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The Long War in Syria


Two years ago, Barack Obama announced that Syrian President Bashar Assad must “get out of the way.” “The time has come,” he declared on August 18, 2011, “for President Assad to step aside.”

Needless to say, Assad ignored him. He was probably not surprised at Obama’s demand, given the unrelenting U.S. hostility to his regime, and that of his father, Hafez Assad, for several decades. This is due mainly to Syria’s close relationship with Iran and its support for Lebanon’s Hizbollah and Palestinian organizations including Hamas, and the deployment of Syrian troops in Lebanon to 2005. U.S. hostility to Syria (listed by the State Department as a sponsor of terrorism) reflects that of Israel, which illegally occupies Syria’s Golan Heights.

The proximate reason for Obama’s call was that Assad had fired on his own people. One must question Obama’s authority to make that moral judgment, given that police in the U.S. fire on unarmed people, especially young black men, all the time (especially in Chicago, L.A. and Philadelphia); and that the U.S. arms security forces in countries including Egypt and Bahrain that fire on their people as well.

Obama was simultaneously (from March 2011) accusing Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi of “attacking his people” and planning mass slaughter (a charge many analysts questioned, there being little evidence for it). It was just another Big Lie, comparable to the Big Lie that the Taliban was in bed with Osama bin Laden and complicit in 9-11. Or that Saddam Hussein was aligned with al-Qaeda and producing weapons of mass destruction.

But it served as the pretext of U.S.-NATO intervention on behalf of armed rebels and their western-trained front men, who have plunged Libya into chaos and made it fertile ground for al-Qaeda-linked groups since the fall and murder of Qaddafi in October 2011.

On the other hand, the Obama administration did not call on Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to step down even as his forces fired on the people, killing 850 in 2011. It delayed giving Mubarak his marching orders until February, when the mass upheaval had become so powerful, and the U.S. so despised for its complicity in repression, that it became impossible to extend the Egyptian dictator further support. And it has never called upon the Bahraini king to step down, even as he attacks his own people. Many people paying attention see some hypocrisy here.

If Obama thought that Assad would be driven from power, or step down at his arrogant command, he was badly mistaken. David R. Shedd, deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, now says the conflict in Syria will likely last “many, many months to multiple years.” (I don’t believe he indicated, in a talk at the Aspen Security Forum, whether or not further supply aid from the U.S. would likely shorten the conflict. Imagine a proxy war going on a decade, like the U.S. proxy war in Afghanistan in the 1980s.)

There are several reasons for this projected long duration. Assad’s forces are stronger than Obama expected and have scored some notable victories lately against the rebels. The opposition is divided into about 1,200 groups. The strongest rebel military force is the al-Qaeda faction, the Al-Nusra Front. If the U.S. and its allies want to strengthen and use the non-jihadi forces (whom they are aiding with weaponry, and who may or may not wish to create a western-friendly, non-Islamist “democracy”) they will have a lot of work to do since even the “moderates” seem to appreciate the superior fighting skills of the Islamist fighters. And Russia and China stand behind Assad, promising to veto any UN resolution such as the one used to legitimate the assault on Libya, ostensibly to “protect” its people.

Nicholas Burns, a George W. Bush-era undersecretary of state, writing in March 2011 about U.S. support for anti-Qaddafi forces in Libya, noted, “This is the first time in American history when we have used our military power to prop up and possibly put in power a group of people we literally do not know.”

(The world has since come to know them, through such events as the attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi; the repeated resignations of ministers in the dysfunctional, impotent cabinet in Tripoli; the persecution of blacks and Tuaregs; inter-tribal clashes, etc.)

But it seems Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry would like to do this a second time—that is, take a risk and place in power people they don’t know. One wonders what their real reasons might be. Surely Israel plays a major role in their reasoning, but Israel may be ambivalent about U.S. arms to rebels who might be as hostile to it as Assad. And Assad has in fact offered to recognize Israel following the return of the Golan Heights. Israel appreciates the fact that he has maintained peace along the border, even importing Golan-grown apples. His secular, religiously tolerant Baathist regime is preferable to an Islamist one.

Surely a key U.S. goal is to weaken Iran, and the Syria-Iran-Hizbollah alliance. But if that goal were to be obtained through handing a central Arab state to al-Qaeda, would it be worth it?

Al-Qaeda once seemed scattered, vitiated, defeated. But then the U.S. invaded Iraq, and al-Qaeda which had never been there before mushroomed overnight in Al-Anbar province, causing the occupation big headaches. Libyan jihadis flocked to Iraq, and returning home created a new Maghreb branch of al-Qaeda, which in turn spawned a Sahel branch now causing mischief in Mali. The majority of the al-Nusra fighters in Syria seem to be arriving from Iraq.

Meanwhile U.S. missile strikes on Yemen build sympathy for Al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula—totally counterproductive.

The lesson is, U.S. imperialism (which once worked alongside bin Laden in Afghanistan; and which alienated bin Laden through its unlimited support for Israel, its support for hated Arab regimes, its sanctions on Iraq which killed half a million children, etc.) positively nurtures al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Even as the interminable terror war justifies the limitless expansion of the surveillance state, unprecedented prosecution and abuse of whistle-blowers and the continued practice of torture.

The more the U.S. and its allies get involved in Syria, the more jihadis will likely get involved. Al-Qaeda has proven that it thrives on U.S. interventions. This is just one reason to demand the U.S. stay out of Syria.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at:

Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at:

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