria. So far Russia has come out on top there, lessening the risks of confrontation that could escalate to the most dangerous levels.
But would Hillary Clinton back down from her harsh rhetoric if she’s elected? Or would she appoint more hawkish military leaders? Obama’s half-way measures in Syria have left the door open to a Clinton administration that appears determined to ratchet up the regime change operation by calling Putin’s bluff.
She also seems poised to arm the Ukrainian government and perhaps give Putin an ultimatum: give back Crimea or else. But what if Putin calls Clinton’s bluff and refuses, given the fact that the people of Crimea voted by 96 percent in a referendum to leave Ukraine and rejoin Russia? It’s a roll of the dice the hawks might be ready to toss.
Washington’s hawks appear to have bested Obama this last time, since he has not stood in the way of Clinton’s allies inside his administration letting Erdogan pursue his neo-Ottoman fantasy (even to the point of fighting U.S.-backed Kurds) in exchange for Turkish NATO forces establishing a safe area without U.S. ground troops. Turkey and its rebel forces already control about 490 square miles in northern Syria.
With less than three months left in office, Obama appears to have finally surrendered on Syrian policy, ceding it to the next president.
Joe Lauria is a veteran foreign-affairs journalist based at the U.N. since 1990. He has written for the Boston Globe, the London Daily Telegraph, the Johannesburg Star, the Montreal Gazette, the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @unjoe.